Death, New Life, Mental Illness, and Owning What Happened to You

Well, friends, I see it’s been awhile since I’ve sat down to update ye olde blog. It’s been a very… intense few months, and I am just now able to see some daylight peeking through those ominous trees. Some hope. Some closure.

Back near the end of April, I took a pregnancy test (the latest of many), and it was positive. Yes, my husband and I had been “trying.” And yes, my first reaction (after a few months of tracking every period and every ovulation cycle and using those messy progesterone suppositories which I resented and yet clung to with their promise of making it through a full first trimester) was one of elation. We did it! But, as you can probably glean from the preceding sentence, that feeling was quickly followed by trepidation and stress. My husband and I had already been through two miscarriages several months prior, and the idea of it happening again made my heart heavy. I told myself this time I wouldn’t get too emotionally invested until we’d made it to the second trimester. This time, we would be cautious with our hearts, and with who we told.

In the mean time, I became very superstitious. As a pagan, I’ve got a strong streak of that anyway, but the delicate balancing act you play with your heart and head when you’ve gone through multiple miscarriages calls for a bit of “extra” in the superstition department. I took magic from wherever I could get it. My dear friend Terri Wallace, before I even conceived, and shortly after the last miscarriage (when I let her know I was still willing to try again), gave me her Saint Gerard medallion, which she wore with her first successful pregnancy after a miscarriage. She said, “don’t take it off, not ever, not even to shower.” I follow directions. And then my oldest friend, Sarah Franz-Wichlacz, who at the time was working at a metaphysical shop in Minneapolis, sent me not only strength and well-wishes, but also put her head and energy together with her boss and commissioned for me a couple of necklaces made with all the right stones and intentions for a healthy pregnancy. I donned them with deep thanks.

Through these delicate months, I stayed upbeat. I told a very small group of people about my pregnancy, not wanting a big public acknowledgement in case something went wrong, but refusing to “go it alone” because I know that too many women who go through miscarriage feel isolated; they feel they can’t talk about what they’re going through, with the failed pregnancies or the current one. I was going to be smart about this.

I told my three closest girlfriends, my husband told his mother, I told one couple – mutual friends of mine and my husband’s because they were going through the same thing – and I told my aunt. I didn’t tell my mom.

The thing you need to understand is that things between my mother and I have always been complicated. I will explain in a minute. But, suffice it to say, I told her sister, because things with my aunt have always been a lot less complicated, and I didn’t tell her. I mean, I meant to. I would get to it. I just hadn’t yet.

The next thing that happened, a few short weeks later, was a short series of phone calls between me and Aunt Chris, sparked by my aunt’s concern that perhaps mom was avoiding her. My aunt couldn’t get a hold of her by phone, and when my uncle had gone to mom’s apartment, she didn’t answer the door. But she didn’t have a car, so it was hard to tell if she was actually home at all. Aunt Chris asked me to call, since my mother had no reason to avoid her only daughter. I did. I got voicemail and left a short cheery message asking her to call me back. I then called my aunt back. My mother worked for Walmart. I told Chris to call mom’s job and see if she’d been at work lately. If not, I told her to call the local police and have them check in on her at home.

The next call after that, a few days later, was my aunt telling me I’d better sit down.

There is a certain practicality which takes over your mind when you find out your parent, with whom your relationship has been”complicated,” has died. There isn’t an appropriate straightforward emotion just waiting there to surface, because nothing about this relationship is straightforward. And so, to protect your mind from cracking under the confusion and disbelief and sorrow and regret and pain and even relief of it all, your mind goes into “take care of business” mode. Or, at least that’s what mine did. Even though I knew, on the surface and underneath, that what was really happening was the symbolic end of the single most traumatic, intense, connected, terrifying, and formative times of my life. This was the end of the era that defined me.

Not everyone grows up with a parent who is mentally ill. My mother was a paranoid schizophrenic, though I don’t believe she was formally diagnosed until after my time with her, when her own father finally admitted her to a mental hospital. I was around 16 or 17 years old and already living with my father by then.

My parents divorced when I was 10 years old, when my father moved to Oklahoma for a job, and it was just her and me for the next five years. Whatever small hints my father may have had that his wife had some issues which weren’t strictly normal, they all reared their terrifying heads and spiraled out of control after he left. I was the only witness. No one knew then, and no one knows still how bad it really got when it was just me and her, except maybe two or three very close friends. Mom and I were like Thelma and Louise, if Thelma had been schizophrenic and only thought the authorities were after them and there was no way out, and Louise had had to keep them from committing double suicide by distracting Thelma with constant road music and a sunny outlook. “On second thought, Thelma, let’s not keep going, mmmmkay?”

Thelma_&_Louiseposter

As intense as those five years were, I haven’t let myself write about them much, at least not where the public can see. I will admit, it has been a bit stifling, creatively. You are supposed to “write what you know,” they say. Even Anne Lamott said, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

But it sometimes isn’t as easy as that.

My mother did some terrifying things, and placed us in some horribly precarious situations. But, in the end, I know that she was doing nearly all of it for me. Her visions were nightmarish, and all of the moving and sneaking and disappearing off the face of the earth, like living in a dark espionage film and your characters are on the run from the shady government officials who aren’t quite “official,” was done to protect me from ‘Them.’ When I can remove myself from the trauma of it all, I know it can definitely make for great story fodder. But my silence up to this point has been to protect her. To keep my mom from stumbling onto something I wrote, putting two and two together, and feeling pain or guilt or embarrassment. She wasn’t a cruel mother, and I wasn’t a victim. She was a woman with a mental illness, battling relentless invisible demons and unfathomable fears, and I… was collateral damage.

I had written a piece, actually, which touched upon these things. It was for a Chicken Soup for the Soul edition focusing on volunteering, and I’d submitted it earlier this  year. The story I sent them hearkened back to a time when mom and I were staying in battered women’s shelters and the power of a good volunteer who reached out to me via literature, soothing my little bookworm heart. I wrote this piece under my pen name here. After it was accepted*, the Chicken Soup people asked if I would be interested in working with their publicity people, since I’d written under a pseudonym. Was I okay with my true identity being revealed? I received that email just weeks after my mother passed. I thought about it, and that’s when I realized my reason for anonymity with that particular topic had essentially vanished. And now, as the dust settles and I come to accept that my mother is, in fact, gone, I know that my gag order has been recalled. Now it is time to “own everything that happened to me.” It came sooner than I wished or expected, but here it is. My life post-mom.

So, before I embark on essays and tales on the experiences of a teenage girl living with a schizophrenic single parent, I need to put this out into the universe:

Mom, I love you. I know it wasn’t your fault. I know you didn’t know any better. It was scary for me at times, more terrifying than any young lady in her most formative years should ever experience, but I know that whatever fear I felt, yours was exponentially worse. I know that you did everything you did, not to scare me, but to protect me. And I know that you would have done it all differently, if you could have seen any other way.

And now, my friends, I’m going to go before I get my laptop wet and turn into a blubbering mess here at the office. Lunch breaks are bad times for deep confession.

Thanks for being there. We’ll talk again soon.

Oh, one last thing. I am now 18 weeks along, we’re having a boy, and the doctor says everything looks fine.

*My story, “A Sort of Shelter,” will be published in the collection, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering Giving Back, and will be available for sale in stores August 18, 2015.

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About akfrancis

I write fiction, drink coffee, herd kids and furry creatures, and try to make the world a little better than I found it.
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