My Mother’s Mental Illness Shaped My Childhood, Then Aging Changed Everything

woman fractured in pieces illustration

Here’s how we found an unexpected peace.

I learned early in life that calling attention to myself was not safe. Staying small and off Mother’s radar was how I survived. But over the decades, this story kept insisting on being told. First as part of my own healing process, and then as a way to reach others who’ve experienced something similar. The most brutal part of mental illness is the isolation that comes with it — the way a family’s shame can shape the way they see themselves. How they feel they must hide their pain from the world. My hope is that by reading my family’s story, you can feel less alone.

Mother’s Day 2010. You were sitting upright in the soft blue armchair by the window, your head held high — posture was always important to you. The sill was overflowing with pictures of your children and grandchildren: Six-year-old Skyler on her brand-new bike, Connor so grown-up in his eighth-grade school picture. Perched expectantly in your chair, with your pretty pale blue sweater and matching pants, you looked like a tiny momma bird waiting for your chicks to hatch. Your soft, now-silver hair, carefully washed and styled each week by Margie at the in-house salon, looked lovely in the morning light. As I arrived, popping my head into your line of vision, a huge smile lit up your face. “Oh, Elise, my dear Elise, you’re here!” 

This new version of you surprised me still. Tormented by delusions and frightening outbursts for most of my childhood, your unpredictable and frightening behavior kept me at arm’s length, or farther. Many days after school, I avoided your abuse by hurrying away from home to hide in the nearby woods until Dad’s car showed up  in our driveway. Only after Dad got home from work did it feel safe to go home. Some days, my two brothers and I found safety in the garage as we hunkered down together around the black and white TV to watch The Three Stooges. An afternoon escape, a time of laughter and camaraderie, as you rarely came out to that part of the house. I always felt safer with my brothers. 

I was six when you were first admitted to the hospital for “nerves.” Leading up to that was your paranoia about a neighbor: delusions about how she was trying to hurt you, your stony stares in her direction. I don’t remember anything about it other than you weren’t at home for a week or two. Soon after you returned home, we moved to a different neighborhood in hopes you’d feel better. But that didn’t work either. You escalated, began physically assaulting us kids, and isolating yourself in your bedroom for hours at a time. Another couple of babies came along and soon we were a family of seven. You struggled to fulfill the typical 1950’s housewife role, so we kids all took turns with cleaning house, cooking dinner, washing and hanging out endless loads of laundry. And we tried desperately to avoid you during the “bad spells” when your face turned dark and distant. 

We never knew which “Mother” you would be at any moment. Your moods changed so quickly, without warning. Sometimes you were soft and smiling, generous with your tenderness. Gently brushing my wayward hair, carefully tying plaid ribbons around my pigtails. I always wished these good moments would last, but a sickening stomach pang would remind me not to get used to them, not to relax. They never lasted long enough. 

When you were angry, I’d hide under my bed or in the closet behind the hangers of lovely clothing you’d sewn for me: a red felt skirt with a little brown pony on the front, complete with embroidered white mane and tiny black hooves, a multicolored Simplicity pattern dress with contrasting lemon-yellow rickrack around the sleeves and hem. Both still hang in my closet, lovingly protected over the decades, sweet evidence of your tender side.

What might’ve been hardest during childhood was that no one outside the family talked about what was going on, didn’t ask how we kids were doing. Granddad and Grandma knew that something wasn’t right, and offered us opportunities to get away from the house to stay with them, especially when it became clear you were  going “off the rails” again. But no one knew what to call your illness, or even that it was an illness. Dad told me later that the only option at the time would have been a state mental hospital, horrendous institutions where patients were chained to beds and medicated into stupefied states. He couldn’t bring himself to have you “committed” to that kind of existence. But it seemed like no one understood the impact of mental illness on a family. Discussion of these kinds of problems was taboo, and resources to help families scarce. So we all soldiered along, keeping everything inside the family.

I went off to college, free from the day-to-day chaos but still worrying about my siblings left at home. The year I finished college, you divorced Dad and moved into the small house you inherited from Granddad. We all hoped you would find some stability there but before long, you had lost the house to unscrupulous financial advisers and hangers-on who flattered you, then stole from you. Your life went downhill quickly, and you ended up without a home for many years. 

After you lost Granddad’s house, we kids found several apartments for you and paid your rent, hoping against hope that you would settle in. But your fears about neighbors stalking you, spying on you, and stealing from you were too persistent. You refused to stay at the apartments and gravitated to the shelter, where you felt safer. During this time you insisted that marriage was imminent. We all heard your frequent intrusive thoughts about famous men proposing through the television screen. Trying to reason with you only added to your agitation. I gave up and simply nodded and listened when you went on about your “suitors.” Your delusions included a well-known pastor as well as the mayor of the city and a famous  senator. You so desperately wanted a man in your life and what you saw as the respect of being a married woman. I went through a divorce myself and you were concerned about me being on my own. I embraced my new singlehood, but you worried about me being on my own, without a man. 

Meanwhile, the reality was that you stood in a long line at the shelter every afternoon, hoping for a place to sleep each night. And through it all, your youngest son, Paul, waited for your daily 3:30 pm call to let him know if you’d secured a bed for the night. The shelter staff watched over you and unbeknownst to us until later, always saved a bed for you. And you felt safe there, where staff treated you with care and respect. You lived at the shelter for at least a decade. Many less resilient and resourceful than you didn’t make it. They were evicted for drug and alcohol use, fighting with each other, assaulting staff. You became a kind of legend, living at the shelter into your 80’s. Never a drinker, smoker, or substance-user, you spent your days at the public library, your favorite little cafes, and the daily women’s lunch at a nearby historic church. You often played old show tunes on the piano at the lunchtime gathering. Your music became a favorite among the many homeless women there. 

You were amazingly healthy for a woman in her 80’s, but one particularly cold winter, pneumonia crept into your body. You were hospitalized, stabilized and then it was time to find a home that would offer more support for your health needs. The shelter staff helped us get you into The Manor, a warm and loving long term care center with strong community support and an affiliation with a highly regarded city hospital. You arrived there in your eighth decade of life, your inner sense of dignity still solid despite all the years of delusions and life on the streets.

Over eight years at the Manor, we saw your peacefulness and joy grow exponentially — as well as your ability to connect with us, your children. You were actually present, asking how each of us was doing, and then listening, really listening, even if briefly. It took me a while to take in this new Mother, the one without angry outbursts and paranoid statements. The new Mother who now worried about me not being protected from the cold on a wintry day (“Oh Elise, are you sure that coat is warm enough?”) A far cry from the Mother whose dark scowls had so many times brought a gut-wrenching feeling of disappointment, or a tightened breath of fear when I would realize you were agitated, angry or worse — lost in a delusional state. I became aware that something else had changed: I had begun calling you “Mom” instead of the more reserved, formal “Mother.”  

How did this transformation come about? We owe much to Mary Ann, the caring and dedicated nurse practitioner who developed a trusting connection with you. You confided in her about your constant unsettledness. She suggested a medication that might help, you agreed to try it, and she adjusted the dosage until you both found the “sweet spot,” where you felt calmer, less upset. But not drowsy or lethargic.  The medication along with the unconditional compassionate care you received from the staff turned out to be life-changing for all of us. Your agitation decreased, your delusions faded and life became easier for all of us. 

And so, on Mother’s Day in 2010, we siblings came together from our various stages of estrangement and decided to take you out to your favorite old lunch spot in the city. And though it was a bit of an ordeal getting you there, we persevered, knowing it might be our only chance to all be together with you. Your eyes widened with delight as we walked into the dining room and you took in the hum of activity. As always, you took your time carefully chewing each bit of food — baked scrod, your favorite, with soft Parker House rolls. How you savored their tender crust and buttery interior. You ordered tea with milk and a small sprinkle of sugar. Sipping  slowly, you surveyed the scene, nodding and smiling at each of us in turn. The warmth in your eyes as you expressed your gratitude meant the world to me. For once, I didn’t worry about what other diners might notice about you, your odd expressions, or the periodic groaning noises you made as you savored your food. None of that mattered anymore. That day I saw you through my eyes only. 

Then, the glow of our time together began to fade. In the thrill of all being together with you, we had let our lunch run a bit long.  Soon, you were getting a bit tired and irritable. A hint of that “other” you, as you presumed a harried waiter was rushing us out. It was time to leave, but of course you insisted on saving the extra rolls and leftover fish in napkins — an old habit from your homeless days. Wasting good food was unthinkable. It seemed to take forever to get them wrapped up just so, in multiple layers of napkins to meet your specifications. Embarrassing to me long ago, but now not so much. 

Not wanting to spoil the day, we all were quiet on the short ride back to the Manor. You smiled tiredly as we rode the elevator to the 3rd floor, walked slowly to your room and tucked you in for your nap. Your eyes closed, a contented smile appeared on your lips, and you were asleep before we finished pulling the comforter up. Mission accomplished, a Mother’s Day lunch for all of us to treasure.  

Eighteen months later, your heart, the one that had carried you through nearly 95 years of life, stopped beating forever. We honored you with a service at the chapel on the first floor, surrounded by our friends and your friends and staff members from the center. Many told us how they would miss you, your lively wit and the gift of your piano music. Some were teary as they told us sweet or funny stories of your time there. You were loved, and you knew it. A safe harbor in the unsettling storm of life, The Manor was, at last, a place to call home.

 Looking back to that Mother’s Day, I’ll forever treasure the image of you settled in your chair by the window, looking out onto a bustling city side street: people strolling by in the warm spring sunlight, children’s lively voices as they played hopscotch and jump rope on the timeworn city sidewalks. The sights and sounds of an ordinary life that had eluded you for so long. A sense of peace for you — for all of us.

Writer’s name has been changed to protect her privacy. If you or someone you know would like more information about mental illness, you are not alone. The National Alliance for Mental Illness offers both online and in-person support groups and education.