True Story: My Mom Had A Breakdown + Left Our Family + Spent My College Tuition

This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to
people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things.
This is the story of ‘Anne’ and her mom’s mental health issues.
 

Tell us a bit about yourself!
I grew up in the very conservative Bible Belt. I knew from about age 12 that I didn’t quite fit, so I worked for the next five years as hard as I could to plot my future so that I could escape to a metropolitan area full of liberals. Now I live in Minneapolis, so that was successful, eh? I am a graphic designer who loves going to art openings and spending hours and hours looking at typefaces. I also take loads of photos, and live music is in my blood. I am 37.

What’s your family like?
My family is… unique. I am the only one who has ever moved away to a larger city, and I am the only one who has ever traveled outside of the country.

Also, my family never acknowledges conflict. If there is a large fight, we will not talk for a few weeks and then they will call and pretend it never happened. In one moment someone can be screaming at you telling you you’re a b*tch, and an hour later they come to your room to see if you want any pie. As a child, it took me forever to get used to this because I kept wanting apologies, and I kept bringing it up. My parents see this as me not being able to let things go. I see it as wanting resolution or closure.

When did you realize that your mom was having mental health issues?
I always knew something was different about our family. There was a LOT of screaming and fighting growing up, and my parents were separated a few times. But the first time I really acknowledged a mental problem was my sophomore year of high school. My mom and I had a small argument the afternoon before prom. I think it was about how to pin my corsage? I really can’t remember, but it was nothing significant. That weekend my dad and brother were on a camping trip.

Of course I stayed out late on prom night, and the next morning when I woke up I noticed a note on the kitchen table that said “I’ll call when I get where I’m going.” I thought that was weird. After a few hours of no call, I went to her bedroom and saw her closet was empty.

A few days later we got a call from a hospital in Nebraska where she had come into the ER for a cut on her hand and the doctors recognized symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. Not the kind where you have multiple personalities, but just the extreme paranoia. I think it was then that my dad told us that my mom was “manic depressive” and needed help. I wasn’t at all surprised because I was old enough to know something was different, but my younger brother took it pretty hard.

What happened when you mother left the family?
After the call from the doctor, my dad went to get my mom in Nebraska, but I think she wanted to stay. I have a hard time keeping the timing straight on this, but I think it was then that she met some people in Nebraska and ended up getting a house there. A few weeks later she came to our house with a U-Haul and packed it all up and she took my brother with her.

How did you (and your father and siblings) deal with it?
I think my dad had mixed emotions. I think he was (and still is) deeply embarrassed. He is so conservative and thinks we should all live like Leave It To Beaver, so this was hard on him. But I also think he may have been a touch relieved to have some quiet and the fighting over with. And then I think he was overwhelmed at the thought of raising me on his own.

I remember my dad and I going to Target and him telling me to pick out all the new dishes and silverware. That felt very grown up.

I had a hard time with it in.  Now I was living in a tiny apartment and I had to go to my high school and explain to the registrar what had happened to see if I could stay at the school (the apartment was a few blocks outside the district line). I remember I could deal with it all fine in my head, but when I had to tell someone about it out loud I would almost lose it. It’s amazing how telling someone else about what’s going on seems to make it real. Because of this, very few of my friends knew what was going on.

I also remember it being my 16th birthday and my mom was supposed to come back home and bring me a gift and take me to dinner and she called and said she couldn’t make it. Part of me was furious because your mom is supposed to be there with you for big birthdays. But the other part of me just thought at least I could spend more time with my friends that night. Like my dad, I was divided. I wanted the “normal” family life, but the peacefulness of having her gone was such a relief.

Your father chose to take your mother back after this episode. How did you feel about that? What did he tell you about that decision?
I had a very hard time with this. When my mom left, she had charged everything on my dad’s credit and took all the money from their joint account. Essentially, she used up all the savings which would have paid for my college. We already had a bad relationship, but this really made it worse.

But after a few months, she agreed to be hospitalized and she agreed to stay on her medication if my dad would take her back. I remember one time a few years later she went off of it, and didn’t tell anyone, but I knew immediately. I went to my dad and we had a family meeting and she agreed to take the pills again.

When my dad took her back, he explained to me that mom had an illness just like cancer or something, but it was mental. And when you marry someone it’s through sickness and health and he needed to take her back and take care of her.

I was furious, but at the same time I was in awe of his commitment to her and to marriage. While my rage would have never allowed her back, he knew that on her own she wouldn’t be able to live a full life that she wanted, and if she was medicated he would take her back.

How did you finance college after you mom spent all your college savings?
I guess like most people. I worked 2-3 jobs all through college and I took out loans and I had scholarships. Growing up like this, I knew my ticket out was to work hard and get good grades, so at least that worked. The hardest part for me was that I really wanted to go out of state and to a really prestigious school. Due to the new financial constraints, I needed to stay in-state. That worked out fine in the end though.

How did you feel about leaving home once you left for college?
I couldn’t get out fast enough. After my mom came back (when I was in high school), I got another job so I had two part time jobs, I was editor of the school paper and involved in a million activities. The more stuff I had to do, the less time I needed to be home. So once I got to college, it was like I could exhale.

And once I left, my relationship with my family improved significantly.

How has your mother’s illness – and your parents’ marriage – affected your feelings about having children and being married?
Well, my marriage is so damn amazing. We rarely fight and we have so much fun together and we are completely honest with each other at all times. Oh, and if we do fight? We talk about it and we apologize and we work things out. Really, it’s a great way to live!

At first I didn’t want to have children at all. I was too terrified that they would have the same illness, and I count my blessings every single day that I didn’t inherit it. But I’ve talked to my doctors about it, and I guess the odds of my kids having mental illness aren’t any greater than anyone else’s since I don’t have it. I’m more open about having kids now, but I’ll never be the person squealing excitedly about it. I think most people have warm fuzzy feelings about “family.” It’s taking me a while to get there.

What advice would you give to those who have family members with a mental illness?

I’m not sure if everyone should follow this advice, but Oprah once said “If you see crazy coming, cross the street.” And that’s what I did. I left. It’s not very supportive at all, and I get that. But it’s what I needed to do to see things objectively and get a clear head. Now that I have that, I can tell my mom or family that I think they should seek therapy sometimes or adjust their meds or whatever. And if they get mad and start yelling at me, I can tell them I need to go and hang up the phone and surround myself with love here in my new home. The distance gives me a clearer perspective (as does being in a really healthy relationship).

The trick about all of this is remembering not to get sucked into it. Help where you can help. Listen when you can. Offer advice and support. But live your own life and make healthy choices for you — that is what helped me the most.

Thanks so much for sharing, Anne.  Do any of you have family members with serious mental health issues?  How have you dealt with it?

original image (without text on top) by chelsea jean designs, for sale here

10 Comments

Anonymous

Sometimes I'm convinced that my Mum has mental health issues. She's been divorced three times and each ex husbands says that she's "a bit crazy". She flips out over the slightest thing.

We have a good relationship – now that I've moved out, but even then, sometimes it's hard work. I have no idea how to suggest that she get help though without alienating her completely. I know she wouldn't listen.

This was such an interesting story. Thank you so much for sharing.

Reply
Anonymous

Props to your father for taking her back and seeing mental illness just as it should be seen – like any other illness out there.

Reply
Anonymous

Thank you for your advice at the end. I think helping where I can while living my own life is exactly what I needed to hear.

Reply
Katie, thisloveblog.com

I agree. I think with mentally ill friends and family members we get sucked into trying to be supportive and even to fix them. In the end, you realize that your own life is being greatly affected by their illness and you have to distance yourself. It's hard living from what's considered "normal", but I think it's part of growing up when you have a mentally ill parent.

Reply
Anonymous

Thank you for sharing your story; I'm glad your marriage is healthy and that you have chosen to survive! One quibble: There is no type of schizophrenia where the individual has multiple personalities. This is a common mistake by confusing schizophrenia with Dissociative Identity Disorder (once called "multiple personality disorder"). People with schizophrenia can suffer hallucinations and, as your mum does, extreme paranoia.
thanks again for sharing your story!

Reply
mel

I was also put-off by the weird "multiple personalities" bit. But I totally get the "see crazy, cross the street" piece! After all, there are sooo many people to meet and things to do that there's really no need to keep on the bad ones.

Reply
Anonymous

Thank you for sharing. I have manic depressive (or bipolar) disorder, and I totally understand how difficult it must have been to live with your mother when she was unmedicated. I admire the life you've built up for yourself and I'm so glad that you've found a happy and loving family, despite everything you've gone through.

However, I think "see crazy, cross the street" might be more damaging than helpful in some situations. I admire your father for being so strong and taking your mother back. That kind of love is absolutely necessary for somebody with a mental illness- and yes, just as much as for somebody with cancer, multiple sclerosis, and other serious, chronic conditions- to recover and live a full and healthy life.

I know, for my part, that I was absolutely aware of what was happening to me during my last (and worst) mixed episode. It's a horrifying experience to feel like you're losing control of you're own mind. And it's even scarier when you feel like you can't tell anybody else about it, whether because you're scared of losing your job, being forced on medical leave from school, or simply losing those you love. I was lucky enough to have supportive friends and family, who held my hand and listened to me cry all through my hospitalization and recovery. They encouraged me to reach out for help and although I didn't ask for it in time to prevent my hospitalization, at least I felt safe enough to reach out afterwards.

For anyone out there who has a loved one suffering from a mental illness, it may be worth it to try to bring it up. This doesn't mean telling them, "You need therapy." Given the stigmatization of mental illness today, I doubt most people would take that well, no matter how much they actually need therapy and medication. But approaching them gently about it, and encouraging them to open up about how they are feeling and reach out for help on their own, could (possibly, maybe, depending on the person and the situation) prevent the frequently tragic and devastating consequences of an untreated mental illness.

Anyway, that's my two cents. Thanks again for sharing!

Reply
Katie, thisloveblog.com

My mother has a mental illness as well and has never left 100%, but has taken week-long exits throughout my upbringing. I'm an adult with a healthy marriage and infant child of my own and she recently told us all she's moving to Florida and wants no contact from any of us because my father didn't want to keep 2 dogs she'd taken in for a friend. She chose two stranger's dogs over her family and grandchild. This is what mental illness is.

Strangely enough, her illness has given me the courage, or perhaps the push, to support my husband's dream of moving down South (we're from Michigan), even though it's away from family. Now, being away from family is such a plus. Oprah's advice is so helpful- because really you can't help very much with mental illness. It just makes you ill yourself. It's all-consuming.

Thank you for sharing. I feel so empathetic towards your family and especially your father. It cannot be easy loving someone who drains you so much.

Best wishes,

Katie

Reply

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