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

woman with multiple faces

Here’s how we found an unexpected peace.

On Mother’s Day in 2010, you were sitting upright in the soft blue chair 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, you looked like a tiny momma bird waiting for your chicks to hatch. Your now-silver hair, carefully washed and styled each week by the stylist at the center’s salon, glinted 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’ve arrived!” 

Over eight years at the long-term care center, 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 a while to take in the new Mother, the one without angry outbursts and paranoid statements. 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.” 

I was six when you were first admitted to the hospital. 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. We moved to a different neighborhood in hopes you’d feel better, but that was a failure. You began physically assaulting us kids, and isolating yourself in your bedroom for hours at a time. You struggled to fulfill the typical 1950’s mother role, so we all took turns with the household tasks: cooking dinner, wiping the countertops, doing endless loads of laundry. We tried desperately to avoid you during the “bad spells” when your face turned dark and distant. I never knew which “mother” you would be at any moment. 

Sometimes you were soft and smiling, generous. Gently brushing my wayward hair, carefully tying plaid ribbons around my pigtails. I always hoped these good moments would last, but a sickening pang in my stomach would remind me not to get used to them, not to relax. When you were angry, I’d hide under my bed or in the closet behind the layers of the lovely clothing you’d sewn for me: A red felt skirt with a little brown pony on the front, complete with a 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 in plastic covering, sweet evidence of your tender side.

What might’ve been most painful was that no one outside the family talked about what you’d become, didn’t ask how we kids were doing. Our pastor must have known something was wrong, but never said a word. Mental illness was so taboo back then, and resources to help families were scarce. So we stumbled along. 

As time went on, you finalized a divorce from Dad and your life went downhill quickly. You ended up homeless for many years. Though we found apartments and paid your rent, your fears about neighbors stalking you, spying on you, and stealing from you were too persistent. There were years when you were plagued by intrusive thoughts about famous men proposing marriage through the television screen. Years when you visited the public library or your favorite little cafe during the day and waited in line for a bed every afternoon at the shelter. Somehow you felt safe there, where staff treated you with care and respect. 

As your health deteriorated, the shelter staff helped us secure you a spot at a well-respected long-term-care center. You arrived there in your eighth decade of life, your self-respect pretty much intact despite all the years of rootlessness and delusions. The dedicated nurse practitioner prescribed a medication that turned out to be life-changing for all of us. She worked with the dosage until you found the “sweet spot,” where you found yourself calmer, less distracted, more present. The medication along with the unconditional compassionate care you received from the staff turned out to be life-changing for all of us. Your formerly foreboding eyes were lit up again. 

Over the years, I had grown to “accept” what was, not allowing myself the luxury of hoping that someday our relationship could be different. Then slowly I began to realize that you had truly changed. You had somehow re-awakened a part of your mind that enabled you to relate differently to those around you — especially us, your children. 

On Mother’s Day in 2010, we’d planned 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, your eyes widened with delight as 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 it 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.

Soon, you were getting a bit cranky and we were all running low on patience. You insisted on saving the extra rolls and leftover fish in napkins — an old habit from your homeless days. Embarrassing to me long ago, but now not so much. We wrapped all the food just so, in multiple layers of napkins. 

In your room on the 3rd floor, we tucked you into bed. You were asleep before we finished pulling the comforter up. Eighteen months later, your heart, the one that had carried you through nearly 95 years of life, stopped beating forever. I’ll treasure the image of you settled in your chair by the window, looking out onto a bustling city side street: people hurrying off to work, children’s lively voices as they bantered on the way home from school. The ordinary life you’d deserved 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.