My mom: Velma Maxwell @ 80 yrs.
When I was a teenager I blamed my mother for lots of things: my big ears, my horsey smile, my love of vintage polyester to name a few. But my mental illness wasn’t one of them. This did not, however, exempt my mom from feeling the mother of all feelings: guilt.
In 1992, I had my first psychotic episode. Over the next several years, I had further episodes each landing me in the psych ward, alternating with suicidal depressions and manic highs. The eventual verdict: rapid-cycling, mixed state, bipolar disorder with mild temporal lobe epilepsy and generalized anxiety disorder with psychotic features.
But even after the fourth and final psychosis (where police found me gleefully running naked in Point Grey), I refused to accept the label of a mental illness.
My parents were very familiar with the ups and downs of bipolar disorder. In 1975, after years of yo-yoing emotions and chronic anxiety my mother was diagnosed with what was then called manic depression.
When I landed in the hospital, things started to make sense -to them. The confusing puzzle pieces of my moody adolescence and university years fell into place. For me though, I thought my flights into ‘uber’ excitement and spirals into despair were none other than true dramatic ‘charm’ and talent. I was an actress at the time.
Take medication? For a mental illness? Hell, this was my gift. Agree to any label of pathology and my artistic ability would vanish. Or so I thought. What I didn’t understand was if I didn’t accept the diagnosis and suggested treatment, my career and life would quickly crash and burn. And it did, with techno-colored detail.
“I felt tremendously guilty,” my mother says, when asked how she felt when I was first diagnosed. “Mental illness is partly genetic.”
Psychiatric illness runs on both sides of the family. It never occurred to me to blame my parents for my affliction. I was angry with them for other reasons. The helping hand they offered, the phone calls and visits they paid me, I saw only as parental intrusiveness. Their suggestion that I take medication, I saw as a judgmental criticism.
My parents were as I was growing up overprotective, but after my hospitalizations when I was living in a rooming house with a hot plate, on welfare, and devastatingly depressed, you can’t say their concern was unwarranted.
“I felt so helpless. I didn’t want to leave you alone. Nothing we did seemed to help,” my mother tells me, “and you were an adult, so we couldn’t force you to do anything.”
My family, like most, was far from perfect. But my parents gave me what was essential to my mental health: compassion, and understanding (something not everyone with mental illness receives from their family).
My mother’s genes may have contributed to why I have the illness, but her experience with it is also one of the reasons why I am well.
When I am in a depressive episode, my mom intimately and immediately knows what I mean when I tell her ‘not only did I not want to get up this morning, but could not.’ My mother nods and says two of the most curative words there are: ‘I understand’. And she does.
“My own illness helped me accept your diagnosis more easily and understand what you face.” my mom explains.
Do not underestimate patience, empathy and validation as part of the treatment plan. Phrases like: ‘it makes sense you don’t want to talk to anyone when you feel this hopeless’ or ‘I know, it can be hard to take even a shower’ express implicit acceptance and have immeasurable therapeutic power.
My mother went through many depressions and manias. My father and I went through it with her. Psychosis? That we never went through. Until me.
‘It was so scary. I was afraid we’d lost you forever. You were rambling, making no sense at all. I didn’t know what to do.’ Still she and my father had only love for me. Okay, and the occasional swear word and loud voice when I pushed them too far.
When my mom was admitted to the hospital for severe depression, I was eight years old. My dad explained she was very tired and needed a rest to get well.
Over the several years my mother and father worked to find the right treatment and medication. She continued to have big ups and downs, but she only went into the hospital one more time. I admire her and my dad for accepting her diagnosis so readily. Denial of my mom’s disorder would have been far more damaging to me.
“For us to have a better life, I had to accept my (mental) illness. I never told anyone except the immediate family.” My mother sighs, “When I think back to what I put you through, it must have been awful.” My mom smiles a rueful smile, then with a laugh, “but you got us back good, didn’t you?”
“Yup,” I pipe back, “But pretty nice of me not to have my naked psychotic ‘phase’ when I lived with you and Dad thought, huh?”
”Yes, very.” We both shake our heads and laugh.
My mom’s signature humor is also hereditary.
© Victoria Maxwell 2012