(this is a response to Olivia Marudan’s post,” An Unexpected Education”)
“You’re a fucking selfish bitch who does nothing and wants to destroy me. You’re insane!”
That was the ultimate declaration, his rant. It was an explosion of atomic levels. Every moment of pain, frustration, disgust, confusion, surged up through his body and shot out his mouth. It was the ultimate insult because it attacked my mental health and reduced it to a medieval taunt to characterize my worth as a wife, mother, person, human: I was nothing, a defective model. It was the ultimate putdown of me and my family on a cultural level too, that my family had not raised and educated me properly and the unspoken hint that “insanity” runs in my family.
The “he” who yelled this was my husband.
I mention it because I am in what I call Phase 2 of Life With Mental Illness. First let me fill you in on Phase 1.
Phase 1 is about my youth, growing up with my family. My mother was a very ill person, physically. I’ve never known her to be a specimen of physical hardiness. Her lively and strong personality and indefatigable will offset her physical frailty. Her physical ailments can be mostly attributed to two devastating events during her adult life, and childhood ailments which she contracted in her native country.
Our immediate family was very protective of Mother. We closed ranks around her, protected this family secret.
The problem with this self-defensive mode–very common among immigrant families of eastern origin–was that we couldn’t gauge Mother’s mental condition. She had fits of rage, crying jags, crippling depression, severe mood swings. When she was feeling okay she was level-headed. However when pain racked her body she became “angry, scary Mommy”, my nickname for her. There was violence, but most of it was not aimed at specific targets. When Mother’s rages began we kids knew to retreat to our rooms, close the doors and ignore what was happening. Unless we were the targets. Then we sat still and took the berating, smashing of objects, and scoldings that induced guilt and shame until Mother lost steam. Fortunately corporal punishment was delivered infrequently. We knew we had to be quiet because her emotional storms happened in three stages, with two very brief lulls in between, until the next phase. The lulls were worse because we had to remain still, breathing shallowly, waiting and counting until the first crack of thunder (Mom’s shouts).
We learned this behavior because of cultural conditioning. And we had a model: we saw that our father behaved this way. (Note: as an adult who has an evolved relationship with my mother I now know the underlying reasons of Father’s odd passive behavior. But I am telling the tale through my young self’s POV). He would sit like a statue, silent, with his eyes closed. Occasionally he would shout back and argue. But his vocal defenses usually exacerbated Mother’s anger, and she turned up the rage dial to 11. There was some smashed furniture and household items, which Father cleaned up during the lulls. A few times Father tried to leave the house and drive away, but Mother blocked the driveway, and once called the police on him. We kids knew we weren’t going to be abandoned by Father, though, because he always returned after a short drive. And more importantly when Mom was “normal” Father always defended her, excused her behavior, blamed it on her physical illness.
I had a more difficult time dealing with this tiptoeing on egg shells life than my “old soul” brother. I was a girl, subject to my native culture’s sexist and misogynistic beliefs, which my mother spat out in the form of teaching lessons. I became a depressed child. Well duh, how could I not have developed depression? However back in the early 70’s psychology and psychiatry were not so sophisticated. They couldn’t even treat my mother. She had secret meetings, but I figured out she was seeing a therapist when I found bottles labelled Elavil and Tofranil in her medicine drawer. I was in third grade when I had my first “I wish I was dead, wish I could die right now” thought.
When I became severely depressed in high school and made a half-hearted attempt at suicide I was admonished for: (1) not fulfilling my filial duty of telling my parents (Mother was insulted I did not consider her my best friend);(2) reminded that I had “everything going” for me, so my sadness was not justified or rational. When my anxiety flared it was expressed as angry confusion, but to others it read as “ungrateful girl is complaining and not behaving properly, demurely”. These comments, usually aimed more at my than my brother because of my gender, came from “aunties” and “uncles”, who always backed my mother.
At the time Ordinary People, the film and book, were popular and Mother actually insisted I was nothing like Conrad, so I had better pull myself together. Above all I had to stop complaining to other people about her (traitorous behavior). Appointments with a family friend who practiced psychiatry went nowhere and I was allowed to quit after a few months of visits.
There was nobody to share bouts of my misery besides my brother, but we didn’t talk much. We soldiered on silently, took comfort by watching TV together. This family life was NORMAL to us. We didn’t know any other, figured other households were quieter because their mothers were healthy and fit. My mother was very supportive, affectionate, and patient with me when she was feeling well, but I couldn’t integrate the angry, scary Mommy side into a complete profile of the woman. I just wanted a Mommy, and my young mind wasn’t able to fit the pieces together.
Actually there was one other family who had an emotionally unstable mother–my mother’s sister. She had two daughters, our cousins, with whom we were close. Aunt W was prone to fits of depression, brought on by her two difficult pregnancies (or so we were led to believe). Sometimes we heard her rants, learned of her fights with her husband from phone discussions to our household. Our cousins also learned to retreat into their rooms and silently play. My aunt and uncle leaned on my Mother for advice and peacemaking. Our Mother was the junior matriarch for our extended family and community.
One thing you need to know about Mother: she was a licensed counselor. She has a degree and practiced before becoming a full time mother (really it was because she became very ill). Her background in psychology fueled our confusion. Even after retiring she did pro bono work counseling friends and neighbors on various matters. She is a genius in that area. She’s that gal pal you want to have in your corner. The most ironic thing about her is that she is wicked scared of people who are mentally ill. That was one of the warning lessons she imparted on me and my brother: Do not date, marry, have children with someone who has any signs of mental illness themselves, or in their family. Keep away from unhealthy people, do not befriend them. As an eastern immigrant she never apologized for her “scary angry Mommy” behavior. Sometimes she justified it, and was successful in her explanations because she was a trained counselor and eloquent speaker. Her “why Mommy didn’t feel well” speeches were rare though, but I clutched these tightly knit balls of logic like twisted treasures. I hated, feared, and loved her.
This is a recipe for fucked up adulthood isn’t it?
So let’s jump ahead to Phase 2, my adult life. I am a married woman with teenage children. Marriage and motherhood were escapes, a way to leave my mother and her madness far behind me. My own family is aware of my “bad spells” and we have our own ways of coping with it. Not always healthy, but we seem to have bigger problems that crop up and my individual issues sometimes take a backseat. That’s the reality of being a mother sometimes. I know after years of therapy that I am suppose to make my “happiness” a priority, but guess what? Life interferes. You do what you can at the moment, deal with immediate emergencies first. One choice I did take was my mother’s advice–I married someone who was hardy and tough, appeared well-balanced, exceedingly patient and whose family had pedigree. I followed the life script provided–really foisted upon–me by my family and culture.
I have good and bad spells, have learned to handle my illness. My family pitches in when they can in their own ways. It’s limited, but it’s all they can give, and that has to be enough for the present. Most importantly I’ve learned to develop strategies on managing myself, and juggling my roles as wife, mother, and daughter.
My husband’s outburst was disgusting. It was vile. It was meant to grab control of a situation in the worst way–to cut me off at the knees and watch me bleed. It’s been a few years since that happened and I have “forgiven” the incident. That doesn’t mean I passively accept that abusive behavior, but I still live with him and choose to remain married. Sure I resent his ignorance about mental health, but he is “par for the course” with people of our generation and background. I recognize that moment for what it is, can compartmentalize my feelings, file it away, and carry on with life. My best strategy is to continue with my therapies, do my work, set and live a good example.
As for my mother, she is better, physically and mentally. Life dealt her a vicious blow with a sudden family tragedy. Unlike many her of her peers she didn’t crumble. That period of family sorrow was actually a blessing for me and Mother. She took charge and rearranged her life, began healing herself on all levels, and has evolved. Defensive walls crumbled. We’ve come to many understandings, shared secrets, revealed old pains, and forgave each other.
Most important to me is I’ve been collecting puzzle pieces of our family history of mental illnesses–Bipolar, depression, personality disorders (and a few learning disorders). I continue to play Sherlock Holmes. These revelations are critical for constructing a framework for the quilt of my family history. My maternal grandfather occupies several squares. Stories reveal a brilliant man who lacked socio-economic privilege, whose life was severely damaged by two world wars, and was prone to erratic violent behavior. “He was a very Japanese father,” is my mother’s terse assessment. Whispers of borderline personality disorder and Bipolar creep like ear worms when I hear the details: disciplining a 5 year old daughter (Mother) who caught him imitating his drunken behavior by making her stand still while he slapped her face until her cheeks swelled–and she never uttered a cry out loud; keeping nine dogs in an urban apartment with his seven children and wife despite lacking regular income; drunken rages; disappearing from the family’s life to set up a “second household”; bouts of religious fanaticism. His personal demons shaped his parenting and his two oldest daughters were scarred for life. As the oldest grandchild of my maternal family I now know that mental illness doesn’t define us, but its presence gives context to many events. I have a legacy, and I own it, brutal and painful as it is.
Now that I am middle-aged and have earned respect from the family and home community I’ve taken on the role of teacher. I educate my “family” members about mental illness and to not judge those who suffer as weak or defective people, to not label their symptoms as character flaws, and stigmatize them. It’s a long, lonely road, but I have my mother at my side now–we have side by side thrones in our family court.
It’s an ongoing battle with mental illness in our family. I’m not quite ready to tell my story to the world with my real name–yet. Maybe in my next decade?