I was nineteen years old the first time my mother had a mental breakdown that rendered her unable to cope with the demands of caring for herself or my brothers. She took to her bed filled with paranoid anxieties, not even willing to run her air conditioner in the heat of July in Houston, Texas lest some intrigues find a way into her home. She drew her drapes and sat in the darkness imagining dire scenarios. Her fears became more and more frightening as I visited her each day hoping against all hope that she might experience a spontaneous recovery and become her old self once again. As her situation became more and more uncertain I understood that I would have to take charge of finding care for her, even though I still thought of myself as an insecure child.
My father had been dead for eleven years by then and the other adults in my life were as confounded by my mother’s sudden turn into depression and then mania as I was. Help was difficult to find. Not even the pastor of our church was willing to offer counsel as he admitted that he had a difficult time dealing with such situations. I felt abandoned in my hour of need and forced to rely on my own wits and the wisdom and kindness of strangers.
Our long time family physician advised me to find psychiatric care for my mother, an almost unheard of route in 1969. Mental illness was still a topic confined to whispers behind closed doors which was no doubt the reason why none of my elders felt comfortable discussing my mother’s sudden downward turn. I groped in the dark hoping that I would do the right thing for my mother. I found a doctor with a seemingly good reputation and crossed my fingers.
Few things went we’ll during that first battle to restore my mother’s mental health. The doctor was patronizing toward me, treating me like an ignorant child and revealing little about my mom’s prognosis as she appeared to be getting better with each passing day. I had to simply accept that our family was on the right path and that my mother would soon be her amazing self again. When I heard the words,”Your mother is cured.” I eagerly believed them and went about the business of living a routine life once again.
I kept the secret of my mother’s illness closed up in my heart. Few people who knew me, including members of my extended family, knew of her illness and I was more than happy to keep it that way. Mental illness was a conversation killer and something that felt somehow shameful as though it indicated a weakness in our family that must never be mentioned by any of us. I clung to the hope that my mama’s mind would never again be as diseased as it had been during that horrific time even as I saw signs that she was somehow different from the tower of strength who had guided me into my adult years.
Within a year or two it became apparent that my mother was descending into madness once again. By that time my own confidence had grown and I did a great deal of research before finding her a doctor who was more open and sympathetic to her needs. It was a blow to have to begin anew but things turned out well once again. In spite of the recurrence of her illness I continued to rather naively tell myself that she would somehow beat this monster that invaded her thoughts and behavior while I also continued to hide the reality of our family’s struggles from all of my friends and coworkers.
Such was the continuing routine year after after. My mother would cycle in and out of psychotic moments and I would get her the medical interventions that she required then we would both act as though nothing was essentially wrong. Relapse after relapse occurred until we both became quite good at seemingly hiding our secret. I pretended as much as my mother did that all was well until it wasn’t.
During a particularly devastating occurrence of yet another breakdown of my mother’s mind I found myself desperately needing to share the burden of caring for her. For the first time I spoke openly to colleagues at work and discussed the toll that being her caretaker had imposed on me. I felt utterly selfish for admitting that I was exhausted. I thought of myself as an utter failure and a fraud. It was only in my moment of honesty that I found the comfort that I had needed for so long. I also became better at helping my mother. By allowing the light of day to illuminate the problem everything became easier. I learned that I was not alone in my concerns and sorrows and that people were far more understanding than I had been willing to believe.
I found a great doctor for my mom who finally provided me with the frankness that I needed to hear. He had a diagnosis for her recurring bouts of depression and mania, bipolar disorder. He explained to both me and my mother that her illness was chronic but with regular care it need not be as debilitating as it had been. He forced us to face all of the demons that had haunted us and to accept that mental illness need not be hidden from view anymore than one might pretend that a heart attack was something about which to be ashamed. He provided us with an epiphany that free us from the self imposed prison that we had build around our worries.
From that point forward I became a vocal advocate for those with mental illness and their families. I felt compelled to speak about the journey that our family had travelled and to share the struggles that had threatened to break us. While there were still those who shied away from my openness most people embraced my honesty and supported my family as we continued to deal with my mother’s lifelong illness.
Mental illness is a disease just as surely as diabetes is. There are treatments for such conditions that help individuals to lead better lives. The more we discuss mental heath the more likely it will be that those afflicted with disorders will find hope and perhaps even a bonafide cure one day. I learned that we must have conversations about such things. It is the only way to erase the stigmas that make such illnesses somehow seem unmentionable. I no longer lie to myself or anyone else. My mother was a remarkable woman who also happened to have bipolar disorder. She was so much more than her illness.