By Mariah Carroll Owens
Breaking down for the first time in front of my eyes. Food outside. Refrigerator unplugged. Lights off in the darkness — and throughout the day for that matter. Smells dirty. The drawers are open for no reason. Darkness. My mom lives there, this is her home and she is there, but it feels empty.
Days later she was admitted to the hospital. She was manic. Saying word after word after word after word but not making any sense. It was not her first breakdown but it was my first time watching her break down. At 27 years old, I saw my first glimpse into what life had been like for her for many years.
I most regret being angry. I didn't understand her illness — mental illness — so I just stayed angry. Why is my mom so weird? Why can't she just be normal?
And when I finally began to understand what was wrong with my mother — that she had paranoid schizophrenia — I was told to keep quiet about it. Don't tell people. I had no outlet, just anger.
In my own house, I'm always on the hunt for mental illness. I know it's not contagious but sometimes it is hereditary. My poor family.
A deep sigh from my teenage daughter — is that depression? I'm stressed out and can't get my thoughts together after a long day of work — is it schizophrenia?
An average marital dispute and I'm dragging my husband to the therapist to talk about it. I know I'm hypersensitive, but I can't help it. I know all too well the damage that can happen if we wait so I'm trying to catch mental illness before it catches us.
My greatest fear is to have a child with schizophrenia. I have three kids so my chances are greater, right? My grandmother went through too much raising my mother and I'm not strong enough for that kind of work. It's not a temp job; it's permanent, full-time employment.
From what I can tell, my grandmother suffered right alongside my mother until my grandmother died. Then my mom became mine, my responsibility. In 2007, I became a daughter "raising" her mother.
We are only five years into this thing and I'm doing my best. Managing her trust fund, speaking to independent living skills workers, taking her shopping, buying her lunch (I wish she'd take me to lunch once and a while), and checking in with the staff in her assisted living program.
The hardest lesson is I can't do this alone. We need help. I'm fiercely independent. But mental illness needs help. It takes people, medication, support, money, time, patience, laughter, prayer and love to keep my mom healthy.
I love her. I know I don't tell her that but I love her. She doesn't fully love me as a daughter, the way a mother is supposed to love her daughter, but that's okay. I call her Andie, short for Andrea, not mom. We are more like good friends in a sort of unbalanced, slightly unhealthy, friendship where I do the heaving lifting. And that's okay, because I love her.
Side effects suck. I've watched my mom get stable on meds, but watching her fall from the side effects is hard. She gained more then 100 pounds while on Risperadol, a powerful antipsychotic. It also causes her to shake. She can't even hold a full glass of water without spilling some of it. I wonder if all of the prescribed lithium she took in the 1980's caused any liver damage.
Mom sleeps. Sometimes she sleeps more than 15 hours a day.
I know doctors practice medicine but sometimes I feel like my mom is their guinea pig. Each time she is not "herself", the psychiatrist tweaks her medication cocktail, and we all sit back and hope for the best.
Going without medication is not an option. She tried that before and quickly stumbled into a manic state and then back into the hospital. The drugs that make her better also bring her pain.
Today I feel thankful. My mother is stable on a whole host of drugs, she lives in her own one-bedroom apartment on the top floor of an assisted living facility. Her program provides her with food. A nurse brings her pills to her room in the morning and in the early evening (although long before the sun sets because she is afraid of the dark).
Mom is happy with the little she has. Her laughter is contagious. When she hears something that tickles her she makes it known. Gut wrenching, sometimes at inappropriate times, laughter.
I've tried to teach my kids and husband not to expect much from Andie. If she says an inappropriate comment, we just act like she never said it. If she swears in front of the kids, we explain that it's not okay to talk like that around them. If she ruminates on an irrational fear, we help her see that there really isn't anything to be afraid of.
These are our coping skills.
She is kind of like one of my kids, just much older.
The shelter from the storm is my home. It is the place where I can control the environment. With mom, in my old life, I felt unstable at best. She didn't have control so neither did I. Impulsive, anxious, loud, quiet, short fused and emotional. As I grew, I didn't know I was growing to be like her.
What took years to build will take years to undo. Using therapy, I try to go through old situations with a new lens. Sometimes it works. But sometimes in the heat of the moment I snap back to the childhood me. I scream, cry, slam things and say things I'll regret.
But the past formed and shaped me. I'm still a work in progress, I'm moldable, and I'm getting better with time.