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Archive for the tag “mental illness”

We Are Honestly More Crazy Than Sane

On Facebook today, I was touched to say something like this.

If someone comes to you and shares something difficult, deep or painful, honor that moment. They chose you, they felt safe enough to be vulnerable and share something with you. I don’t take that for granted, I honor them, I honor the moment. Because it takes courage to share something that may be difficult or painful. You don’t know how people will react to it, so it does take a certain level of courage to put yourself out there like that. So whether or not they are my closest friends, a new friend or a complete stranger, I do not take those moments of disclosure lightly.

I don’t know if there’s something about me as a person, or being a journalist that prompts people to sometimes have these really deep moments of disclosure.

I know a big piece of it comes from me giving up a little something too. And usually the floodgates open, when I discuss my mother. My whole body language changes. You can read on my face I’m trying to figure out how to explain it, depending on the person I’m talking to.

I was asked about my mother last night and made reference to the fact that she stopped working, “when she got sick.”

Some people leave it alone. And I allow them to assume whatever illness.

The person last night pressed me, and I hesitated. He told me it was perfectly fine if I didn’t want to discuss it, and then I did. So the first layer is to give the simple, canned answer. “My mother had a mental breakdown when I was 16, and has never been the same. She suffers from extreme paranoia and is a recluse. My father takes care of her.”

Once that is said, folks tend to look lost, like they have no possible words to comfort me, which isn’t what I was looking for, or they open up.

They come forward and they share a story about a sister, an old girlfriend or boyfriend, or cousin or uncle or even their own mother too and every time, I am floored. Because it reminds me that so many people live in silence and shame and they are waiting for someone to tell them they are not alone and this isn’t abnormal by any means.

But when my dinner companion spoke last night, I wasn’t prepared for his family’s story. There was pain, there was honesty, there was bravado and the sense that he had no choice but to get through it all. As he told a vivid story of a close relative who committed suicide, I could hardly breathe. I fought back tears. I thought of other friends that I gave support to who lost loved ones to suicide, or struggling with mental illness.

As I get older, as we all get older and really connect with other people, you realize you are surrounded by survivors.

We all have different battles and scars and wounds, but when you really look into someone’s story, if they didn’t decide to take their life, if they woke up today they survived.

My dinner companion said something that will stick with me.

“There’s no such thing as a completely sane person. It’s impossible. We don’t live in a sane world. There are things happening all the time that make no sense and that are horrible and unfair and we have to react to those things. These things can’t happen to you and you be completely sane. You have to have a part of you that is a little bit crazy, just to survive in this world.”

I totally agree. I’ve often said that I think when mental illness fully takes people over, it’s because the sane part of that person did get tired and weak and sometimes it’s almost easier to check out completely than to face the harsh realities of this life. Sometimes you don’t have the strength being sane requires. It takes a lot, because the world is unfair and filled with ugliness. Finding the goodness in it all takes a lot of work and energy. It’s something you have to do day in and day out and it is exhausting.

There are times I can tell when people don’t talk about their pain very often or at all, because when they tell me, it comes like a flood and they don’t leave out any details. It’s very honest. Knowing how I feel about my story, my mother’s story, my family’s story, I can sense it in other people once they start talking.

I can’t tell you how many times I have been floored if someone discloses to me that they have been abused, or they saw abuse in their own home, or taking the long ride from the abortion clinic alone, or going to bed hungry or having to steal food, or spend a few nights in jail after being racially profiled. But I remained stoic. Sometimes I wanted to reach out and hug these people as they told their stories. But I’d listen with sad eyes, disgusted at whomever caused the pain offering my support non-verbally.

One thing that also amazes me about the people who eventually share.

They are not asking for my pity. I will not give them that, because I can’t. Instead, I’m honored they chose me and I’m proud of how they’ve managed to maintain that little piece of sanity that we all attempt to hold on to everyday.

The human experience is difficult. It really is.

The most beautiful parts of the human experience is when we reach outside ourselves, genuinely, to hold the hands of others, to support them and to lift them up. People have supported me and lifted me up.

I asked my dinner companion what made him happy.

He said he had never really thought about it. And he laughed about never really thinking about it.

So I asked him was there ever a moment where you were right in the moment and you knew then in there you were just happy and you knew you wanted to hold on to it?

And he said sure.

I said that was enough. You don’t need a specific list as long as you can identify it as it is happening.

Lancelot Meets My Mom (Sort of)

I had brunch with Lancelot on Sunday, and once again.

I enjoyed myself. I laughed a lot and did some very mild flirting. I reminded him that it seemed every time I gave him an inch, he would take ten miles.

He replied, and “If I keep walking every inch you give me, I’ll eventually get to where I want to be.”

Darn him. That was actually kind of smooth.

This time around, I’m noticing somethings. Lancelot has really nice eyes.

And I told him that. He seemed pleased.

I also noticed about myself, that I try to look in his eyes when we are talking, but sometimes I look away.

That’s a tell-tale textbook sign, I’m starting to really dig someone. When it’s hard for me to look at you and concentrate on what you are saying and I have to keep looking away, I’m feeling you. It’s almost like I’m being shy, which is silly. But I feel exposed and if I look in your eyes too long, you’ll catch me slippin.

I’ve always considered it to be your inner light shining way too bright for me and I don’t want you to notice that I see it and am having a reaction to it.

As usual we talked about a lot of stuff. Including religion, which is a topic I can’t stand discussing with people. I think religion is a personal thing, and you can only do your journey as you see fit. So for me to impress upon people how I live and worship and commune with God is absurd. Our spiritual being is as wonderfully individual as we are and I’m quite thankful that my God sees me and bases his mercy and grace on me, not on the curve, but as specific to me and my needs and desires and faults and talents.

What struck me the most about our conversation is, we discussed my mother.

He didn’t sit back in his chair in disbelief.

He did not judge.

He did not pity me.

And he had an opinion, of course. He wasn’t politely/nervously quiet about it as most people are.

He asked me some very real questions about it. And the one question that beat me over the head was, “Have you ever just asked her, what’s wrong, Mom? What happened? Can you explain to me how you feel?”

My gut reaction was that he was nuts.

So the more we talked, I did tell him, I felt I didn’t know my mother’s full story. That I don’t think anyone did.

He said, “Well have you tried it? For real?”

And I stumbled a bit saying I’ve tried to ask her, but she was just impossible and would go off into her rants about the government watching her or ramble on about something else. I would loose patience and quit. But I realized, I never just simply asked the question in that kind of way.

So I shut up. And I asked, “Where is my damn drink?”

Honestly, between trying to diagnose her myself, and being angry and dealing with all of my feelings about it, and everyone trying to deal with it and her and all of that stuff, I’m not sure if someone quietly and calmly just asked her point blank.

I thought of the possibility that there is a difference in the way my mother and father saw religion, and that she went along with his version of it to make him happy, and to present a unified family. However she wasn’t getting the same thing out of it, spiritually. The restrictive lifestyle was counter to her free spirit. The kind of people who made up that world, who were not like her and didn’t think like her, who didn’t question the necessity of certain behaviors and ways of dress to please God and seemed to just be okay with it, but secretly resenting it themselves… how the isolation may have even started there.

I identified with my mother and how as a woman, I wrestle with my very real love for God, and what I was told as a child was the proper and only way to live for Him and how those things inhibit my faith to this day.

One time she ceremoniously stood up in the middle of service and cussed everyone out. I was mortified.

Lancelot said, “Folks may have dismissed her as crazy, but I bet you she read everyone’s ass like a book.” I had to laugh at this.

“Yes, she used language that was not considered right, in the house of God, but I bet you, in that moment, your mother told the truth, and she was finally free.”

I was gobsmacked, yet again by his assessment.

Lancelot surmised that there may be more to my mom’s checking out than meets the eye. That she is still my mom and still has an instinct to protect and that even in her seemingly frantic and uncooperative ways, she still wants to protect me in her state.

He also brought to light that even in my mother’s rants, there is a truth, and there is her truth. He said, people don’t want to take the time to really talk to someone who folks label “crazy” because it is difficult and frustrating, but he was very encouraging and with a conviction seeming as sure as he was of his own name he said, “She’s still there, she’s still there.”

I was dumbstruck.

He didn’t linger, and when I didn’t want to talk about it anymore, we didn’t.

He approached the conversation with a confidence and sensitivity that I’m not used to. And while there were moments when I felt a little uncomfortable and silly, for not trying something so simple, and human and decent with my mother, who deserved that at a minimum, he simply smiled at me.

This discussion was brought on by me talking about how I wasn’t sure how to deal with my feelings toward a book called, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.” I shared with him aloud of my dislike for the book was because either it really did suck, or my own experiences with my own mother biased me and raised familiar, uncomfortable feelings. I do think Ayana Mathis is a great, new writer and she tells a story vividly, and managed to jump from person to person, in their thoughts and gave them very individual thoughts and ideas and reasons for reacting or doing the things they did. So maybe I am biased.

This story is around a woman who is basically a cold mother to her children, who wasn’t necessarily a nurturing, touchy-feely type, because she was well aware that this is not a touchy-feely world. She simply wanted her children to survive. And because of that, they were all lacking and had equally tragic and suckie lives themselves. The ending crushed my heart, because she was going to inflict her perception of love onto yet another generation, with her granddaughter. There were no rays of hope anywhere to be found in that book. And while life has a number of dismal parts in it, I needed someone, somewhere, to have found some peace. But maybe that’s a harsh truth. We will wrangle with this lofty ideal of absolute peace and happiness, but not truly achieve it until we are transformed after death. Peace and happiness is a carrot and something to aspire to, that will keep us alive each day with purpose and will us to treasure the fleeting moments in which we do find it.

The only thing that I can surmise is because each section reflected each child during just one part of their life– but usually the most difficult and traumatic– that maybe it was just a piece of their lives and that they did manage to figure it out and heal themselves.

Lancelot managed to blow me away yet again and bring ease to a difficult conversation that I feel like I always have to build myself up for when I share it with people and then brace myself for the response.

He discussed it with me as if it were the weather, or work, or our dreams and goals. He added humor, but was never disrespectful, nor did he minimize the seriousness or the sensitivity of it. I was impressed and left breathless.

“I’d like to meet your mom, if you let me have the opportunity one day. From the way you’ve described her, she’s a tough lady. She’s a truthful lady.”

I think I’d actually like him to meet her someday too.

Mom’s Lessons

“Maybe I’m just like my mother, she’s never satisfied…” -Prince

As Mother’s Day is approaching, I’ve been thinking about my mom a lot.

For the last several years, Mother’s Day has been difficult for me, and no. My mother isn’t dead, she’s very much alive.

Mother’s Day is tough because, my mother had a nervous breakdown from which she has never recovered when I was just 16 years old.

Since then, I’ve had aunties and career mentor moms, an older cousin and older sister who picked up the slack and carried me through when my mom just could not.

I appreciate those women and their impact on my life, and while I still struggle with my feelings and insecurities involving my mother’s mental illness, I know for a fact it made me the person I am today.

It taught me compassion. It taught me that life was unpredictable, unfair and cruel. It taught me not to take my mental health for granted. It made me painfully aware whenever I felt really overwhelmed, that I needed to pull myself from the brink and do whatever it took to get back to center.

Prior to her illness, my mother was just absolutely fabulous, vibrant, gorgeous. In my mind, she was Claire Huxtable in real life.

She grew up in the South, and was determined to get the hell out. She knew she was different. She never had a southern accent, my aunt and grandfather attest to this oddity. My mother’s dreams were always bigger than her coastal town and newly integrated high school. She graduated a year early.  She met my father, “an airman” serving at a near by Air Force base. They fell in love, and when he decided not to re-up, he took his bride away to New York.

My mother always had a deep respect for teachers and any job that required a woman to wear pantyhose and high heels. She worked for sometime as a teacher’s assistant in a special education class and even years after she left to work for and rise through the ranks of a large insurance company, former students would happily flag her down in the grocery store or even stop by our home to say hello.

My mom had an amazing effect on people. A huge laugh, big reddish hair poofed to perfection thanks to that massive aerosol can of hair spray and a strict regimen of sponge curlers every night complimenting her soft, brown skin.

My mother taught me how to sit properly. She made me hold my ears, so she wouldn’t burn me while straightening my hair for special occasions. I watched how she walked in those heels, her quick cadance when she talked. She walked so fast. She’d go to work, shuttle her children around, serve on countless boards at church.

I was fascinated with this woman who would cook dinner still with her heels, pantyhose and office clothing on. She was so strong an opinionated, always had a joke and held you captive when she’d tell a story or gossip about someone at her job or at church.

My mother had no college education, but she was clearly intelligent and driven. The young girl from Mississippi had it all. A handsome, devoted husband, pretty and intelligent daughters, and finally the office job she held in high esteem.

My mother adores my father. Even after her long days of work, and his long day of work, after his shower, he’d sit on the floor, between her legs, shirtless and still damp. She would take a comb and dip her fingers into a red can of Royal Crown hair grease, and slowly part his hair, and massage the oil into his scalp. Sometimes they’d chat, sometimes they’d both just watch the t.v. together. It seemed the stresses of his day melted away with her touch, she seemed to get pleasure from seeing him become more and more relaxed because of her touch.

It was a tender moment, and humble lesson for me in this age of women not wanting to appear weak or subservient. She was a strong woman finding joy in taking a moment to take care of her man. She wasn’t lowering herself to do it, she did it because she wanted to, and she knew how it made him feel.

This ritual, was hardly sensual, but the image has been seared in my brain as one of love, respect and a strong, strong woman simply taking care of her weary, hard-working man. Working the oils through his hair, saying, “I love you,” and “Thank you” without saying a word.

When you see someone you love go through a terrible thing such as suffer from mental illness, memories of who they were can be the only thing you have left to hold on to, because the person they are can scare you. Can frustrate you. Can make you feel like you’ve been robbed, that you’re whole family has been robbed of a most spectacular member.

There are two moments that I look back on, and it makes me think how similar I am to my mother, in terms of our spirits and our love for fashion and for things creative.

My mother had gone shopping for a cousin’s wedding. And she saw the most glorious bone colored strappy heels. The store was an expensive boutique, and my mother prided herself on having a well-dressed family. This one particular day, she really wanted those shoes, but there wasn’t a price tag on it. She looked at me and said, “That usually means it’s too much.”

She looked at the shoes and then paused for a moment. I was about 13. My mother said “Size 9 please.” She tried them on.

She took a moment again, and said, “I’ll take them.”

We got to the register and we both held our breath. The shoes were about $200, but she finally treated herself. She walked out with her head held high. I walked out with my chest out too, holding our bags. Yep, I knew it. Mom was Claire Huxtable!

Flashback a few years.

My mother was working very hard, juggling it all.

Then all of a sudden, she purchased a casio keyboard and set it up in the living room. She declared that once a week she was going to take piano lessons.

And so, for several months she did. Scales, and little ditties filled our home as she prepared for her weekly class.

I wondered why my Mom did this religiously and was not to be disturbed.

Then I got grown. I started working a crazy job with crazy hours and when I decided I wanted to take guitar lessons and have a standing appointment– job be dammned– it clicked.

I understood why my mom was so intent on those weekly piano lessons.

My mother needed something for HER. She needed an outlet where she could be herself, and learn something completely new, and do something that had nothing whatsoever to do with her husband, her kids, her job or other civic duties.

When my mother splurged for $200 shoes, she decided to do something for her. I now totally recognize that look in her eyes while deciding to do it, because I do the same thing. You rationalize, and then you say, wait, I deserve this! I’m doing it and I don’t care!

Who knew me watching her do those things for herself was going to have such an impact on me in terms of realizing, no matter what, you have to take care of you.

But the lesson of the piano lessons didn’t end there.

She’d be mortified if I told this story, but she had prepared a piece to play for our church’s annual Christmas program.

She’d been practicing and practicing at home.

She had it down.

They called her name. She sat down to the piano, and nothing.

She froze completely.

She went to her seat completely embarassed. Until someone, probably my dad, encouraged her to try again.

She went back and she played her song.

Afterwards, in her amazing way of telling stories, she said, “I saw nothing on the page. Literally, all of the notes, just jumped right off. I couldn’t play a thing!”

And she laughed. She was horribly embarrassed and admitted it, but she still could laugh at herself in the end.

My mother has always been brutally honest, sometimes silly and sometimes even crass. I see flashes of that even now in the thick of her illness.

I love my mother. There have been times I have been angry, and even ashamed, then angry and ashamed at myself. My mother is a recluse and is scared to leave our house. She hasn’t gone further than our front yard in over a decade for sure. She hears things and sees things and believes the government is watching our every move. It’s difficult for her to sleep for very long.

I don’t know why these things happened to her and happened to my family, but that woman who raised me and taught me how to be a vibrant woman, who speaks her mind and always has a fresh pair of pantyhose on standby, is my mother, for better or for worse.

She is the only one I’ve got. She had to be one hell of a woman, to influence me so much and make me so strong, even though it seemed like I had her at full capacity for a very short period of time.

She got me to 16, and she is still teaching me, she’s still making me stronger and better and compassionate and a fighter. Sometimes she has these moments of clarity, where her mind is still and she’s speaking to me so clearly. I want to cry because I know it won’t last, but even for a few moments, I am like my friends, who can go to brunch with their moms or have a spa day. I listen to her words, I sip tea and I cherish it.

The moment slips instantly and she’s back to patrolling the house for signs of government infiltration. My heart sinks. I had her. I saw her again, I heard her voice.

For a long time I didn’t realize she still has been giving to me, even when I couldn’t or wouldn’t see it.

Her illness did not steal my mother from me. It made me see her even more clearly and see the complexities of womanhood and whatever secrets she held from her past held on her.  It made me further appreciate what hard work it is to be a excellent and real woman, wife and mother who is strong, but can be very fragile.

She’s not Claire Huxtable, and she doesn’t have to be. My mother as she is, now and forever will always be good enough for me. I love you, Mom.

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