My Father, My Mother, Mental Illness & Me

My father had his third psychotic break in two years. The first and the second were alcohol induced – going off alcohol cold turkey. The third was prescription medicine related. He went off clonazepam, which is an antidepressant.

I didn’t know you could go crazy going off something like that, but apparently you can.

And there’s my mother, too. She was always the stable parent. The good one. But then her husband  died and she moved here and everything changed. Now I think she’s addicted to lorazepam, generic for ativan.

And I’m so angry about it. I’m a burning, seething, writhing thing filled with rage. I feel so furious. I find myself yelling at my mom, often.

“Pull yourself together,” I say.

“Stop it.”

“You can’t do that in my house,” I say when she pops a sleeping pill at four in the afternoon and then staggers around in the kitchen, eating sloppily, before falling back into bed.

They are both mentally ill.

It is a disease, I know that.

But where does that leave me? A survivor of mental illness myself?

I was a mess for a very long time. But then I moved. I fell in love. I have children. I found purpose. I like my life. It isn’t perfect. I write for a local newspaper.

My colleagues take great pride in what they do and because of that, I do too. No matter what I write, it must be accurate and true and I’ve found that’s so incredibly difficult to do. But to do it is an act of respect, of transparency, of morality. And so it’s important to me too. To get the name right, to spell it correctly, to get the age right, to get the time and the place and the date. To represent our world accurately, even if it’s not the most beautifully written. It is a challenge.

To tell the truth: that’s always been my goal with whatever I write.

Mental illness isn’t experienced in a vacuum. It spreads, like a virus. It touches everyone in the mentally ill person’s life. The anxiety, the paranoia, the great, gaping hole of sadness, it rubs off on you too. It infests you.

Mental illness can be sneaky. It can be manipulative.

Anyone with an illness can use it as an excuse for rotten behavior: for doing and saying unspeakable things. And the family member around them: do they just have to take it? Or call them on it? Or cut the mentally ill person out of their life forever if it becomes unbearable? Because I feel like that’s where I’m at.

When I got home from being in Wisconsin this third time, for my dad’s third psychotic break, I was so exhausted and emotionally wiped out, I felt like I was just skin, walking around.

My plane arrived at midnight. I drove home in the dark. I was so dissociated and tired and wrapped up in my dad’s craziness, I didn’t know where I was. The road that I had driven a million times didn’t look like my road anymore. I felt the anxiety and paranoia creeping up: where am I? Am I going the right way? This doesn’t look right. Am I lost?

I got home to a house covered in dirty dishes and the remnants of the stomach flu. I was so tired, I almost started to weep.

The next day, I took my son to his last basketball game. My mom was there, shaking and quivering like she does now. “I think the lorazepam has affected my brain,” she said. “I can’t think straight. I think it’s the pills. I know I’ve been abusing them.”

“THEN CHECK YOURSELF INTO DETOX,” I screamed in the middle of the basketball game.

“What?” She said, because she can’t hear anything.

“IF YOU’RE ADDICTED TO PILLS, YOU NEED TO CHECK YOURSELF INTO DETOX,” I screamed again.

Everybody turned and stared. But I didn’t really care. This was a family crisis, and I feel like it’s been going on my whole life, in one way or another.

And then I got home and screamed at everybody in my house: every man, woman and child. I screamed at Francis, I screamed at the kids. I drank rum cocktails and watched “A Star Is Born” on the sofa and fumed and paced around like a caged animal.

“Take a pill,” Francis said. That’s his solution to everything.

“I’ve taken one, it doesn’t do anything,” I said.

“I have to write it all down,” I said. I locked myself in my room and wrote for an hour or two. Getting every awful little thing out about the past few days and what happened and what my dad said and how he fell in the snow bank and how I was sick with the stomach flu and could barely stand in his apartment while he asked my sister, “Can’t you give me more money? I need more money.”

And I still feel like I’m going to throw up, every time I think of it.

Now my mom is seeing a psychiatrist and a psychologist. They’ve adjusted her meds. But she’s still a walking breathing skeleton of misery.

She’s been on them for two weeks and no improvement.

“I feel nauseous,” she said. “I feel sick. I can’t eat. I can’t hear. I’ve lost my hearing. My hair is falling out. My dog won’t stop barking. I hate that dog. That dog is ruining my life.”

I won’t let her stay at my house, when before I used to, every weekend. But it’s gone too far. It makes me miserable when she’s in my house. Then I can feel it, the misery, creeping up from her bedroom, spreading out around her, like black ink. She casts a long shadow, wherever she goes. It affects everything.

I invited her to lunch instead. And then took her to the store to help her buy a rug and a wreath for her door. It took hours.

She can’t make a decision anymore. She’s always been the most indecisive person I’ve ever met. But now, she literally can’t make a decision. She is so terrified of making the wrong one. After deciding to leave her husband and everything that came after: the move, his death, her overwhelming unhappiness.

Everything is a freak out. Everything is cause for concern. My anxiety spikes around her and then doesn’t stop. The whole time I think: fight or flight. I want to fight her or run away from her. Because when I’m with her, I’m in danger. I can feel it all around me.

She stepped in dog shit and tracked it into her apartment and had a mental meltdown.

“Oh God, oh God!” she wailed. “It’s me! I stepped in dog poop! What am I gonna do?! These are my only shoes!”

I took her shoes outside, scraped the dog poop off and washed them. Put them on her rug.

“They’re fine, mom,” I said. “It’s fine.”

I don’t want to be the long suffering daughter. The long suffering wife. I want to be someone. Someone worth something. Someone worth protecting. Someone somebody else can’t dump their shit all over. I want my life to have meaning and purpose. I want to affect change. Not just  be somebody’s doormat.

Still, her apartment looked nice. The rug was cheery: filled with bright colors, roses and mauves and light blue flowers. Everything we bought. She was happy. And I was as happy as I can be around her.


*I wrote this a year ago when it was all happening. I meant to post it but then forgot.