Writing Away the Stigma: Mother's 'betrayal is fused into me'
Nine people shared stories of their mental illness in Pittsburgh in May as part of a Creative Nonfiction Magazine project to fight the shame and embarrassment that often accompany the illness, which is estimated to affect one in five Americans each year. The Tribune-Review printed excerpts from some of the essays May 31 and has published full versions of six of them online.
My mother stopped taking pictures of me when I was twelve. I don't remember the exact day, but I remember the announcement. It was a holiday, either my younger sister's birthday or Christmas – I don't remember which -- and my mother snapped the camera shut, popped out the batteries, and proclaimed, “That's enough.” She never picked up her camera again.
Years later, after my father had died (my mother had died six years earlier), my siblings and I were cleaning out our childhood home. We went from room to room, taking items off shelves and arranging them in circles on the floor. Sitting cross-legged on the dusty carpet, we circled left to right, choosing things to keep. When we got to the family photo albums, my heart seized in my chest. I wanted all of them; I wanted proof that she loved me, that I had once been the center of her attention. That she had been behind the camera the whole time. I took all the photographs my siblings didn't see a use for: framed 11x14 wedding snapshots of relatives long forgotten, old black and whites of young men in military uniform, barefoot children seated at wooden picnic tables, shading their eyes from the glaring sun. Most likely I will never know who these people are, only that we are connected through blood, marriage, friendship, or heartache. I recall the photographs that used to hang on the walls, the trifold frames of our school pictures by the front door. They didn't last, however. As I vacillated between which albums to keep, I felt the familiar tug of shame seep into my body.
Photographs are what we used to have in the house before my mother swore to hell and high water to erase us, one by one. I was sitting in the living room reading when she marched downstairs and started flipping frames over, one after another. She never said a word to me as she reached across the couch and yanked a picture off the wall. I had given it to her for her birthday, but she didn't glance in my direction as she spun it around and set it on the floor beside my feet.
Each day she would turn down more, and each day I would cry harder. I dreaded crying in front of people, but I sobbed uncontrollably in front of my sisters. She counted on me walking past the atrium, not being able to leave the house without seeing the frames tipped over. She was trying to make us disappear, to pretend her children never existed. No one touched them until she moved them. Did it hurt more when she removed them and stuffed them in shoe boxes? Did it hurt more when we were tripping over them or when she pushed the family photo albums to the back of the closet for good?
There were mistakes, sure. My mother was good at making promises, but better at breaking them. There are sporadic photographs of myself when I was older; when I was fifteen donating my hair for the first time, back turned towards the camera eye for before and after snapshots. A series of pictures later, me balling wrapping paper in one hand, opening presents in red flannel pajamas. I'm conflicted about these images; I treasure that they're still tucked behind the sticky residue of thick album pages, but I know my mother's fingers tapped the release button on a camera that wasn't hers.
I will never understand what she hoped to gain by her actions, what this meant to her. I recently found an old picture of her as a child with half of it torn away. My mother is a toddler, arms raised and twirling away from the camera, light brown hair blowing in the wind. The sepia tinted photo is ripped haphazardly, raggedy at the edges. I will never know who she was looking at, but I feel our communal pain. Another person she wanted to disappear.
When asked what I remember of my mother, I picture red Marlboros dripping from her mouth, the sucking noises emanating from her fleshy neck skin. Her eyes darting back and forth, the muddled blue hazy and fleeting. We have the same eyes: grey flecked with blue at the irises. They're the type of eyes you don't notice right away; someone wonders aloud what color they are and you pause and scrunch your features, trying to remember. It's her eyes that still haunt me: they're the image I tried to suppress swallowing handfuls of pills on a cool bathroom floor when I was twenty, the grainy and unfocused features just out of reach in my nightmares today.
I wake up in a bed I don't know. Yellow lights, soft sighs, and three girls lying within ten feet of me on the same stiff mattresses. Everything is institutionally white: the bare walls, the military-style corner tucked sheets, the low ceilings, and the grizzled carpet. The sheets feel like sandpaper, cool and rough against my skin. Memories are floating back, hazy and fleeting. I see the lights of the ambulance, the lining up of pills on the cold bathroom tiles, your face in front of me as I pushed them to the back of my throat and swallowed.
This wasn't the first time I had been in an ambulance. Once, as a child, I remember my mother on the phone, the curly beige cord looped through her fingers, twisted around her wrists. She was leaning against the doorframe, head bowed, cradling the phone between her neck and chin. It was a sultry, summer day and she batted at me impatiently as I clenched her knees, straining to get her attention. I remember crying when she told me to go outside and play, and leaning over, she swiped me, hard, against the left side of my cheek. I was startled by how much it stung and I started shrieking as she eyeballed me, unblinking and hateful. I remember the screen door creaking and her hand on my chest as she pushed me down the steps. I reached out for her, wedging my hands in-between the door frame to stand up and get back outside. My mother whipped around, looked into my terrified eyes, and slammed the door as hard as she could.
I know it wasn't an accident. She could get away with harming me; for a split second no one was watching. The blood was rushing from above my third knuckle; a portion of my left middle finger was on the ground.
I don't recall sirens from when I was four or when I was twenty; I remember the ground. Chilly white tiles when I was older, blazing cement when I was younger. “Pick it up,” my father screamed, like it was my fault, it was my decision. As an adult, I was told that my finger didn't detach, that a slice was lopped away, but no more. My mother shrugged when I asked her and my father claimed that the tendons held on. Years later, before he died, I took a chance and asked my father what happened. I will never forget his expression: he looked me in the eye, the gin translucent in his glass, and said clearly, “Yeah. It was hanging off. I held it in the ambulance so it wouldn't fall.” There are only a handful of times I remember my father looking deeply ashamed in relation to my mother, and that was one of them. I never told my sisters. I don't think they would have believed me. Even though memory is fickle, I know even if I imagined the result, the part that mattered was my mother's indifference.
The real story is this: The doctor reattached my finger from the third knuckle, but they couldn't save it all. The tip of my middle finger is missing, the soft fleshy pad darker and exposed than the rest. Once in a while my knuckle twists and pops, and I envision a bloody stump laying on the hot cement. I remember feeling nauseous staring at the ceiling of the ambulance, red and white plastic cupboards lining the walls, an oxygen mask over my face. At home, I laid on the dark brown carpet, looking intently into my father's dark brown eyes. My mother wasn't in the ambulance; she was barely in the living room. She sat off to the side, smoke curling up towards the ceiling, calm and aloof. Her betrayal is fused into me; I'm reminded of it every day when I play the guitar, comb my hair, slide my fingers into gloves for harsh Michigan winters.
There will be numerous times I encounter more questions than answers. There are many holes in my knowledge of her, secrets that both my mother and father took to their graves. I know very little, mostly what other estranged relatives have shared throughout the years, long before my mother's paranoia and anger of her family permanently curtailed our visits. I know she was the youngest child in a working-class Catholic family, her closest sibling thirteen years older than her. I've gleaned that my mother grew up coddled and spoiled, expectations that she sought later in marriage.
I think I always knew suicide was inevitable; I just wasn't sure how or when. When I was nineteen, my mother committed suicide, shortly after I was diagnosed with clinical depression, generalized anxiety, and Bipolar Disorder. My diagnoses came as a relief; finally, I had a name for my emotional instability and chronic feelings of worthlessness.
I cannot say the same for my mother. I doubt my mother ever felt comforted by a categorization or was even self-aware enough to recognize mental illness, and I know the risks of self-diagnosis. As far as I know, my mother didn't take prescribed medication or go to therapy. She popped handfuls of pills: aspirin, blood thinners, Tylenol, thyroid medications. Sometimes I would find bottles of poorly labeled pills pushed behind dusty coffee cups on the highest cupboard shelf. Now I see myself connected to her in those memories. Our reliance on pills, our overwhelming sense of failure, our pervasive headaches, our inability to sleep through the night.
Our lives were not similar, although we lived in the same home much of our lives. We share parallel stories of suicide, me blessed and cursed with survivor status. I don't know how much her depression and rage fueled my mental illnesses, but I know they contributed to my anxieties and inability to feel in control. Her emotional manipulation and my protectiveness of her went hand-in-hand, each one fueling the other. She embodied the worst aspects of the mentally ill: narcissistic and threatening, a compulsive liar and master manipulator. But I could also see myself in her less-threatening demeanor: the long days in bed, the emotional eating, and the shirking of responsibilities. It was exhausting to appear normal to neighbors and friends, making excuses for her outbursts and social awkwardness. I desperately clung to the idea that she could be mothering, believing that one day she would want to color with me or toss a softball back and forth.
I know my mother suffered from the same aspects of mental illness that I do; most likely, we have many of the same diagnoses. Many people fear becoming their parents, but I dread this association in a different way. The discrimination I feel being linked to my mother's actions and belief systems is more devastating, and I torment myself with the idea of my worst fears manifesting: I'm just like her.
I'm like her because I understand the urge to destroy something beautiful, just to see how far you can push it, what you can get away with. I think of my younger sister then, how much I love her, how much I hurt her. Once upon a time, we were unicorns, prancing on hands and knees, hiding under tables and chairs. Skidding under doorways, heads butting, horns waving in the air. We banded together against our parents, unstoppable in our magical world. I remember Fall in Michigan the best, hanging black plastic witches from trees at Halloween, dangling orange pumpkin wind sacks from large branches towering over our heads. Spreading grotesque cobwebs over bushes, leaves floating down from trees, red and crunchy underfoot. I'm ashamed to remember I always broke the spell.
I think about the day I hit my sister purposely with a baseball bat, the loud womp and crack as aluminum met bone. Her face contorted in pain and I watched her jaw shift from the pressure, speechless, still holding the bat. I wasn't upset a minute ago; I didn't understand. I can recall laughing before I felt my blood surging; there was an uncontrollable urge to break something, to hurt something. I could feel fury building in my body, pinpricks of pain coursing upwards from my feet to the roots of my hair. I knew I had to get it out, whatever it was. My aggression became too big for my body, and my distress didn't cease until I acted on it. Screaming, shoving, slapping – I had to propel my body forward against something, anything to curb my fury. My younger sister was my protector, and over and over, I abused this power. I would rush her, a tiny linebacker in a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, intent on my mission. Down, go down. Secretly impressed by my strength, I took pride in instilling fear. But afterwards, the anguish and guilt I felt encompassed me, rolling over me in waves. How do I communicate the feelings of bodily suspension without falling, the necessity to inflict pain? I remain consumed by guilt, as a child and as an adult. The fear in my sister's eyes when she jerked away from innocent gestures devastated me. How could I love and hate someone so much at the same time?
Back in Michigan, I'm with my sisters, pushing back the clutter of my dad's possessions when we find the photograph. The series of photographs, rather. My mother is standing in a green field, milky white skin, strong cheekbones and tapered nose, gazing into the camera. She's beautiful, smiling shyly as a breeze lifts the white hem of her dress around her ankles. I imagine her being happy with my father, relishing being watched and adored as he clicked the shutter.
My favorite picture is one where my mother is holding a purple iris, her eyes downcast as she breathes in the smell. I feel like I'm cheating by liking this photograph the most. Her eyes aren't glinting black or vacant; I can allow her to be present in the moment, let her eyes be sincere. I cannot stop staring at her image and my sisters and I figure that my mother must be nineteen or twenty when this photograph was taken. She is the same age I am when I poisoned my body, a frustrated attempt to erase her features from my memory forever.
“You know, she never really wanted you,” my father says carelessly, interrupting the silence in the room. “What?” I say, looking up from my book. My mother has just died and my father is drunk again, rambling away for the better part of the hour. I've been tuning him out; our relationship is better when we don't talk. His ignorance and insensitivity appall and infuriate me, but as soon as he says this, I know in my heart this is true.
We've been cleaning out my mother's things. It mostly involves throwing things away: clothes, jewelry, handbags. She had very possessions worth noting, although the clipped obituaries were a surprise. I don't recognize any of the names, only the catholic prayer cards, stark reminders of my mother's upbringing. I find several scraps of paper with illegible scrawls, most likely written during bouts of mania. Capital letters written in large, shaky handwriting dot the pages, sprinkled with death omens and her children's names, often crossed out. The notes surprise me but don't shock me – it's hard to do that anymore.
My father pauses for a moment, bringing me back from my reverie. He casually mentions the times my mother tried to hurt me: when she flicked the dishwasher open as I was running around the corner to trip me; when she chain-smoked throughout my pregnancy; how she intentionally sliced the tendons in my finger when I was four. Then he tells me a new story. Shrugging, he tells me about a time when my mother was six or eight months pregnant – he doesn't remember which – he found her lying at the foot of the stairs on his way to work. Her brow was furrowed and angry, and he was annoyed. He had to get to work and she was in the way. She didn't sleep well during the pregnancy, and a few days later he opened the door to the loft and she was on the steps again. My father has always remained blissfully ignorant of my mother's failings, and I wonder why he told me this. Had he stumbled upon her attempting to harm me, or worse – terminate the pregnancy? Seventeen months younger than me, my little sister was saddled with the Catholic “surprise” label, but my father makes it clear that there are more holes in the story. Even though this information hurt me, I know he didn't mean to; it was just what happened. He never uses the word “kill” as an explanation of her behavior, but that is what he means. I don't tell my sisters this either. It's not his job to apologize for her, but I still wish he would. He sighs noncommittally and flips on the TV for the Tiger's game. “You love who you love,” he says.
I step into the dimly lit kitchen angrily, noticing my mother's unwashed coffee cup in the sink, fading yellow and purple flowers dancing around the rim. I look around, taking note of a half-filled forgotten tea ball on the counter, the old leaves arid and hardened inside the mesh. Leaning back against the counter, I picture my mother's hand stirring the milk in her tea.
I want to believe that the things we own, and the things that own us, do not determine our fate.
My mother tried to cauterize her family, and I covered for her. I took her illness onto myself as a form of responsibility, catering to her paranoia and childish complaints. I internalized the fear and anxiety I felt she was unable to give her family. I became her mother. Maybe it was an attempt to assuage my own guilt for my actions, maybe it was because unconsciously I understood. When I received my Bipolar and Major Depressive Disorder diagnosis in college, I instinctively absorbed that I was like her. My depression could suck me under, I could become her – I could die.
When I cannot trust my mind or my racing thoughts, I imagine being stapled to the earth, my feet planted on cracked earth. I stand tall and tilt my face towards the treetops, measuring my breaths.
I still have impulses to use pain for pleasure, and I understand the vehemence my mother felt when she wrestled me to the ground. I'm beginning to understand her capacity for violence, how she craved attention and demanded love. Sometimes this is hard to fathom when I picture her hurling profanities, clamping her fingers around my waist and squeezing until my eyes are smarting, leaving purple welts behind.
There is no magic pill that can cure mental illness, and sometimes there is no amount of strategizing that can keep symptoms at bay. I still feel hot flames surging through my marrow and have to stop myself from driving off bridges, jumping off rooftops, or walking into traffic more regularly than I would like. Sometimes my depression is so crippling that I forget what day it is and who I am, how I got to where I'm sitting.
But I know one thing for certain: I do not have to be my mother. Yes, we will always be linked through our struggle with mental illness, but I no longer need to feel obligated. At the same time, I know I have more to offer than the gift of resilience. I know I'm not like her when I started to forgive, when I learned to turn myself inside out and stop hiding.
I like to envision that my mother felt guilty, but I will never know if this is true. I want to assume that she battled feelings of remorse when she wandered the house at night, stomping and slamming cupboards, arguing with herself. My mother never apologized for her behavior and this is what sets us apart. I love fiercely, without restraint, and I don't know if she really loved anyone, including herself. But then part of me thinks I'm being unfair: maybe we all love the best we know how; maybe she believed she loved me as much as she believed the voices she fought with, the paranoia she felt.
The truth is that my mother's death allowed me to be reborn. Not everyone can be saved, but we don't need to hide the truth anytime someone dies by their own hand. If my mother had cancer or heart disease, there would be less judgement. Society would forgive her and allow her to feel relief from pain. The pervasive stigma surrounding mental illnesses prevents acceptance in suffering, shames caretakers into believing they didn't do enough. The truth is I probably tried to help too much; I felt like I was trading one life for another and blamed myself when neither person wanted to live.
Those who struggle with mental illness live in a constant state of vulnerability. The systems designed to protect us sometimes take advantage of us in the worst kind of ways. My mother fueled and enabled my illnesses, but she couldn't have prevented mine or hers from occurring. So I did what I needed to do to begin healing: I left. Suffocating under the weight of untold stories and unanswered questions, I left Michigan behind and moved to Pittsburgh, a city I had never been to and a place I didn't know a soul. I don't regret anything. I want to believe that happiness is not found in the bottom of a wine glass, that joy is not linked to luck. I brought my stories with me to channel heartache into art, to make a positive change in the community and in myself. I still struggle with feeling like happiness is expendable, that there is a finite amount of it in the universe. But as the lump in my chest dissolves, I recognize that there is mercy in chaos and opportunities in redemption.
On my desk today, I keep a framed copy of the photograph of my mother smelling the flower. It is the only framed picture of my immediate family that I have.
What does it mean that I keep it close by? I will never know if it's the right story -- if it's the true story -- but I want to visualize a time when my mother was happy. Maybe she wasn't plagued by demons yet, and maybe she was. All I know is that I like to picture her happy once, even if I never saw it in person. I almost died at the age my mother is in this photograph, and the incongruity between our lives at this moment is striking. I suppose I like the concept that we're working it out together, even if she's in the frame and I'm on the canvas. I've never felt more alone, more lost, or freer as I do in this moment. I don't know what happiness means, but every day I'm getting closer.
Camille Chidsey, 28, lives in Squirrel Hill. She has major depressive disorder, type two bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and symptomatic borderline personality disorder.