As many of you know, a Very Bad Presence (VBP) has been commenting willy nilly on Lorna’s blog, as well as briefly on my husband’s blog. I think that Will Smama nailed it when she said that his comments remind her of mental patients she’s had dealings with.
This got me to thinking. It’s infuriating to encounter a disordered and delusional mind. There’s no way in. There seems to be no hope of change, transformation, anything. We get sucked in, trying desperately to make contact, to bring order to chaos, reason to unreason. It makes us angry, it makes us feel sick, it makes us a bit scared.
My mother was mentally ill. No one told me this. I did not have the name for her illness until I was twenty-one, and even now we aren’t entirely sure if the diagnosis was correct or misguided. I grew up in a strange world. At times my mom’s behavior was bizarre, but I had no option but to consider it normal and accept that at certain times reality could shift, bend, and stretch. During my childhood, hers was a quiet illness. My brothers got to witness the more extreme displays—visits to FBI offices, a fire, conversations with inanimate objects—and they had to deal with Mom being sent to the mental institute a few times, something that she sometimes alluded to with great fear.
My mom heard voices. While I was growing up, she seemed to hear only nice voices. She talked to three doctors. Sometimes she would describe these conversations (she never talked out loud to them or saw them), which were very encouraging and loving. One wanted to marry her. Mom was also convinced that she was a part of a though experiment being carried on by the Russians and the CIA. Her thoughts were being constantly monitored. Mom cycled between highs, whcn she started huge projects or dragged us off unwillingly to various events, and lows, which lasted far longer than the highs, when she complained about not being able to do anything and was generally listless, even vacant. Our house was usually a mess, because she never had the energy to clean, and she had even less idea of how to organize or prioritize.
Mom was extremely shy and unsure of herself. Social situations could set her off on a downward spiral. She was convinced that everyone judged her badly, that everyone talked about her. She would create awkward situations, like the time I was 6 and she told me that my friend D was trying to steal my friend P. I stalked over to D’s house to tell him off and his mother overheard, yelled at me and called my mom. I returned home mortified, only to hear my mom ranting at D’s mom about the conspiracy afoot to discredit her and her children. That was the first time I realized that I could not trust my mother’s judgment.
Mom nagged at my dad pretty constantly. She made fun of the way he ate, sneered at his habits, his hygiene, and his hobbies. They argued loudly and viciously. He threatened to have her locked up; she—well—she cycled through whatever strange accusations and narratives that came to mind. They stayed married for over 50 years, until the day she died.
Mom doted on me. I was the only girl after four boys, the child born after she thought she was past child bearing, after a miscarriage. She loved all her children without bounds, but I was at home still and the focus of her dreams and fears. She wanted me for her own, and it was obvious that she found my dad a threat to that exclusivity. She would insist on hearing any conversation I had with him—telephone calls drove her mad if she could not pick up on the extension, and she usually badgered my dad until he relinquished the call to her.
Mom was incredibly bright. She never went to college, and I never saw her read much when I was growing up, but she made sure I had books and lots of them. When I was older, in college and later, she would sometimes call and talk about the books she was reading: The Varieties of Religious Experience, a book on the Jeffersonian Bible, Saint Augustine’s Confessions. The most wonderful tribute to her were the words from her pastor at her funeral: “She used to box me into a corner with her questions!” a sentiment that was echoed by the genteel women from her Bible study group.
As she aged, her mind seemed to clear. She and my dad got along almost companionably. He built a house for her, with a sunroom where she could study and listen to her favorite music. When she found out she had leukemia, she decided to fight, even in her late 70s, because of my oldest daughter, then just over a year old, and she went through a round of chemo that turned her eyes to pools of blood. I remember when they told her there was no hope. “I don’t think I’m ready for this,” she said, with a nervous laugh. But she was.
I miss her.