Mom's dark spells left kids in house of chaos

Secrecy of mental illness took a heavy toll on Star reporter and her brother
2011-04-17T00:00:00Z 2014-08-05T10:27:00Z Mom's dark spells left kids in house of chaosCarol Ann Alaimo Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 17, 2011 12:00 am  • 

Now that my mother is dead, our relationship is the best it's ever been.

While she was alive, neither one knew what to do about the wall between us that existed as far back as I remember.

Mom spent most of her life behind a mask, trying to pretend she wasn't mentally ill. And I spent most of mine judging her harshly for things I did not understand.

In mid-20th century America - and often still, today - families didn't talk openly of loved ones having schizophrenia, or bipolar illness, or major depression, conditions so common that experts say they strike one in 17 adults.

Mental illness was considered a curse, a disgrace, a black mark on the clan. Elders made excuses - "She's just high-strung" - or looked the other way.

Children, in particular, were kept in the dark.

The silence left me and my only sibling - a brother who later would take his life - to grow up in chaos without knowing why, assuming, the way kids do, that we were somehow to blame.

I've had decades to consider what might have been different had my mother's illness not been cloaked in secrecy and shame.

MOTHERLY ADVICE

When Mom was doing well, she could be comical: A spirited blonde who sang and played piano, she had a laugh so loud it announced her presence in any room.

Sometimes she'd try to offer motherly advice, though often it was off the wall, colored by a suspicion of others that sprang from schizophrenia.

"Don't smile so much - people will think you're retarded," she'd counsel me.

Mom had a master's degree in education. She worked on and off as a teacher for years - until she was caught drinking on the job. She'd load up her purse with vodka - "it doesn't smell on your breath" - hiding it in empty brown cough syrup bottles she'd swig from in the darkness of her classroom coat closet.

"My nerves are bad," she said one morning as I watched her fill the bottles on the kitchen counter.

DARK SPELLS

Her dark spells - Mom also suffered from major depression - often lasted months. When they came, our split-level in Western New York seemed to mirror her inner gloom.

It would reek of unemptied trash and overflowing ashtrays, of sour dishwater and unwashed skin. Thick living room drapes were coated with dust, never parted to let sunshine in.

Often, the only light was from a TV screen. Bluish rays would flicker over Mom's crumpled form on the couch, day and night, in the same clothes she'd worn for weeks.

If someone knocked on the door, we kids knew to shut up, freeze and pretend no one was home.

Unannounced visitors were forbidden. Mom was afraid of strangers and, I now suspect, of anyone learning her children were virtually raising themselves.

Sometimes there wasn't much food in the house. By age 6 or 7, I'd figured out how to forage in the back of the freezer and kitchen cupboards, concocting dinners for my brother and me out of stale egg noodles or freezer-burned pot pies. We learned to run the washing machine, to get to the school bus on our own.

A woman in despair could hardly be expected to make rational choices in romance. Mom married three times to men with mental problems of their own.

Our birth father, who had bipolar disorder, left us when I was 2, not long after my brother was born.

Our next dad had a cruel streak. He once burned my brother's hands with a cigarette lighter - ostensibly to teach a lesson after the boy, then 5, was caught playing with matches.

I still can see my brother, hair shorn in a summer buzz cut, forced to stand with arms outstretched like Christ on the cross. Our stepdad flicked open a silver Zippo, the faint scent of lighter fluid wafting as flint struck metal.

A blue flame popped up. It was tipped with yellow, and my brother shrieked as it singed his skin. My mother looked on from a doorway, hands at her mouth.

I screamed at her to make it stop. She did nothing.

When it was over, we were sent to our rooms, where we wailed for what seemed like hours, then fell asleep, exhausted.

We figured then that no one was going to protect us. Who could we ask for help - a teacher? Our mother was a teacher.

Our next stepdad, an alcoholic, would punch my brother and once chased mom around the house with a cleaver, holding it to her throat in a drunken melee.

No matter what horrors had unfolded the night before, the next day everyone went about their business pretending things were fine.

By my teens, I was angry. And mouthy.

"What's WRONG with you?! You're not normal!" I would yell at my mother.

"You're crazy," was her standard reply. She'd insist that she was fine. Other people were the problem.

My brother and I emerged from childhood with post-traumatic stress disorder, our nervous systems overwhelmed by exposure to wrenching events.

I escaped by marrying the first man who asked me and moving to another country.

He escaped into a world of drug abuse.

DOCTORS, PILLS

I don't mean to make it sound like my mom was a monster. At times, when the fog in her brain would clear, I'd get a glimpse of the kind of parent I now believe she wanted to be, had it been within her power.

Once a year or so, she would hire a cleaning crew and throw a party, inviting relatives who'd exclaim what a great job she was doing with her kids.

In later years, her illness seemed to go into remission now and then. During these times, she took great interest in my children, who have fond memories of her.

It's not like my mother never tried to get help, I now realize. I dimly recall her spending long periods in hospitals, while my brother and I lived with relatives.

At times, she seemed to have lots of doctors' appointments. A kitchen shelf became crowded with bottles of pills with strange-sounding names: Haldol, Thorazine, Prolixin, which I now know were antipsychotics.

The medicines may have quieted her mind, but they did awful things to her body.

Sometimes she'd sit for hours with her mouth agape, as if persistently astonished. Sometimes she seemed near-paralyzed, only able to walk by shuffling her feet in baby steps.

Medical knowledge of mental illness was in its infancy in the 1960s and 70s. Unlike today, doctors often couldn't do much to help.

Mom, I now suspect, would stop taking her medications when the side effects became too much to bear.

I used to worry a lot about becoming mentally ill myself. Not once, but twice - just to be sure - I took myself to psychiatrists who declared me sane.

Somehow, I escaped my mother's fate.

NEARING THE END

When the end came for Mom, it was like, well … something you might read about in a newspaper.

A county health department condemned her home, which was overrun with animal excrement from pets she'd stopped caring for.

The squalor came to light when Mom had a car accident, and paramedics found she had a fever of 104 degrees. Hospital tests revealed a massive e-coli infection, a likely consequence of the filth in which she'd been living.

During treatment, she had to go off all psychiatric medications. Only then did I see what schizophrenia looked like in the raw.

In terrified whispers, Mom told me how "rape squads" were attacking her in the hospital at night, how the rapists had infiltrated the ward by posing as physicians wearing white coats.

"There's one of them!" she hissed as a doctor walked by.

She hunched in a ball, like an armadillo trying to ward off a predator. Her hair was stringy, her eyes wild.

It didn't matter how many times I tried to explain that her mind was playing tricks on her. To her, the danger was real.

"Please! Pleeeeease!" she begged, clinging to me when visiting hours ended. "They're coming! Don't leave me!"

She died a few months later, on April Fools Day 2000.

MEMORIES, TEARS

With her passing, painful memories came flooding back to my brother and me.

His addictions escalated, landing him in jail. He did stints in rehab, but killed himself a few years later.

By grace, good luck or whatever one calls it, I was able to recover.

It took years of therapy, and rivers of tears, to untangle the web that stigma wove. I became a mom myself - a pretty good one, my now-grown kids say - and a doting grandma.

By some miracle, I now find myself at the center of the loving family I'd always craved. It is this, more than anything, that has given me compassion for my mom.

She missed out on this joy of deep connection. I put myself in her shoes and wonder: What would it be like to have kids you couldn't nurture? To have a chemical imbalance in your brain and be made to feel ashamed of it?

There's a lot that we, as a community, can't do about mental illness. We can't cure it, and we can't ever seem to find enough money to treat all those who need it.

But we can talk about it.

Talking gives others permission to talk, too.

And eventually, we start to unshackle one another.

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at calaimo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4138.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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