The Sweetest Pain
There are times when people around me think I’m the strongest person they know; how my resilience has empowered them. Some even ask me for advice on various personal issues when the truth is – I’m still a work in progress, struggling with my own issues and half the time, is scared to death of myself. Don’t misunderstand me, I love life and the many blessings it brings but there’s a story behind these eyes that one would never be able to fathom and a fact that will never change no matter how hard I pray, meditate, exercise or help others:
My mother has schizophrenia.
2014 is the ninth year of this diagnosis and I’m just finding the peace within to accept and cope with it and the ability to see and love her for who she is – not her diagnosis. There are daughters with mothers who’ve battled physical ailments and impairments, drug abuse, alcoholism and unfortunately, some have perished. But what about the daughters (and only children) and/or eldest born who are present, assisting their mothers with their doctor’s appointments, psychotic episodes and daily issues? We, I, suffer along with her while maintaining to keep my personal and professional life together. This energetic, compassionate, educated woman I’ve grown to become lives with an intense, deep loss and fear of becoming …well… “Detached”.
Here’s my story.
It was 2005 and I was 22. The year before, I’d moved out of my mother’s house, eager to be independent and establish my womanhood. This was a great year – I was fearless, ready for responsibility. I was employed full-time and secured a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. You couldn’t tell me a damn thing! I was so proud of myself and thought she’d be proud of me too. Three months later, I hosted a housewarming, inviting everyone in the family but most importantly, I couldn’t wait for my mom to see what I’d done with the place. I bought expensive furniture and my cousin painted the living room walls. It was intimate but warm. I was very proud of it. I’d stayed up half the night cooking and preparing for my special day. At the time, I was dating a young lady and due to unforeseen circumstances on her part, she was kicked out of her place and came to live with me. Together, we were young, happy, in love and eager to show our families that we’ve “made it”. The day came and everyone showed up.
My mother called me from the train station to ask for walking directions. Once she arrived, my jaw, heart and stomach dropped. She went from 300 pounds to about 200 pounds in three months. When she walked in, the family greeted her with hesitant joy then came to ask me, “What’s up with your Mom?” Astonished myself, I had no answers.
I immediately asked her to join me in the bedroom to see what was going on. Her response was even more shocking:
Me: “Ma, what in the hell happened to you??”
Mom: “Girl, there’s nothing wrong with me. I’ve been fasting to receive my blessings from the lord. I thought you’d be glad I finally lost weight.”
Me: “Um. What?! Fasting for whom? When’s the last time you ate?”
Mom: “That’s between me and GOD.”
Pure shock overwhelmed me but still, I thought she was just going through a hard time given her father had just passed a few months ago and that I’d recently came out and moved into my own place. I wrote it off as grief and the “empty nest syndrome”. I urged her to see a counselor and take some time off work. She promised me she would and that’s the last we’ve spoken about it.
That day never sat well with me so a year later, I moved back to Brooklyn to be close to her. I hadn’t been there one month before getting a call from Port Authority Police at 1AM.
Officer: “Hi. Sorry to call so late but do you have a mother by the name of Gisele”? (not her real name)
Me: “Yes. Is something wrong? Where is she?”
Officer: “She’s been forcefully admitted to Cabrini Hospital Psychiatric Division. We found her on the roof of the Port Authority Bus Terminal stating she was going to see Jesus.”
Me: “Oh my God. I’ll be right there. Thank you for calling.”
I was completely numb. There were no tears just confusion because it didn’t make sense to me. I called my aunt, her oldest sister, to meet me at the hospital and told her I’d explain once she got there. When I arrived, I was asked to wait in the visiting area. The attending psychiatrist came and sat with me, explaining that she experienced a psychotic episode. He asked multiple questions regarding our family history to see if this was a pattern. I told him about the recent events that could’ve led her to be depressed but not psychotic. The memories I had of my mother were mostly good. There was nothing I could point out as “questionable”. Afterward, he escorted me to where she was being detained. I wasn’t allowed to touch her or even get close. I could only view her from the room she was being held in; she was put in a hospital gown and was laying on her face in the middle of the room. She began rolling back and forth quoting scriptures and yelling the name of Jesus. This still didn’t make sense. She was only 39.
Even then, I didn’t cry. I’m still confused.
She was there for about two weeks. Meanwhile, I was thrown into instant caretaking responsibilities; verifying her insurance and took a trip to her house. The dishes hadn’t been washed in weeks, the food in the fridge was rotten, her mail had been unopened and she was months behind in rent. I couldn’t believe what I saw. It took me two days to fully clean the apartment. I bought her new clothes, undergarments, footwear and food. When she came home, I washed her hair and clipped her nails. All of this took place while I was still working full-time and trying to salvage the little bit of sanity I still had left. Given she was religious, she was against my sexuality/lifestyle and often made it her business to make my partner feel uncomfortable. A short while later, my partner could no longer cope with what was going on and began to argue frequently. I ended the relationship, gave up my apartment and moved back in with my mom. At this point, what else did I have to lose? The plan was to stay six months, get her back on her feet and find her a good counselor. Six months turned into three years and she was hospitalized five more times.
Still…I hadn’t yet cried.
I suppressed my pain with alcohol. Jack Daniels and Jose Cuervo were my best friends. I was 23, single and still confused. There were good and bad days but every night, I’d lock my bedroom door – afraid she may hear the wrong voice and do more harm than good. We lived on the 30th floor with a patio. I would wake up in the middle of the night, every night to make sure she was still in the bed and not splattered 30 stories below. Drinking, partying and writing is what kept me sane but I started developing negative emotions: disconnection, numbness, shame, fear, resentment, anger, agitation, depression… you name it.
In my mind, I’d lost my mother. My father was around but was never there for me emotionally because of his drug addiction. I was angry and resentful that I was taking care of her instead of living my life, angry that I had to watch her every second of the day to make sure she didn’t harm herself, shameful that she was no longer “normal”, numb to the emotions I couldn’t seem to express and disconnected from the love I once had for her. For a short time, I hated her and wished it was over; wishing she’d die so the suffering would end – for the both of us. This went on until 2009.
Then I met Amy.
I didn’t allow myself to get involved with anyone because this was just too much to deal with. I saw myself, and the package I’d come with as a burden so I told her about everything upfront in hopes she’d leave me alone. I told her everything face to face and to my surprise, it didn’t faze her. Not one bit. Her response was:
“It’s not about what happens in life, it’s how you handle it. Don’t hate this experience, it’s designed to make you a stronger woman and is very much a part of the journey. Your mother’s experience has nothing to do with me loving you. You’re amazing and I want to be with you. I’m here to hold you after you’re done being superwoman.”
Talk about a wake-up call! It was through her love and faith in me, I was able to grab the bull by the horns and take control over my life. It was then I was able to cry, breakdown, be afraid, be anxious and lose myself for a minute. It was scary but necessary and she was there through all of it. The universe provides what you need, when you need it but it’s up to us to recognize when help is being offered while being fearless of the unknown.
I went back to school to continue my education and two years later, we moved in together. In the years I refused to face my feelings, things finally started to unravel. I developed chronic anxiety and mild depression. I was afraid to be happy and began feeling guilty for leaving; then I started becoming fearful of developing Schizophrenia. That’s when I made the decision to commit to therapy. One doctor diagnosed me with GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) while another stated it was Panic Disorder. The last therapist I saw, Dr. Z, stated I was just fearful and needed to dissect the situation for what it really was: chronic anxiety caused by fear. I needed to disassociate my mother from her illness then work on differentiating my journey from hers. Next, I conducted my own research of the illness and statistical findings on adult children of parents with mental illness. Lastly, I learned to reach out to others in similar situations, make peace and accept my mother for where she is in life and forge a new relationship with her – not the illness. Fortunately, I was able to recover without the use of medication – but this isn’t the case for everyone. I was committed to my recovery and refused to feel ashamed about asking for help – for it’s the bravest thing anyone can do. I was in therapy for two years but make no mistake, if I ever felt the need to go back, I would.
This journey hasn’t been easy but along the way, I completed my undergrad education in Forensic Psychology, got married to the love of my life and began facing my fears. I anticipate continuing my education in Social Work but right now, I’m focusing on activism, volunteerism, writing and advancing my career in Healthcare – which I’ve been in for the past eight years.
My mother and I now have a better relationship. She was present for my graduation and wedding and has been very attentive now that we have her on the right medication. She has a new apartment, takes better care of herself and we talk every day. There was a health scare last year when she developed non-infectious Hepatitis but she made a full recovery. We’re able to sit and talk for hours about that experience while remaining optimistic and positively steadfast about the future. She is now an ordained evangelist and plans on going back to school to study Psychology. We still certain issues as mothers and daughters tend to have. Our family has been more supportive during her transition to new medication and she was even able to travel to California alone to visit her sister. Each day is a miracle and I couldn’t be more grateful.
She is my sweetest pain. My baby. It’s because of this experience I’ve learned to be a better woman by facing the darkness, walking through with only my intuition. The emotional disconnect caused a loss of my sense of self. Maybe I never had it until now but I know I’ll never be the same. I’m forever changed in a good way; through the breakdown and confusion birthed understanding and courage.
Currently, my passion/mission is to help those struggling with darkness find their light, advocate for those mentally and/or physically incapacitated, teach others to be their authentic selves and overcome adversity and shame by modeling resilience through my personal experiences.
I still have certain fears that I’m working through and its okay. The courage lies in moving forward despite the fear and it is through this experience I’ve learned to:
- have compassion for those struggling with any type of mental/physical disability (this can happen to anyone, anywhere or anytime regardless of predisposition)
- take charge of my own wellbeing – physically, spiritually, sexually and psychologically
- volunteer for the greater good of humanity regardless of disability, race, class or ethnicity
- get back to my bliss – writing/blogging/traveling/exploring
If you have, know or love someone with a mental illness, I applaud you for being present. Many people are abandoned, discriminated against and ostracized because of their disability.
As an adult, only child to a parent with a mental illnesses, the fears never really go away but it’s important to know three basics things:
- It’s not our fault
- We cannot cure our parents. It’s not our job to “fix” them but to only love them and be present to assist them through their journey
- Take care of yourself by any means necessary.
It is through survival that we learn about ourselves and are able to make better decisions therefore, I look forward to your comments and hearing your personal survival stories. You are all inspiring regardless of your story or circumstances. Your story needs to be heard and I’m here for it.
Love & Light,