The Shadow of Schizophrenia
When she was back, she was on medications that helped her function but had powerful side effects and didn't restore the person we had known. We lived in a repeating cycle of hospitalization, medication, stabilization, and disintegration. We lived in the dark, navigating a mental-health care system that shut us out of the circle of care and communication. We didn't know Mom had schizophrenia. We didn't know she would always need treatment.
At some point in the exhausting cycle, that precious koala found its way from my collection of childhood treasures into my mother's arms. At night I tucked them in together. The matted fur and flattened features, misshapen by my love, symbolized how very needy my mother had become.
I never talked to a counselor in high school, and never discussed Mom's illness with an adult. I didn't know how to frame an experience I couldn't understand, and no one asked what was happening at home. Our church was full of well-meaning people who were mostly ignorant of our problems and, among those who knew, largely at a loss. I was a strong student, resourceful, socially competent, hardworking, and principled. I was absolutely determined not to be the kind of weak, vulnerable, flailing person I saw in my mother. Already an independent teenager, I embraced self-determination and moved toward the life I wanted. I looked out for my younger sister and looked to the outside world for my definitions of normal. When I left the house, I pushed away sadness and confusion and became another, lighthearted version of myself. I denied sadness and pain to the point that I stopped feeling them.
When I had the choice, I distanced myself from Mom. I didn't introduce her to my friends, and I rarely invited anyone to our house. My best friend's mom, who attended our church, commented that she had seen me sitting next to a quiet woman at church one week and realized that was my mom. Even though her daughter and I had been hanging out a lot for a few years, she had never met my mom—she didn't even know who my mom was. I was desperately ashamed of Mom's vulnerability and oddities and feared my association with her would paint me in the same colors.
But she was my mom after all, and distance wasn't always possible. One day when I was 15, she had a psychotic episode in the dentist's waiting room. Desperate to show others and myself my own competence, I drove Mom around to do errands with her. When she fumbled with her food stamps at the day-old bread store, I counted them out with a flourish and gave the cashier a look daring her to despise us.
My siblings and I were all expected to go to college, and I agonized in choosing a school, never thinking of involving my parents until Dad offered to help me decide. Ultimately, I chose a school that fit two main criteria: a sense of nonthreatening community, and a comfortable distance from home.
A Long Night
I thrived on both distance and community but didn't leave home as thoroughly as I had wanted. I began suspecting that my coping mechanism—denying negative emotions too overwhelming to face—had suppressed my capacity for positive emotions too. I had many friends, but my independence was a liability. I automatically built walls between us for my own safety.
Mom's ongoing illness still slashed at me. She sent me coloring-book pages in the mail and I never knew what to expect when I went home. I began to understand that what I wanted most was to feel small and weak, supported by someone stronger and wiser than me, who loved me despite the places where my fur was matted and I had been awkwardly mended. To trust someone whose own fur wasn't falling out.