My Grandmother's Deteriorating Mental Health Saved Mine

She was a human being grappling with a disease her loved ones couldn't understand — like me.
Publish date:
March 8, 2016
mental illness, recovery, mental health, grandparents, moving on

TRIGGER WARNING: Descriptions of self-harm and emotional abuse below.

I started self-harming when I was 13 and never really stopped up. I'll admit even I was skeptical on whether or not it was an actual problem back then, mainly because a lot of girls in my class "carved" their skin up. Of course it was never enough to leave severe scars (most of them used safety pins). I guess on some level I thought we were all just looking for a little attention.

As time went on and life started dishing out a whole new bucket of problems for me, the cutting and other self-destructive behavior worsened. I had overdosed freshman year of high school and sophomore year of college, being hospitalized both times. However, it wasn't until I was 22 that "self-destructive" took on a whole different meaning to my family when I sliced my throat with a chef's knife. Fifteen stitches, ten hours in crisis, and one disgusting hospital stuffed pepper meal later, I'd landed myself a week-long stay in a psychiatric/ detox unit.

I came home exactly eight days after I was admitted. My dad told there would be no more of this shit and that changes needed to be made. For once, I couldn't have agreed more. The week I spent in the psych ward gave me time to reflect. It was there I realized I was a 22 year old college graduate that was going on my third consecutive year as a cashier at a deli. My high school and college were about fifteen minutes down the street from one another, I had earned a Bachelor's degree but had no clue what to do with it, and I had little if any real friends at all. What had I done with my life? More importantly, how could I change it?

Almost overnight, I got the opportunity to move to New Jersey to live with my aunt and uncle who had just recently invited my elderly grandparents to live there too. My family got split up in weird ways after my parents got divorced and it had been about six or seven years since I'd seen my grandparents. I was nervous at first. I was in a fragile state, and had almost no relationship with them anymore. Then again I was in no place to second guess.

This was my way out and I was taking it.

I called my Pop-Pop the day I decided I was going to make the move. I wanted him to have a heads up, but also wanted him to know that I was alright in spite of all that had happened. Secretly I was hoping he hadn't told my grandmother. I always remember her being sensitive and I was sure she couldn't handle this. However, when he said she wanted to talk to me it was obvious she knew.

It was silent, but I could feel her there, pressing the phone eagerly to her ear. I couldn't remember the last time we spoke on the phone.

"Did Pop-Pop tell you?" I finally asked, breaking the silence.

"Yes, sweetheart, he did."

"I'm so sorry..." I was crying. She was too, though I could tell she was trying to be strong for me.

"I know honey, but we are going to do everything we can to help you. "

"Did Dad tell you I'm coming to stay with you?" I asked.

"Yes, it's all going to be alright." She couldn't hold back the tears any longer.

"Ok, I love you Gram, so much." I couldn't remember the last time I told her that.

"I love you too, sweetheart. I'll see you soon."

I hung up, trying to catch my breath. It was true I had been away from my grandmother for years, but suddenly I felt the urge to be close to her. When I moved in about two weeks later, I was shocked to see that the grandmother I remember was not the woman that now stood in front of me. She physically looked different. Her back was more hunched over from her neck being fused, making her shorter than she already was. Her hair was still gray but thinner, revealing most of her scalp. I almost didn't recognize her until the perfume swept under my nose as she wrapped her arms around me. It was the same one she'd worn years ago.

I closed my eyes, remembering that smell. I remember being small, climbing up on the couch, disturbing my grandma's crocheting.

"Gram, will you tickle my face please?" I'd beg, though I knew she'd never object. She'd smile down at me, my face already in her lap.

"Oh alright." She'd say, setting aside her needles and yarn. I don't remember when this started, but for years my gram would be able to put me to sleep like this. I'd closed my eyes as she lightly blew air on my face. Her fingers grazing my forehead, cheeks, and chin. In less than ten minutes I'd be fast asleep.

Looking at her now it was clear that the woman I knew had changed. Over the next few months I quickly became aware of the new woman my grandma was. She was forgetful, ditzy, sensitive, and at times child-like. I learned never to say anything other than, "This is delicious!" about her cooking. Anything negative or unenthusiastic made her cry.

One Monday night, I came home looking forward to eating her fettuccine alfredo. She had once declared Mondays as specifically pasta night.

"Alright Gram, I'm ready to eat my weight in pasta!" I shouted walking through the front door. She appeared in the doorway to the kitchen, looking annoyed and pretty disgusted.

"Alicia, pasta night is Monday." She rolled her eyes at me. When I reminded her it was in fact Monday, she responded. "Oh shit, I made meatloaf!"

Of course it wasn't always humorous. It was irritating the way she criticized my integrity based on how clean my room was. It hurt the night she demanded I change my clothes before dinner, because no way could she be seen in public with a slob. But, more than anything it was scary. I woke up one morning to my grandma screaming at my aunt.

"Why don't you just let me die? I'm ready to die!"

She was lying on the kitchen floor. She had fallen and hit her head hard on the corner of the table. She's lucky she didn't kill herself. I guess she was hoping she would though. It was the third time she'd fell that month. After that, my Pop-Pop made her wear a bicycle helmet in the house, especially if she was there alone. Naturally we found the humor in it, but I could tell it began to eat at her pride. She expressed her frustration and humiliation with my Pop-Pop's demands one night at the dinner table. She remained confident though that no matter how disabled she became, my Pop-Pop would never "put her away."

My aunt through her own frustration responded, (not in the most sensitive way) that a time would come when we couldn't take care of her anymore and she might in fact have to be "put away." It wouldn't make a difference though, my aunt continued, because my grandma's mind would be "So gone, you won't even realize it."

I was ashamed that I sat there with my mouth shut when I should have been defending my grandmother. Everything my aunt was saying was wrong. My grandmother would realize. She would be aware of the day her family left her alone and afraid in a strange place. I know because it happened to me the night I cut my throat and got shipped to the psych ward. I sat across my grandmother watching her try not to cry. In that moment I saw myself in her. She wasn't just a wife, a mother, or a grandmother. She certainly wasn't just a cook or a maid like my family seemed to believe. She was a human being grappling with a disease her loved ones couldn't understand. While she may have accepted that, she needed someone, anyone to step up and fight with her. The same way I did a few months back, but ultimately ended up feeling like I was going through it alone. I could hear my grandma's voice echoing in my ear from a few months back.

"I know honey, but we are going to do everything we can to help you."

Later that night, I was getting ready to retire from another exhausting day. I was half way up the stairs when I turned back to my grandma, who was on her way to the kitchen to make a cup of tea.

"Hey gram." I said. She looked up at me as best she could. "I just want to let you know that I won't let anyone put you away." She lowered her eyes, pursing her lips together hard to keep her tears in. She shook her head persistently before walking into the kitchen. She never said a word. She didn't have to. In that moment she knew I was the only one who could possibly understand, because it was me who had been fighting alongside her the whole time.