“So you’re actually going over there? Like, inside the house?” his friend asked, staring at me incredulously. I smiled and nodded as casually as I could. “Well good luck” he whistled. “Remember to keep an eye on her.”
I was seventeen and heading into my senior year of high school. So far things were going swell for me. I had a great friends and a cute new boy, but some things were slightly amiss. Since we had begun dating, I had heard murmurings about my boyfriend’s mother. How she wasn’t quite like the other moms on the block. He had never addressed the issue with me directly; rather he would simply smile along while his friend’s made jokes at his mother’s expense. “Did you see how she carries her purse around with her all the time?” one would yell, whooping in laughter.
“I know, it’s like, chill mom.” My boyfriend would respond, a shaky smile plastered on his face. I had no assumptions to make as I didn’t know the first thing about her “˜weird’ behavior. But I was about to get a crash course in what it’s like to live alongside a mental illness.
My first visit, which involved little more than playing on the computer, seemed to go innocently enough. It was a little strange when she asked us if we wanted Taco Bell, went out to get it, and came home with nothing. When he asked her where the food was she nonchalantly mentioned it looked bad and so she had thrown it away. I took her word for it. As far as I was concerned, the food looked bad and she was just being a mother.
But soon other odd quirks began to worm their way into the picture. When my boyfriend came down with Mono I decided to mix him a traditional Arab medicine of raw honey and ginger root. I had stayed up past bedtime the night before, grating the root into the honey and mixing the ingredients just so. I handed it over to his mom on the doorstep with the direction to take one tablespoon every few hours. I found out a week later that she had closed the door and casually informed him I had just dropped off a “jar of poison”. It was quickly disposed of down the drain.
Other times we’d be watching television and she’d come sit behind us at the kitchen table. “See that hand shape he just made?” she’d yell in the middle of MTV Cribs, “I saw a man at the market make that exact same sign at me just last week. He knew I’d be here right now”¦.” She’d start looking around, unscrewing light bulbs and draping towels over the computer monitor.
My boyfriend, whose father had decided to treat the family like a monthly bill after packing up and leaving his son with a schizophrenic mother, didn’t know how to handle this. He’d often yell at her to “shut up” and she’d stare at him, horrified.
“You must be in on this too. No wonder you are always so mean to me.” She’d say, grabbing her purse and leaving to go do laps in the kitchen. Laps in the kitchen were how she kept in shape without leaving the house. She’d simply walk around the counter island for hours at a time, holding her purse and mumbling to herself about how random incidents were actually intricately connected matrices that controlled the masses.
As much as my boyfriend’s friends were scared of her, I can’t say that I ever was. In the moments between paranoid ranting and self-induced seclusion she showed a quick wit and wry sense of humor. She would crack whip-smart jokes about beauty pageants, fashion trends, and would ask me sincere questions about how I was doing. My home life had been quickly deteriorating and as I spent more and more time at their house, she grew an almost motherly concern for my well being.
This affectionate familiarity was sometimes displayed in the most horrifying of ways. “Know what will ruin your figure for prom?” she would call to me from the other room, “Sperm!” She’d laugh hysterically while I stood there in shocked bemusement. Other times there were almost tender moments between us. One evening she stomped into the room brandishing two pairs of boots she had picked up at Payless. “I bought these for you because I noticed your shoes were getting old” she said, almost defiantly. It was true, actually. My current shoes were in wretched condition. My parents, too busy slopping around in the remnants of their miserable marriage, had forgotten to take me shoe shopping for the past few weeks. I thanked her for the new boots and she gave a loud laugh. “Soon I’m going to be buying you your cigarettes too!” she announced as she flounced out of the room.
She was always oddly comforting to me in this regard. Every detail of your person from your actions to your clothes was taken into account noted in some mental logbook. This, of course, carried with it the potential to go horribly wrong. On more than one occasion, she casually strode downstairs to let me know that she’d called the police on me for trying to kill her. I’m still not sure what gave her that idea, or if I did anything that contributed to her delusion. But I didn’t argue. I’d simply leave the house for the night. The police had long ago marked the residence as a place of questionable phone calls so there were no legal ramifications. A few days later, things were always back to normal.
As the year passsed, she did show some signs of improvement. She started leaving her car and walking into grocery stores alone. This was always a bit nerve racking for me as I worried she’d be vulnerable to anyone taking advantage of her. I confided in my psychology teacher and was assured it was positive for her to take independent steps. As long as things were relatively stable at home, any attempt to end her self isolation should be met with casual or indirect affirmations.
Graduation came and she threw us a party. It involved pre-packaged food she had inspected before hand, towels over all the electronics and some classic jazz. At some point during the day she commented that the food tasted odd but at least my shirt was a very pretty orange color. I thanked her and assured her that the food tasted perfect and fresh. Later that night, as I was now sleeping over in the basement more often than not, she came in and apologized. Perplexed, I asked her why and she responded, “Because your shirt is really more of a coral color. Earlier I said it was orange. I am so sorry.”
“It’s okay, I didn’t mind.” I replied.
“Are you warm enough?” she asked.
“I’m okay, thanks.” I called as she padded back up the stairs to her room.
Later that year I was able to manage a job and moved into my first apartment. With a World War still raging in my own home and his place becoming impossible to live in (It displeased her when I took showers there.) I was relieved to finally have a place of my own. The night that I was moving out she came downstairs holding a bundle. “I made this for you and your new place.” She said, thrusting it into my hands. She scurried back upstairs without a word. I unwrapped it and inside was a knitted afghan so large it could have fit a king size bed. It had a myriad of jewel toned colors woven into it and was finished with twisted tassels at each end. I had no idea how long it took to make but it was the most touching gift I’d ever received.
It occurred to me then, what an achievement it was for her to retain her humor, maternal nature, and self reliance in the face of such a terrifying illness. For her, the simple gesture of reaching out was truly its own act of internal revolution.
A month after I moved into my new place my boyfriend and I broke up. It was the kind of abrupt end where you stop talking and avoid running into each other at all costs. Bits and pieces I’ve heard over the years lead me to believe she is improving, even taking a road trip with her son from Seattle down to Southern California. Every day she will fight to participate in a world that even the strongest amongst us would struggle to exist in. For her and thousands of others battling mental illness, she may never fully be free from her disease. However, it is essential that we, as a society, recognize that she will never entirely be her disease either.