I experienced the impact of mental illness before I ever knew what it was. In the early 1960’s, as a young child, I remember that my mother would periodically act differently. Then there were times when she would be gone for a few days, or maybe a week, and I didn’t understand why. My father would explain that she was in the hospital because she wasn’t feeling well. I would later come to understand that she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and manic depression. Looking back, I guess at that point what I was experiencing with my mother had a name, but it was never referred to as mental illness.
As I started middle school, her visits to the “hospital” became regular. Especially around the holidays either Thanksgiving or Christmas time it seemed. Amid the chaos of dealing with mental illness during those years – my two brothers and I grew up in a loving, happy home with two nurturing and wonderful parents. Surely this is a sign of just how strong my mother was given what she was going through. Our family was involved with other families in the neighborhood, and we participated in sports, many social circles, attended church on Sundays and went to Bible School in the summers. My mother was beautiful, highly intelligent, athletic, and talented. She was an overachiever, working full-time, never missing anything her children (and later, grandchildren) were involved in. She was fun, had a wicked sense of humor and was a joy to be around. If one hadn’t witnessed one of her “episodes” one would label her a wonder woman. One of my fondest memories is when we would sing together, harmonizing to “You Are My Sunshine” while baking her famous chocolate chip cookies. My memories of her are all very fond. I miss her dearly, having lost her over 20 years ago.
By the time I entered high school, my mother’s mental illness had taken its toll on our family, especially the relationship between my parents. As much as my father tried to understand, have patience and tolerance…it just was too much for him. He traveled a lot for work, leaving most of the parenting to my mother. Despite her challenges, she continued to balance working full-time as she had done since I was a baby, while caring for her family. When I think about where we are today with our mental illness awareness compared to how it was back then – I am amazed that she kept her employment throughout her journey and manic episodes. At the end of my freshman year in high school, my parents divorced. While it was highly unusual at the time, my father was awarded full custody of my brothers and I, as my mother was considered unstable. In short order – my father was transferred to Northern Michigan for his job, and we moved away from our hometown of Saginaw, where we had lived our entire lives, leaving my mother behind to fend for herself.
The move and leaving her was traumatic. My father’s travel for work continued in our new city and often I was left to tend to my brother who was 13 months older, and my younger sibling, five years my junior. I felt like I was forced into motherhood at the age of 14. By the end of my junior year of high school I just wanted to be able to be a high school kid and enjoy all the things that went with that – dances, sleep overs, after-school activities, etc. So, I told my father I was going to move back to Saginaw to be with my mother. I knew that my younger brother would follow – as he became dependent on me and he did come back with me. For me – it was a choice between two situations that would offer the least stress and allow me to just be a teen. Extended family in Saginaw offered some support, so it made sense to me to be near family. Decision made. From that moment on, I committed to looking after my mother and caring for her, especially when she needed it most. And I did so until I lost her in 2002.
During those years – I witnessed just how misunderstood mental illness was and learned to accept and not be embarrassed by things she would do, due to her diagnosis. At time, she did some pretty crazy things. Many times, in public, to the amazement and disbelief of others. As I sit here today, I look back on some of those episodes and chuckle. They didn’t seem funny at the time, but in hindsight – they are a reminder of just how special she was. I truly wish she had been born a few decades later than she was – because today – she would be living in a world where I know she would receive better care, more compassion and would have lived a more normal life, free of many of the challenges she faced. Being diagnosed in the 1960s – I think she was used as an experiment for psychiatric medications, procedures, and myths back then, whereas today, we have a much better understanding. I am grateful for this progress. Decades ago, she was a living example for the approach to mental illness at a time when people were institutionalized and considered crazy. She wasn’t crazy. She was beautiful. Wonderful. Loving. But – yes – she did some unusual things without really understanding why or that she was even doing them. I know this now.
Later in life, I remember visiting her on “2 Main” which was the local psychiatric ward at Saginaw General Hospital. I would spend the afternoons with her on occasion. I saw other patients and witnessed their behavior during my visits, which made me realize there were many others dealing with the same things we were. I had a conversation with a man who truly believed he was Jesus Christ. He pretended to be on the phone calling people telling them he would save them. It was surreal, sad, and prophetic all at once. Part of me laughed; part of me cried inside. Once, I went to a ceramics class with her and the other patients in her ward. She made a small ceramic cowboy boot that sits on my husband’s desk today. It serves as a fond reminder when I see it – that I had an amazing mother who faced the stigma of what today has become better understood, more accepted and something that garners support and compassion versus jeers and misunderstanding.
My mother’s struggles carried on in our family. Both of my brothers suffered from severe addiction problems and mental health issues. I have lost them both in the past two years. One at age 61, the other at 57. Somehow, I have been able to make different choices in life, choosing self-care over negative influences and moderation over addiction. I only wish there was more I could have done to help my brothers, but I was there for them just as I was for my mother.
It is strange to have lost my mother and siblings. My father and I have a healthy relationship and we recognize how fortunate we are to have each other. Upon the passing of my younger brother in 2022, who was almost like a child of my own, my father hugged me tight and tearfully said to me, “Don’t you go away from me too.” I promised I wouldn’t, although we all know we don’t know our future fate. I choose to live life the best I can each and every day and celebrate my blessings.
When I think about how my experience with all of this has affected me – I know it has made me strong, often too stoic, able to accept extraordinary experiences without fear (both positive and negative), forgiving and able to handle difficult situations. There isn’t much that can phase me or cause me to panic. I deal with fear well. I accept others as they are. I accept my own flaws, am confident with who I am, and I like myself. I laugh at myself. I think my awkwardness and silliness at times is a reflection of my mom. I am proud of myself. I have had an amazing life and I owe that to my mother. That isn’t to say I don’t deal with anxious moments. I have periods where I am sad, maybe even a little depressed or fearful. I am just comfortable dealing with it and accepting it. I don’t hesitate to seek help if needed.
Fortunately, we are living in a better world willing to recognize that mental illness is no different than any other illness. No one chooses to be mentally ill. And, who knows, if each of us had our brains dissected, there is probably a little bit of it in all of us. So please, be respectful. Acknowledge those who suffer from mental illness with compassion and kindness.
In the words of Stephen Covey, “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” My mother was my hero. She was the most important mentor in my life. I miss her immensely and am thankful for the influence she has had on my life.