I became aware of her psychotic episodes when I was about nine years old. My mother would come in my room in the middle of the night and sit on my bed, sometimes calm and trancelike, sometimes yelling, and she’d tell me about the evil things I’d done that day — delusions that dirtied my mind and broke my heart. We’d always been close so I knew something had gone wrong with her, still I trusted and followed her lead. When she told me I was a bad girl with bad intentions, I believed her and began to see myself that way. When she accused me of trying to seduce my father, shame became a vine, creeping up my legs, wrapping around my stomach, chest, and throat, stealing my voice. I got used to walking on eggshells and being at fault and not understanding why. Anxiety took root and grew from these seeds as I struggled to determine what was real and what was not.
Growing up in a Black middle-class family in the eighties, if there was any discussion about mental illness around me, it was whispered. It was shushed when children came in the room. Physical ailments were discussed openly, with candor and even humor. My grandmother used to warn me that if I continued to put heaping spoonfuls of sugar in my cereal that I would end up with diabetes, unable to have any sweets at all. She told me that my kidneys would stop working and I’d need painful treatments from a doctor to do the job God made my kidneys to do. My dad took medicine to manage his high blood pressure, so I paid attention to what he ate. He wasn’t supposed to eat salty, greasy food. I knew this because the adults would sit around and swap stories about their symptoms, medications and side effects, admitting to pain in their bodies but never in their minds.
Mental health issues were hidden. They were sent to church and kept behind closed doors. No one sat around the card table chatting about their anxiety attacks, hallucinations or suicidal thoughts. In the African-American community, the worst thing you could do was make yourself look unstable. What I learned, watching and listening to my family, is that our people didn’t have the luxury of being of unsound mind. We had to stay sharp, suppress our emotions, survive. What my parents didn’t teach me, and what they were never taught, is that mental illness is not a weakness, a character flaw or a punishment from God. The stigma comes from misinformation and fear; for when we don’t understand a thing, we create suspicions and assumptions around it. And when we can’t control a thing, we lie and we cover it up; so we can appear strong, even if we are suffering. As a result of this pressure to look unbreakable, mental illness is a hidden chaos in many of our homes.
My family didn’t get involved and no one ensured that my mother received medical attention. Maybe the adults in the family talked to her about her erratic behavior, but I know she would have pushed back. She would have refused the idea of something being wrong with her. She would have accused them of conspiring with the government to persecute her. What we believed to be a disorder, my mother considered a deliverance. A state of mind that made her feel protected, gifted with an ability to sense danger that others couldn’t. With this perspective, she was not interested in treatment or medication. My fear, my haunting regret, is that we didn’t try hard enough. We sat in our denial and we watched her and when we couldn’t watch anymore, we looked the other way.
As an adult, I mourned the relationship I didn’t get to have with her. In my mind, if I were a better woman, a worthy daughter, I would have persisted and I would not have given up until I got her the care she needed. I would have held her hand even when she tried to pull away. Instead, I searched myself and found boundaries where I thought I’d find loyalty. I wanted my mother in my life — not the psychosis, the paranoia, the denial, the mystery. She wanted me to cooperate — entertain her delusions, plead guilty to her accusations, ignore my own common sense — because that is how I’d responded to her as a little girl. I couldn’t give her that surrender anymore. I sought refuge from the panic and nervous energy I felt in her presence. I feared that I would lose myself if I did not let her go.
The children of mentally ill parents have unique emotional hardships and face an increased risk of developing mental health disorders. When the parent’s illness creates disturbance in the home, but is not openly acknowledged and explained, the impact is even more troubling. Many of us grew up in a prolonged state of distress that triggered our own instabilities. I haven’t spoken to my mother in almost 10 years. These days, I question my sanity and it questions me back. I can’t shake the feeling that I am on the outside looking in. Even when surrounded by living, breathing love in the form of people who support me unconditionally; I am acutely aware of how temporary we are, how the brightness fades, and I drift away from the present moment, imagining loss. I’m afraid of slipping into madness, but still tempted by it and drawn inward, where I don’t have to make sense to anyone but myself. Just like her, I struggle with my mental health, but I rarely seek help.
Afraid of repeating her descent, I recently admitted to my partner of fifteen years that I’ve been saying I’m fine when I’m not. That hopeless thoughts and irrational fears have been wearing me down and distorting the beautiful life we have together. I told him about the depression I hide from him and our children, the hard place I fall into when anxiety and dread build up and push me over the edge, leaving me hollow for hours, days, weeks. Even after watching my mother refuse support and seeing how this isolated her, I still didn’t trust anyone with this part of me. I still pretended for my family and friends. Trained to keep secrets, I thought I could handle it on my own. I wonder if this is what she thought — that she had it, whatever it was, under control.
This essay first appeared in the April 2018 issue of Permission to Write, a quarterly publication that discusses craft, career, and creativity for writers. From submissions of essays, fiction, and short stories to interviews and instructional material, each issue is robust and set to cultivate and amplify the voices of writers of color. Digital and print copies can be purchased here.