Reliving deeply- ingrained childhood memories of Unworthiness, loneliness, and hopelessness. Print
Written by Jeanette   

"My first memory of her was of us drawing pictures together. I was 4 years old, not even in kindergarten, and I can clearly recall the feeling of distrust I had as she showed me how to draw a man in a hat. The feeling that I must be on guard, and that things are not safe."

An Only Child of a Schizophrenic Mother

Yesterday, I was reminded of the past. I live one state away from my parents, in a nicely-furnished apartment bordering on woodlands. I just successfully completed my first year of law school, and am in love with the subject. My life is rich: I have a small, but strong, group of wonderful friends, and have, for several years, dated a man who makes me believe in the word "soul-mate." Further, I am happy, overall: I revel in good books, and am inspired by nature, music, the good individuals I've met. Life is full of possibilities.

These things stand in stark contrast to what was. Yesterday, my parents visited and my mother was showing schizophrenic symptoms again. Getting her out of the hotel room was a chore for my father: she'd run back in and sit on the bed with melodramatic grunts. Once we got out, she had little interest in the historical sights or gardens we saw, and was full of eerie, insane observations. She soon started shadowing me, following around her only daughter without leaving the normal amount of space. And then she'd stare at me, unblinking, nonstop. My patience vanished, replaced by memories of life in their house. I'd snap at her, and she'd scurry away for a bit, looking back angrily and reproachfully, with no coherence in her gaze.

Familiar feelings of self-contempt welled up. I should be more patient; she's just ill and she cares about me in her own sick way. I suddenly felt heavy and tired, effectively reliving deeply-ingrained childhood memories of unworthiness, loneliness, and hopelessness. One such: I felt that since I didn't love my own mother, I wouldn't - and shouldn't - be able to be a part of the normal world or to have friends. Her illness was mine, and failing to keep control or to make things right meant I was tainted in the darkest way, spiritually and socially. Or another: there was a feeling of corrosion every time she came near. Like others who have posted, as a child I often thought of her as an It. Proximity was - and is - gruesome to me.

In all honesty, I don't love my mother. It was only in my middle twenties I could use the word "mother" at all: she was always "my father's wife" or a creature. My first memory of her was of us drawing pictures together. I was 4 years old, not even in kindergarten, and I can clearly recall the feeling of distrust I had as she showed me how to draw a man in a hat. The feeling that I must be on guard, and that things are not safe.

Until fourth grade, she'd have normal periods: my parents would have craft-group meetings and go square-dancing, and every once and a while, my mother would show me or my friends an interesting craft. I knew something was terribly wrong and that I was different, but there was an unspoken mandate of silence over the house. Though I did learn early on that she had schizophrenia, I knew I wasn't "allowed" to talk about it with anyone outside the family. I found solace in books and in science, declaring myself a rational Atheist at the age of seven.

By fourth grade, she had a very pronounced episode, tearing down my childhood works of art from the walls (I was a very good artist for my age) and trying to throw them away. After a joyful reprieve of having the house to just me and my father, she returned and was consistently ill afterwards. As her only daughter, she was of course obsessed by me and whatever I was doing. I was hounded often. Sometimes, she'd leave me alone and I could spend time thinking or reading, but other times, she'd drift over constantly, staring at me with her mad gaze and ordering me about, as her unhealthy whims dictated. I felt more and more trapped, and like there was no boundary between her and me: we were intertwined people, and I felt sickened and alone. Just getting out of the house was an effort. Everything was unpredictable, and I hated the constant fear, and the way I'd loose control and shout at her. Something told me that I must be calm always, and not show emotion. When I grew older, I realized that fear of the disease made me fear emotion... anything that was not based on pure reason was suspect, most of all within myself.

An analogy came to me as a child (and I've now seen it echoed on this website): having a schizophrenic parent is like a constant funeral, where you're never allowed to bury the body.

No help came from the outside world. My mother's psychiatrist was - and is - an arrogant, highly-religious man who hates to be questioned. He only spoke with me once one-on-one, when I was in sixth grade. Calling me into his office and shutting the door, he proceeded to berate me for not believing in God, saying that my lack of religion was making my mother worse. I started crying eventually, after trying to defend my own beliefs, and my father came in. The doctor didn't tell him why I was crying, and I couldn't form the words to explain it. My father was, above all, naive. He trusted the authorities unconditionally, and never tried to get another doctor. I think he was - and is - depressed himself. Another parent might have done more to defend and encourage their child, but I had little positive feedback, and was left to figure things out on my own. Still, I idolized him for a long time, for he was the only sane parent I had. The only other family members were a grandmother and uncle who lived in another state. Neither had much presence in my life, and I didn't feel any real connection with them.

My father stuck by her, and still does. He will probably be with her until one of them dies. Hopefully her, I'm no longer ashamed to wish, both to give him some rest and to make elder care easier for me.

I enjoyed school and did well in it, so I got through childhood only by clinging to the hope of university. My biggest fear in high school was that my father would die first, leaving me with my schizophrenic mother, and that I would not be able to go to college. Once I got out and started my B.A., I was paralyzed by the apprehension that my father would die and that the authorities would make me go back home and take care of my mother. It took me many years to realize that no one could, in actuality, make me go back. I was also terrified of getting the disease, and indeed - as a child - I often supposed I must be sick myself, to be where I was. These fears faded and then vanished with age: my mother had her first episode in early college, and was verifiably schizophrenic by her early twenties. Once I passed these markers, I felt like I was clear.

After a first, brief marriage to the wrong person, I saw a cognitive therapist for a while. Only someone else from the same background can imagine how difficult this was: my mental associations with therapists were all bad ones. However, I was lucky, and found a good person to work with. But in the end, most of my healing came from getting away from the situation and building my own life. In college, I'd come back and stay with my parents for the summer, a huge mistake in retrospect that served only to make me repeatedly miserable. Some part of me always thought that I had grown enough to "handle it" and that I had "failed" if I went back and still felt anything other than perfect love and calmness towards my mother. Now I realize that I can't build on something that wasn't there: while I've managed to have a few good chats with my mother when she's somewhat stable, it has more of the character of a distant, dutiful friendship then. But when she's in her episodes, I quickly feel, as I did growing up, that she's at best a contemptible younger sibling.

I've also found a good deal of healing in dreams and in Jungian philosophy. The mythic imagery in both have helped me better understand the past, and to integrate my emotions and cut-off parts of myself back into the whole. I feel healthy and happy, though - in retrospect - I was very depressed in high school and college (and indeed considered suicide quite a few times back then). The other key for me has been unabashed honesty, in direct opposition to that deep childhood fear that "my secret" - having a schizophrenic mother - would be exposed. Secrecy, I think, is a horrible burden and us children of the mentally ill must shake it off as quickly as possible. Society, I'm sure, would rather pretend that it didn't abandon us and that even families with mentally-ill parents are mostly full of Kodak moments: this is a lie and it needs to be fought. By sharing our stories, I think we each are taking a very positive step in that direction.

East Coast, USA