Sunday evening interlude: Everything I know about schizophrenia I learned from my Mother.
Call me shameless, but I want to talk about mental illness. Having spent some decades of my life feeling the thump of its stigma, the weight of it, the obstacle, the stickiness, the shame, I just want to give it the finger. It’s an illness, get over it. It is not demon possession, it is not punishment for the sins of your fathers (though in cases of child abuse, it could be spawned from it) and you can’t get it from toilet seats or hugging.
But it is a real issue, it causes suffering and those suffering from mental illness deserve compassion, understanding, healthcare and social support. On some level, if you have schizophrenia, you are screwed. Unless you happen to marry someone like my dad.
Not long into their marriage, Dad must have realized that something was wrong. Maybe it started out as a display of nerves or anxiety when he had to be away at work. A hesitancy in her manner that wasn’t there before. Something subtle. Whatever it was eventually turned into full-blown fear and what was labeled, in those days, a ‘nervous breakdown.’ Mom suffered from twelve of these in twelve years. The hospitalizations periodically played out like somber background music to our sometimes normal and even happy family life. My elder sister and I were born in the midst of the mayhem, exactly seven years apart. She was a pretty, dark eyed version of Mom, while I took after my father, who was lean, brainy and myopic. When I got my first pair of cat eyed, pearlescent eyeglasses in the second grade, I looked at my reflection in the mirror and cried, feeling the ugly misfit.
Seven was a tough age for me. I watched Goldie Hawn on Laugh-In, the Monkees after school, made my First Holy Communion, and all the while, Mom struggled with her illness. I was a silent witness to her sporadically odd, and at times, terrifying behavior. I never uttered these things aloud to anyone until much, much later. In conversation with friends, I regularly edited my childhood experiences of growing up with a mother who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Throughout my life, friends have told me I am calm. I soothe them. They can tell me anything and not feel judged. It was safe to bet that whatever they might have to say would be less startling than Mom telling me that Dad is killing people in the basement and drinking their blood.
During that particular year, just down the hallway from my room, with its pink fluffy shag rug, beloved site of my Barbie Doll playhouse, I stood behind my sister and watched while my mother attacked my father with a pair of scissors from her sewing basket. My father was of slighter build than Mom, and I remember him gripping her wrist as she held the scissors aloft, one of his feet behind the other, bracing himself against the plump, soft body that had turned against him. When I spoke to him of it recently, tears filled his eyes.
“She never attacked me, “ he insisted, with emotion, “she was ill.”
At the time of the attack I was struck mute, becoming nothing but a huge pair of eyes, taking it all in. As far as sounds, I can still hear the dull thud of my mother stepping heavily, straining against my father as we watched. More than three decades later, whenever I tried to speak of the event, my voice remained calm, my face expressionless, but inevitably my hands would begin to tremble and shake, my teeth chatter and my body involuntarily shiver. I looked at my hands as if they belonged to someone else; they were traitors to me, revealing the emotion that I would not permit myself to feel.
How many of Mom’s hallucinations was I privy to over the years? It’s hard to say. There was the one time when she dragged me by the wrist to my sister’s empty bedroom. The four-poster bed was neatly made with a dainty white chenille bedspread. My mother, clearly disturbed, her hair out of place, pointed at the bed and declared, “ See your sister? There she is, in a pool of her own blood.” It must have been a form of shock that protected me. I knew that what she said was false; I could see that for myself, but I had become her easiest and readiest confidante. To find my escape I would tell myself that I had descended from a royal line of Chinese princesses. I dreamt that my Chinese grandmother, whom I had never met, was watching over me from the ghostly realm of our ancestry. I had seen photos of my dad’s family: old sepia toned mysteries, with aunts, uncles and cousins dressed in rather imperial looking garments. Fine things. Embroidered in finery. My invisible, decidedly dead Chinese grandma, strong where my mother was weak, ever present when my Father was busy at the office, silently watched over me. She suited me just fine.
I made it through elementary school and went on to middle school. One afternoon, I settled down for a snack and got ready to tackle my homework. There happened to be a little old lady walking across the street in front of our suburban home. Mom beckoned me to the window. “Don’t let anyone see you, “ she said, afraid. “See that woman? It’s really a man in disguise. The house is being watched.” Then twelve, I sat down with Mom on the couch and took her trembling hand in mine.