Testing your imagination

Imagine you grew up in a seemingly ideal home. Your dad worked Monday through Friday and was home for dinner and weekends. Your mom stayed home, cooked the meals, and handled the domestic duties… always there when you came home from school, or needed something to drink. Your dad was the king of the castle, but your mom was the queen of everyday needs. The only thing missing from Leave it to Beaver was Wally.

Imagine there was something abnormal about your childhood, slowly poking its way through the facade of utopia; something that made your childhood less than ideal: your mother was metally ill. Partially from the illness, and partially from her upbringing, your mother was emotionally fragile, childish, moody, and ill-prepared for any kind of change. Your mother couldn’t make phone calls, or handle anything but routine business without emotional upheaval. Your mother could be meek and timid one moment, then unexpectedly burst into a barely controlled rage at the slightest perceived slight by a clerk in a store… much to her children’s horror (and embarrassment). She was hospitalized after a breakdown when you were very young. Neighborhood kids would pick up on her being a little “different,” and pick on her as if she were just another neighborhood kid (and not in a jocular way). When you were in middle school a group of kids (your age) ran through the house, undaunted by your mother’s screams (which were equal parts fearful and angry), taunting her and the rest of your family (when your father was away, of course). She had to stop driving for a while when you were in high school because she was having paranoid hallucinations. She couldn’t attend your wedding reception because of a nervous breakdown at the wedding.

Imagine that after you and your siblings left home, she grew more dependent on your father, and could no longer handle some of the more mundane tasks in life without assistance… like grocery shoppping, gassing up the car, or making a deposit at the bank. She became a hermit, never venturing out unless absolutely necessary; or unless she had your father along as a chaperone.

Imagine that her condition rapidly deteriorated over these last six months, spending prolonged periods of time in the hospital, trying different medications, having multiple courses of ECT, and generally loosing what was left of her mind in the process.

Imagine that your mother is now mostly unresponsive. Questions go unanswered. Comments go unheeded. If she leaves her bed at all she walks around as if on a leash, following your father where ever he goes. For months the only words that came from her mouth were: “I’m not doing well,” or, “I can’t go on.” Now she just doesn’t talk, or if she does it’s seemingly the first thing that comes to mind. Language spills from her mouth, a veritable salad of words. Unprovoked she calls out… “compass, phone book, Grace Kelly, two fingers, red shorts, man.” You look around the room, startled, wondering what provoked this odd outburst; but find nothing but the crazed, glazed gaze of someone you have trouble recognizing.

Imagine that you’ve completely forgotten what your mother was like when she was happy. How would you keep from crying at the thought… that someone could be so unhappy for so long? Would you wonder if mental illness was the cruelest of all diseases? It never kills directly, but it seemingly can torture for a lifetime.

What would you do if confronted with this? If you were a religious person, how would you reconcile this with your belief in God? How would you respond to the common “truisms” offered by the pious as “reassurance?”

“God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”

“It’s all part of Gods plan.”

Could you hold your temper long enough to keep from swearing? Clearly, a person such as this (your mother) has way more than any person could handle. Mental illness doesn’t boil down to a deficit of faith. This may smack of heresy, but if bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, or psychosis are part of the plan, then it’s crap.

You’ve been around. You read things. You know there are people out there like this: people with profound mental illness. You know that a few of them out there are mothers. Society is mostly bereft of answers; and their family… their kids, the children of the lost, are left with the hopeless task of caring for a shell who’s mind has fled.

What do you say to these children of the lost? Do you have any answers?


  1. Hey, Colleen:
    I wanted to say thanks for the encouragement and support. In a small way, it feels better.

    I didn’t think your comment was jumbled at all… but maybe that’s because my mind is naturally jumbled… so it made perfect sense.

  2. Hi John:

    I don’t know how I managed to miss this post, but I did.

    I wasn’t raised in a religious household so to me, unfairness, bigotry, famine, war, whatever, has nothing to do with a god. Perhaps this makes it more simple for me since I don’t need to reconcile a set of religious beliefs with live evidence that is to the contrary. I don’t know. I see religion as being the root of more of the above noted evils than as a source of reconciliation.

    I consider your posting to be an act of bravery in putting a face to mental illness and in decrying the horrors you experienced as a result of bigotry and people’s feelings that they could do what they wanted because of a “difference.”

    Imagine a world where we acted as an extended family and offered suport to those around us instead of making difficult lives more difficult.

    I hope that being able to express yourself and receiving support offers you some comfort. Mental illness is a scary thing to many, a hidden topic to most, and a source of stress and embarrassment to those who have to deal with it. Talking about it helps to chip away at all those things.

    There are many terrible things in the world. I don’t think any of it has to do with god, but with us. When my kids were younger, I used to read them a book that spoke to our life purpose as being making the world a more beautiful place. That each of us must do this one thing before we die. That’s what I try to focus on, not always successfully, but I try.

    I apologize for the jumbled nature of this comment. Your posting is so important and I wish you all good things,

  3. Richard,
    Thank you so much for the reply. I’ve thought about writing this post for a long time. I worked up the nerve to post after reading some of the things you’ve shared on your site.

    I haven’t had the greatest year, but this evening I find myself as cynical as I’ve felt in some time. I’ve been thinking a lot about all of this, although I seem to have little to show for it. I think there’s a lot to be said in favor of individualism, but I wonder (just now, as I read and type) if the flip side is a deficiency in empathy. I don’t have any proof though, just my own supposition. It’s been said before (and better), but I find it depressing that we (society as a whole) show a tremendous capacity for compassion in the face of great tragedy, yet we so easily ignore the day-to-day racism, abuse, and poverty you speak of. I hear others say our humanitarianism in the face of calamity suggest it’s proof of our underlying goodness. In my dark mood, I wonder if it’s just further proof of our superficiality. I wonder if it’s easy to show empathy in the face of great tragedy (natural disasters, plane crashes, terrorist attacks, etc), because it’s easy to see it happening to ourselves. My cynical, darker side, wonders if we’re confusing this kind of supposed selfless compassion for fear.

    The typical reaction to my wife’s asthma is a sore spot, which can be quite bad (the asthma as well as the reaction). Not long after we were married we asked a few of the folks in church about cutting back on perfumes, so we could go to church with them, without involving emergency services. You’d think we’d just grown horns and tails… that we could show such insolence….

    Dealing with family emergencies are painful, depressing, and emotionally draining; but in some ways I’m almost more discouraged by the old lady in church (no, on second thought that’s going a bit too far) the perfume lady in church is the icing on the cake. If a fellow church goer – and someone we see in person – won’t show a little compassion and understanding, what hope do we have with the bigger – and usually less personal – problems in society?

    As for changing the world, I wish I had more fight in me. I like to think I walk the walk, at the very least. I think I try to be respectful of other peoples’ views. I try to gently interject my feelings when it appears I disagree with someone… when I’m out and about, shooting the breeze with family, friends and co-workers (I may stray a little here from time to time, in the cozy confines of relative anonymity on the web). I’d like to think I’m raising my kids to be thoughtful, respectful citizens. I just don’t know if it’s enough.

    Maybe it’s just that I’ve been in an ER all day today, but I find myself really depressed. None of this is likely to make much sense, or seem terribly coherent. I’m making the mistake of writing late after a long day, when I should be sleeping. I’ll close by saying I do see evidence in our underlying goodness in the kind words from friends, acquaintances, and near strangers… in circumstances like these.

    Thanks again.

    By the way, I like the meal time grace.

  4. Hey JK:

    This is so poignant. I’ve been through similar scenarios with family members, several of whom think that all it takes to overcome tragedy is to change your mind. And for some lesser problems, that’s true.

    But what happens when you’re young, and still finding a place in the world? When I was in high school and saw the way that life worked, I would see black kids my age at the bank, unable to cash cheques, despite being able to produce a half-dozen pieces of ID. I learned that just 10 years earlier, the impoverished black communities in which many of these kids grew up didn’t have running water or sewage. If a fight broke out in one of the high schools, you knew it was because some kids had used the n-word, or that a black kid had been pushed around just for being black.

    How can we expect kids to deal? To see such subtle and overt racism every day of their lives — and to have the wherewithal to just ignore it, and then get on with their lives. How can we expect kids to develop the skills they need to survive in the world when all they feel is sadness, and hurt, and anger?

    And so it goes. People can be so cruel and unfair, and I don’t know how we expect our children to cope with such overwhelming pain, when it involves mental illness, or abuse, or extreme poverty. How could they ever leave those scars behind? Especially when you know that everything that’s happened to them began with an unfortunate birth into unfortunate circumstances.

    I have thought long and hard about the way that this world works. I was raised in a religious home, but many years ago came to the conclusion that religion doesn’t have all the answers and that, for the most part, many true believers don’t ask very good questions. It can’t be part of God’s plan. If it is, then why would he be so unfair to some of us? Why does he give so many people more than they can handle? What purpose is served in breaking some people, in giving them so much suffering that the pain endures, deeply and profoundly affecting the generations to follow.

    I remember being given a poster during a troubled time in my life that showed footsteps in the sand, with a caption. The person was looking back over their life, and discussing it with Jesus. And the questioner wonders why, during life’s most hurtful times, he or she can only see one set of footprints. Why did you abandon me?, he asks.

    Jesus answers that those were the times when I carried you.

    It’s such a beautiful sentiment. It’s also an enduring lie. When you see some people who are broken and hurt, you often see how brutally unfair it is. If this is the Creator’s way, then how can we possibly put our faith in him.

    It can’t work the way that we’ve been taught. It can’t.

    If this world is going to work, we need to become the change we wish to see in it. That’s what the great religions teach us. Don’t look to the afterlife, don’t look to a higher power for change. Fight now to change the world.

    If only it were so. I have no answers for the children, but I want to change the world so they have a chance.

    My favorite mealtime Grace is a simple one.

    May all be fed.
    May all be healed.
    May all be loved.

    Amen to that!

Give the gift of words.