I pilfered this post title from this book I read last year. It was helpful and painfully overwhelming at the same time. I'm not sure why I waited so long to read something like this, as I had been on the path of healing from this part of my childhood experience for 15 years. When the student is ready the teacher appears, and you can't make yourself arbitrarily ready for something until you are. At the close of last year, I was finally ready.
I have always thought that my childhood was mostly normal up until age 11 when my mother's illness skyrocketed and the proverbial shit hit the fan. (I have since surfaced abuse memories - not related to my mother - beginning at age 5. What a mind fuck to realize that my previously thought normalcy was anything but.) In my child brain, it seemed to me that one day she was fine and then poof! she was sick. In reality, that is not at all how schizophrenia happens.
I now realize that there were traces of my mother's sickness in earlier years but these are nearly unrecognizable to a small child: acute obsessive behaviors, periods of being "checked out" or extremely withdrawn. Suffice to say, I spent a lot of time alone growing up though this is somewhat comforting for an introvert. We lived on a farm and I reveled in the hours I logged in the barn, with our animals, or walking out in nature. Among the trees, flowers, and birds - that is where I feel most at home.
It wasn't until age 11 that there were clear and present signs of danger with my mother. She went from a high functioning corporate working woman to a mental and emotional wreck in a matter of months. Though schizophrenia is typically diagnosed in early 20's, there are cases considered late-onset where the prevalence of symptoms do not show up until around age 40. My mother was 37.
She left us, my dad and I. My older brother had just graduated from high school and moved away. This fact is an anchor in my memory timeline; the details of this period in my childhood are so hazy that I have to rely on things that I know when and where they happened, such as my brother's departure. Shortly thereafter she moved into an apartment not far away from our house. I had a bedroom there and could walk back and forth, still able to ride a bus to and from the same school. I was in 7th grade.
I distinctly remember my mother asking me to include her in the things I did with my friends, which as an early adolescent is about as pleasant as a root canal. Over the next few months these requests grew from "be my friend/partner" to "take care of me" and then landed squarely on "save me." This did incalculable damage to Little Me who needed my mother to do these very things as a part of my normal growth and development. In reading the aforementioned book on this subject, I discovered that this is typical and equally damaging for others who shared my circumstance.
This pattern of role reversal cemented itself and continues to this very day. From that point forward I did not have a normal or healthy childhood. A significant part of my healing journey has been to unravel this daughter-has-become-mother pattern and set healthy boundaries with her which has only been complicated by the experience of sexual abuse. It has not been easy to say the least, since ASCAs have virtually no sense of boundary. Having your personal and physical boundaries repeatedly violated makes it virtually impossible to understand where you begin and someone else ends.
Here is where the fog rolls in. At some point (weeks? months?) after living in her apartment my mother attempted suicide via overdose. I was there. I have some dreamlike memories of her pushing me out the door with jacket in hand (perhaps this means it was fall?) saying things like "never forget that I loved you." I did and did not understand what was happening. I walked to my father's house in a semi-lucid state and told him what was going on. We went to find her and took her to the hospital where they proceeded to pump her stomach and make her drink a charcoal solution to absorb remaining toxins. (We will revisit my horrific images of the apartment and the hospital in a subsequent post called Intro to EMDR.)
I have replayed this scene in my head a thousand times. I have carried immense guilt throughout my life because I did not stop her, did not protect her, could not save her from herself. There were more suicide attempts after this one, at least 2 of which I am aware but was either not directly involved or have repressed the memories. I have battled feeling equally responsible and guilty for all of these suicide attempts for more than two decades.
My mother lost her job and the apartment. She moved around taking up temporary residence with varying friends and family members. I have very little recollection of these times and places. I know I visited and even stayed with her but am unsure how I got there, if I lived there, how long I visited, or what we did, let alone anything else going on in my life at the time. School? I know I went. Friends? I'm sure I had them. Flash photograph memories, that's all I have.
After some period of time my mother went to live with her parents. I think this was after the scene of abandonment which went something like this: I was at school - I think I was 14 at the time - and leaving on the bus for an away-game as the baseball team's statistician. Mother pulled me out of the queue and forced me into her car; she had experienced some sort of 'premonition' and decided that travel on that bus was unsafe. This was not atypical as her behavior had become quite erratic. We got in the car and she drove me to dad's driveway. I thought I was just supposed to get out and go inside, now protected from whatever boogity she thought was going to get me on the bus. Instead, she proceeded to tell me that she had never loved me, that she had grown tired of being my mother, and that she wished to have no further contact with me. Ever.
I got out of the car and stood in the driveway for a long time in what I now realize was a fully dissociated state. I believe I remained that way for a great many months.
I went to live with my father permanently at this time. He had remarried and now I had a little brother. Indeed my mother made good on her promise to cut me out of her life until she showed up with no warning in my father's new place of residence nearly 2 years later (we had moved in the spring of 1990, another anchor in my memory timeline). I was 16. There is no word in the English language that can adequately describe the internal tsunami I experienced at that moment. Desperate to see and be loved by her, and equally desperate to stave her off. I have no memory of the actual interface; I only remember the emotional tumult at the time I was informed she had arrived.
More haze. I believe we established some amount of relationship and I visited her at the grandparents' house a number of occasions through high school and while I attended college. My memory begins to take more form during my senior year and I have what I would consider normal recollection during my college years. (I majored in Psychology, no great surprise there.) During this time, my mother existed in a near catatonic state. She exhibited both positive schizophrenic symptoms (episodes of marked psychoses such as hallucinations and delusions) and negative symptoms such as flat affect and asocial behavior.
A few stories that will give you a flavor for what is was like to be around her:
- After watching television or movies with her, she would proceed to explain how each character was representative of someone or something in her life; in her mind it was as if her life was being played out on screen. This is known as delusions of reference.
- She would save dollar bills, usually singles, by the droves. She spent hours upon hours dissecting what she thought were hidden codes in the serial numbers, messages being sent to her directly from God. These were delusions of grandeur in that she believed she had a direct line of communication with The Almighty.
- She would sometimes watch the television when it was turned off, laughing or crying. She also reported, though not often and not publicly, that she heard voices. Both are forms of hallucination.
- She often talked about how my grandparents were holding her prisoner and that they were in cahoots with her primary care physician to keep her sick. These were delusions of paranoia.
My mother refused psychiatric help. She would only relent to seeing her primary care physician, a man she had known and trusted for a great number of years. PCPs receive little specialized training in mental health; consequently he played psychopharmacological roulette with my mother for nearly 10 years before landing on the right medication. It was Zyprexa.
The radical transformation in my mother's demeanor upon the introduction of Zyprexa was nothing short of miraculous. Though I chide his gambling approach to my mother's mental health, I am eternally grateful to Dr. M for pursuing chemical treatment until he found the right combination. She was no longer asocial, could hold conversation with people she had just met, and would even laugh out loud - in appropriate settings! This change in persona revolutionized my life; I felt an enormous weight lifted from me. I had spent a significant portion of my waking hours worrying and agonizing over her state of being. I didn't have to do that anymore. However, I see now that the boundary-less care taking merely shape shifted into something equally unhealthy for me.
I became obsessed with giving my mother a "normal life." Having just recently finished graduate school, I now had stability and money for the first time. I spent a lot of it taking her on vacations, trying to give her experiences that would make her see how great life could be. Aka, I wanted her to want to live. It was very akin to having a child. Funny, I even took her to DisneyWorld. You would think I could've recognized the obvious parallel there, but it would take me years to understand what I was doing and the relative unhealth of it for me.
Throughout my adult years, I have felt enormous responsibility for keeping my mother alive and infusing life into her. I took financial and legal responsibility for my mother at age 26 when I purchased a house for her and moved her to the area where I lived. For a number of years I have called her daily, sometimes more than once per day. If I went too long without talking to her, I would sometimes reel into a panic that I might find her dead. I have never made a decision in my life where I did not first consider how it would affect her. I venture to say that even some of my decision to get married (because it wasn't what I wanted nor to whom I wanted) was an effort to provide her a "stable home" - again, just like one would do for a child.
The damage that I have done to myself, to my life on these accounts is immeasurable. I have lost many years, hopes, dreams, and aspects of self because I mistakenly thought that my mother's story was my story. (I elaborate on the irony and subconscious functionality of using the masking event of my sick mother to hide the true root cause of my trauma in a later post called Goodbye Panda.) Only in this past year during the unfolding of my actual story have I been able to separate the two. It has been incredibly liberating and inordinately painful. Like most things in life, the balance of these two extremes creates the totality of full catastrophe living. And what a catastrophe this past year has been.