Thursday, September 05, 2013

To Bedlam

“Not that it was beautiful,
but that, in the end, there was
a certain sense of order there;
something worth learning
in that narrow diary of my mind”
― Anne Sexton, To Bedlam and Part Way Back

My mom was crazy. Literally.

It’s a word meant to insult, discount. My mom hated it, but she would have taken exception to any word that called her mental stability into question. Really, the acceptable term “mental illness” doesn’t sound much better.

Both my parents are dead now, and they left behind a lot of stuff. Recently I was going through some of their papers and found letters that my mom had saved for years, including a packet of letters that my dad wrote to her while she was at Milledgeville State Hospital in the late 50s, one of the largest mental hospitals in the country  at the time. I was born in 1966, so her stay happened a number of years before my birth, and I knew nothing about it for a long time.

Mom with three of my brothers
Growing up I knew that my mom was unusual, but I had no idea that she had a mental illness. It wasn’t until I was 22 that one of my brothers mentioned it in passing, and suddenly chaos settled into pattern and meaning. Her official diagnosis was schizophrenia. I’m not sure that diagnosis was completely accurate - in many ways she was more like someone with bipolar disorder - but she heard voices and at times had paranoid delusions. Despite this, she was, to the best of my knowledge, unmedicated and untreated while I was growing up.

As you have probably guessed, no one talked about this. So, when my mom told me about conversations with doctors that I knew did not exist, or mentioned being part of a mind control experiment conducted by the Soviets, or became convinced that the neighbors were spying on us, when she began huge projects with a massive burst of energy only to drop them completely and take to bed, when she went on angry paranoid rampages spewing the most bizarre stories, I - well, I don’t know what I did. In between these strange phases my mom was like any other mom, affectionate and protective, if a little shy and socially awkward. She was smart and curious. No matter what state she was in, she made sure we had three meals a day and clean clothes. She made doctor appointments for me, sewed clothes for me, and read to me (although sometimes not the best choices - most moms would not read Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” to a six-year-old). I was never neglected. So it was very disorienting to switch from that to the the freaky mom who thought she might be the victim of demonic possession.

I lived in a strange world, pretending that everything was normal, or approaching normal, when it was anything but. My father acted as if her behavior was a deliberate ploy to destroy his life, and he spent a lot of time away from the house. My much older brothers had long before moved out and if at any time during their visits my mother acted strangely, they simply ignored it. In all the time I was growing up, my mother never saw a psychiatrist, a therapist or even a social worker. I never saw my dad seek any assistance either, although he now and then he threatened to have her “locked up,” which did indeed have a squelching effect on my mom.

That makes my dad sound awful, and for a long time I was angry with him for the way he treated my mom, but I have to remember that he had to make this journey practically by himself. I don’t know what triggered my mom being committed, but my dad must have been out of his depth, and he may have been afraid for my brothers. My dad’s letters reveal his struggles trying to keep the family going alone - juggling work with 4 school age boys. He rarely had any help, and the boys were left to their own devices most of the time. He expressed more resentment as time went by (she seems to have been there for at least a year), and he often asked why she couldn’t come home. There were also letters from my brothers, which are sad to read, tidbits about school and home life and appeals to her to come home written in awkward childish handwriting. Saddest of all are a few lines from my dad, a response it seems to a question from my mom, that he had no idea why her parents did not write or visit.

What’s missing are my mother’s letters to him. Maybe my dad didn’t bother to keep them - he liked to forget unpleasant things. What she experienced there remains a mystery. Even as an adult I was extremely reluctant to broach the subject with her. I don’t mean that she never mentioned it, but I really had to read between the lines, and I was so used to ignoring the absurd that sometimes I wasn’t sure what I was hearing.

So much secrecy. Those were the days when you still didn’t admit to or talk about mental illness, when it tainted your reputation and the reputation of your entire family. Even though attitudes had loosened by the time I was born, it was deeply entrenched in the family dynamics, so much so that I was trained early, without any sort of explicit instruction, to ignore blatantly odd behavior, to keep it quiet. And I didn’t want anything to be wrong - the very idea of anything being wrong was so terrifying that I lived this odd life of pretending that I didn’t know what I knew.

I’ve concluded that the invisible doctors were probably actual psychiatrists who treated her. I had thought the voices schizophrenics hear would say horrible things, but her voices always seemed to give her encouragement and advice. She insisted they understood her completely. When I was much older, she alluded to electro-shock treatment in such a way that it was clear that she had terrible memories of it. She also once mentioned medicine that made her too drowsy, and so she never took it again. I think she wanted to talk about it, but none of us wanted to listen, not in the way she needed us to listen. Instead we were eager to refute or, god help us, try to reason it away, or ignore it as if it were bad behavior that shouldn’t be encouraged.

With this history, you might think that I would be afraid of inheriting schizophrenia. It helped that I didn’t know the true nature of her illness until I was an adult. By then I was pretty confident that I never had and never would have hallucinations or paranoid fantasies. The problems I did have - well, it would be hard to emerge from that household unscathed. We were all dinged in some way.

I recently ran across a study that has found a common genetic source for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism, major depression and ADHD. Here’s a quote from the article: “But what surprised them was that while one person with the aberration might get one disorder, a relative with the same mutation got a different one.”

This has made me rethink my mother’s legacy, which I thought I had nimbly evaded. I think every one of my siblings and I have something on that list, whether or not we admit it, whether or not we have ever been diagnosed. These days it’s so much easier to talk about mental illness, and I’ve made sure that I don’t hide that part of the family history - or my own history - from the girls. I hope for the best, that whatever genetic mishap, if there is one, that bled into our lives, ends with me.

I wish I had my mother’s files from that time, that I had a little more insight into that part of her life. Some people might think that talking about my mom’s illness is somehow invading her privacy or revealing too much. But I think the one thing my mom wanted but only found in the hospital, was someone to talk to who would not judge her, someone to acknowledge that her invisible doctors and strange thoughts did not make her a bad person, or less of a person, or someone whose opinions should be discounted because she was “crazy”. That it was really okay.


  1. Such an open and honest post, it brought tears to my eyes as much of it mirrored my childhood.

  2. Karen we have such different stories growing up - West coast boy meets the South girl. God has a wonderful sense of humor.

    I love you.

  3. Thanks, Petty. These things stick, don't they?

  4. Love you, Jeff. At least one of us needed a sane family.

  5. We have a lot in common. My mom was hospitalized for several months when I was 8 years old. I never knew the "real" reason until my dad finally revealed it just before he died last April. It was schizophrenia as well.

  6. Buck - what was it like for you as a kid? I knew something was off, always knew. It's weird how much you can rearrange reality to not know something. It's sad there was such a stigma

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