My mother doesn’t know that I can hear her muttering downstairs when I’m upstairs in my bedroom. Lying awake at the quietest hours of the night, I hear my mother protest invisible offenders. Her torturers.
“Stop it,” she angrily whispers. “Stop it right now! Jerks! You’re evil… jerks!”
5-4-3-2-1. I remind myself to breathe and not get too caught up in the muttering I overhear. Though I do wonder how loud she’s actually whispering since I can hear her so well from up here.
There’s this side of mental illness no one really likes to talk about. How our hands are often tied with our loved ones who refuse to get help. Especially when it’s our parents.
In fact, “healing,” when it comes to mental health, requires a willingness to help oneself.
And my mother doesn’t want to help herself. That’s been her MO in one way or another for my entire life.
My days are spent writing and caring for my nearly 5-year-old. It’s a little bit awkward lately because my mother has been living in our living room since the end of November.
Close quarters doesn’t really begin to describe it. It’s more than that.
My mother spends her days sitting in a folding chair, staring at her tablet, and playing some random tablet game. My mother calls me lucky for being a single mom supporting herself. For building a better life. But I don't waste my hours playing games. She insists these games help sharpen her brain, but whenever she wanders through YouTube, I have to remind her not to believe every video she sees.
Just like I have to fact check the articles she tells me she’s read and clearly taken for news.
The other night, my mother wanted me to watch a video on Youtube depicting a woman flipping out in a bookstore. My mom thought it was a real event caught on camera.
I struggled with the best way to tell her that it was fake. Great entertainment, but nothing real.
“How did somebody know to film her?” I asked. “If it wasn’t a setup, they wouldn’t have known this customer was going to turn out to be volatile.”
“That’s what people do today,” my mother spoke as if she had insider information.
“They tape strangers. Society is terrible today.”
I couldn’t help but sigh before changing my approach. “Well, the thing is… this is posted by a channel named Underground Theater. And the writer she’s talking about is a Stephen King character. Not a real writer. This is a skit.”
I pause. It’s awkward because I don’t want to embarrass my mother. I don’t want her to get upset with me and complain that she can’t talk to me about anything.
Thankfully, she doesn’t get upset this time. Instead, she claims that the more she watched the video, the more she thought it was fake.
I have spent so much of my life afraid to disappoint or upset my mother. Too much. Most of my days have been tamped down to avoid having her call me rebellious. Up until recently, I still lied about my life to appease her.
It’s hard to explain to people who have felt very little guilt over living their own lives against a parent's wishes. But my guilt has been thick and palpable since childhood.
I grew up believing that any of my individual beliefs and dreams which didn't line up with a certain brand of Christianity made me evil. That there was something inherently bad within me, and would one day reveal me to be everything my mother claimed I was. Like possessed by demons and “against” god himself.
Now that I’m a parent to my own child, I can’t help but think my life would have turned out so much differently if I’d simply known my mother suffers from mental illness.
Prior to motherhood, I never knew I had the right to decide much of anything for myself. I believed that my wants came last--after god’s, after the church’s, and after my mom’s.
At 36-years-old, this is the first year I’ve allowed myself to stand up for myself around my mom. To contradict any of her firmly held beliefs. And it’s pretty damn awkward if you ask me.
One of the hardest things to explain to other people is the way a strict and overbearing parent can fuck up your life with a hefty dose of evangelicalism. A lot of people think it’s as easy as saying no, and simply doing your own thing anyway. But that isn’t how it usually works.
Children with my background first grow up to adore their parents, and then fear them. Ultimately we grow up fearing hell, god, and even ourselves.
People will ask me about my past and why I dated terrible men, or why I didn’t leave my evangelical ways behind a long time ago. Like much earlier. Often, they question me in accusatory ways, falling just short of calling me a sheeple.
They don’t understand that it wasn't my fault that I got indoctrinated into such terrible shit. Like so many of my exvangelical peers, I was a good kid who wanted to change the world.
What could be so terrible about that?
We all know that expression, you don’t know what you don’t know. But never are those words truer than when you are a child trusting the adults in charge of your life.
I naturally trusted that my mother wanted the best for me. At some point, I even recognized that she was too strict and something was not quite right. Yet even then, I thought she was overzealous at best.
It wasn’t until adulthood that I realized my mother is mentally ill, and that she’s been that way my entire life. Had I any understanding of that fact, I believe it would have changed my life.
These days, I’m playing catch up. There's no use getting stuck in what might have been. Now that I know better, I'm trying to take back the life I never really believed was mine in the first place. Trying to undo a swarm of unhealthy habits and thought processes.
For the most part, children believe what their parents (and other adults) teach them. When children develop unhealthy beliefs as a result, we don’t call them stupid kids. Instead, we look at what was wrong with the adults in those young lives. Even if a child “disobeys” or is “rebellious,” they tend to take whatever has been said about them to heart.
My family was pretty much filled with mentally ill adults who refused to get help, and unsurprisingly, the children suffered. Minus the incest, our family has been enmeshed in some pretty deep, Flowers In the Attic shit.
Our grandma was always convinced that mom was trying to poison her. Our aunt left her husband and twin sons not long after their birth, and their family told the boys she was dead. Both my mom and grandma pretended to be dying or chronically ill through the years.
We had an uncle who was widely known for being a habitual liar, though to be honest, that was a common theme among most of our adult family members. These people were often like grown varieties of The Boy Who Cried Wolf--you never knew when to believe that they were really sick, or that some amazing thing had actually happened to them.
My sister and I were surrounded by adults who rarely took charge of their own lives. Most family on our mom’s side lived on disability and became hermits who rarely ventured outside.
Even as kids, there were weeks where we hardly saw the outside world. But overshadowing our lack of sun was the coaching to never let other people know what we really were--welfare trash. And supposedly kids from a line of sexual abuse.
Even today at 36, I don't know how to unpack the weirdness of my childhood to help anyone else understand. I mean, it took me decades to begin to grasp how crazy it all was.
Now that I’m a parent, I try to consider all of the shit which crowded out my own happiness as a kid. I don’t want to pass on any garbage as normalcy, though I’m far from perfect myself.
How many kids grow up with mentally ill and abusive parents without ever knowing what's really going on? For the vast majority of impacted kids, nobody sits you down to say your normal isn't okay. That the abuse isn't your fault. And that you don't have to live in the shadow of your parent's poor mental health.
I worry about my daughter and all of the ways I never want her to pay for my personal struggles with my mental health. I think about how much I want to protect her from my painful and unnecessary experiences.
Luckily, I think these difficult lessons have made me a better parent. Not perfect, but honest. Not infallible, but real. I think my daughter will have an easier time growing up simply because she'll know that she can come to me without fear.
My mother doesn't talk much to me about conspiracy theories now. I already told her that was the main condition for her to stay temporarily with me and my daughter. I understand that her mental illness tells her that her health conditions are all related to one form of government torture or another.
When my mother mutters and cries in the middle of the night, she is acting out due to mental illness. She prefers to believe that the government is using radiation to cause her pain. It's easier to believe wild conspiracy theories than it is for her to take medication and see how she feels.
As an adult child, I find myself torn between frustration and awkward love. How can I tell her that she is loved despite our disagreements? I've spent my whole life afraid of disappointing my mom. I don't know how to explain to her that my boundaries are neither rejection nor evil, but just me trying to survive better.
I don't think the guilt will ever go away, not really. And I don't know how to foster a deeper bond with this person who's one part stranger, one part caregiver, and three parts bat shit crazy.
All I know is that nobody tells you how to manage your life and love your parent when you're the child of severe mental illness. And I wish somebody had told me not to trust my mother when I was young.