(This post was originally published on the Gloria Sirens blog in June of 2014.)
I only ever imagined the whispers behind shielding hands: “Did you hear about her mom?” “Did you see the ambulance at the house yesterday afternoon?” “I heard she was crying again in Anthropology class today!” I did not grow up subject to pointing fingers or the snickers of my peers. The neighbors never failed to bring us dinner when my mother was hospitalized nor was she ostracized from her various social organizations after a stint in the state mental ward. The community always welcomed my mother back, offered the next employment opportunity, praised her charm, her grace, her lovely home, and her well-groomed, well-behaved children.
Or at least, that is how I remember the events surrounding my mother’s lifelong mental illness. Perhaps, people did recoil from us socially, or avoided speaking with her on the street, or did not include me in their children’s’ sleepovers because they had heard about Wynelle, and her troubles. I will never know. Perhaps we lived in a kinder, gentler world in those days when Congress debated the Civil Rights Act, and the neighborhood crafted and hung a street-wide banner celebrating Mr. Mullikan’s bravery when his fire truck arrived first to a recent fire, and good manners prevented us from spitting out the tough and gamey mutton stew served every spring at the community fundraiser, its green-tinged sauce gluey with mint jelly.
I do know that despite my memories of understanding neighbors and friends, we did not openly discuss my mother’s illness. It remained “that thing which will be unnamed” until I was seventeen years old and the only child left in the house. I confronted my father and demanded that he explain why Mom’s sickness, her frequent absence, the many times we observed strange white-coated men strapping her into a straitjacket or onto an ambulance gurney—why this was allowed to exist and what in God’s name made her this way? After twenty years of putting out the fire, my father was no closer to knowing the reason for the embers of her disease than I was. Each episode and method of treatment, from barbaric hydro-therapy and electric shock sessions to increasingly complex pill cocktails, only entrenched her more deeply in illness, the proverbial cure harsher than the disease.
Yes, she heard voices at times. Yes, she ran naked out onto the balcony of her home and tossed flower pots into the street and yard below. Yes, she gave generous gifts and keepsakes to new and old friends and friends of friends, only to ask for the gifts back afterwards, when she was feeling more rational. Somehow my father kept us out of debt after her manic spending sprees. She called us down to scrambled egg breakfasts at 2 am. But never did she wield a weapon or threaten us or anyone else. Or so I thought until my oldest sister told me recently of a scene at the Sunday dinner table when Mom rose from her chair, snatched the carving knife and held it aloft. My sister seized our hands and flew with us upstairs, locking the bedroom door and soothing us with 45 rpm records and fashion magazines. I don’t have any recollection of this episode, none at all. My father never spoke of what transpired afterwards.
Over the years I held onto scraps of joy. I took pride in my mother’s ability to return to us. I praised her strength, marveled at her ability to head out into the world after a set-back. I planted kisses on her temples, each side implanted with a crescent-shaped scar where the shock-therapy headset pressed against her flesh. And I give prayers of thanks daily for being blessed with a husband who agreed jointly to take on her care in her later years, years during which she attended our children’s recitals and sports events and school assemblies, until hydrocephalus, water on the brain, stole her speech. Mom’s body folded in on itself and her once nimble dancing limbs failed to support her to walk. I will never know if she knew her surroundings in the last few months or if the psychosis of her disease held her captive. I don’t know if she ever heard me say, “Goodbye, Mom. We love you.”
As I listen to the commentary and interviews in broadcast media and read op-ed pieces about the recent stabbings and shootings, I struggle to accept the truth: there but for some sort of grace goes my family. We could have been chasing after my mother on a paranoid spree of violence. We could any day be the victims of someone else’s unstable loved one. So could you. How do we face such a threat? How do we diffuse the ill, who are so often victims themselves? One of the largest struggles my family faced was one of accountability, as do our legislatures and fellow citizens, wrestling and debating gun control and policies and funding addressing mental health, or mental illness.
I suggest a starting point: don’t point fingers. Not at each other or organized health care or legislative bodies, and especially not at the displaced, disenfranchised, dysfunctional souls that populate our planet. And there will be no whispers behind shielding fingers. Be vocal about your discomfort if discomfort is what you feel. Mental illness takes hostage both victim and observer. And take action. Read about mental illness. If you are a researcher or medical specialist or a survivor—write about mental illness so we can hear your story, gain from your knowledge. Talk about mental illness—to your spouse, your parents, your kids. Much can be said for the hereditary factors involving mental illness. Know your family history. Maybe eccentric Aunt Flavia was bipolar. Maybe Grandpa drank to quiet the voices in his head.
And for heaven’s sake, be kind. In all my experiences with my mother and the many other victims of mental illness I have encountered–on the street, in doctor’s offices, in mental wards–small acts of kindness speak a universal language of comfort. Our family prayer is “Be ye kind, one to another. Amen.” And no, we did not get this from Ellen DeGeneres, but I applaud that she speaks a similar phrase at the end of her daily talk show, omitting the Amen, of course. Whether you pray or just send good “intentions” out into the world, please engage yourself in an effort to understand and treat mental illness. Our collective mental health depends on it.