By Lori Schafer
You don’t have to be mentally ill to suffer the stigma associated with mental illness.
I know all about it. My mother became psychotic when I was a teenager. She may never have known how the world saw her – or me – after that. But I did.
You can imagine what it was like, living in a small town with a parent with a severe mental illness. There probably wasn’t anyone who didn’t know. My mother’s delusions didn’t permit her to sit quietly at home where no one would notice her illness. She believed that someone was waiting to attack me at my school, and at length she somehow persuaded the school board to allow her to attend classes with me.
You can’t fault her motives. Besides, at the time, I considered it an improvement. Prior to that, she had removed me from school altogether.
It sounds almost funny now. In reality, of course, nothing could have been more humiliating than being “that girl with the crazy mother.” There was something very strange about meeting someone after class – every class – and having it be my mother. There was something even more bizarre about being confronted by snickering strangers in those rare moments when I found myself alone.
“Hey, aren’t you that girl whose mother has green hair and comes to school with her?”
“It isn’t really green,” I would argue. “It’s supposed to be blonde; something just went wrong during the coloring.”
Yet this was how I would forever after be known. Until the day I ran away from home, that’s who I was: Judy Green-Hair’s daughter. To certain people, I probably always will be.
That was the flip side of it. Even people who cared about me began to treat me differently because of what had happened to my mother. Some of my friends became cautious in dealing with me; many of their parents, much more so. Their attitude wasn’t unreasonable. My mother was dangerous and unpredictable; it was only natural for people to want to avoid her.
It is also true that some mental illnesses are hereditary, and can be passed down through the generations. Therefore it also wasn’t completely unreasonable for them to wonder whether I, too, might one day succumb to my mother’s affliction.
I understood this. Still, I very quickly tired of having my every move, my every action evaluated and reevaluated, as if everything I did might serve as confirmation that I, too, was insane.
My experience of adolescence was anything but ordinary. But in many ways, I was still an average teenager who did average – and stupid – teenage things. When my mother had operations on her feet in my senior year, she was housebound for several months. It was the first taste of freedom I’d experienced in some time, and I acted accordingly. I snuck out at night. I skipped classes to hang out with my friends. I drank and made an ass out of myself. I did dumb things that I regretted. Who doesn’t?
In any other teenager, these types of behaviors would have been considered normal acts of rebellion. But not for me. No, when I did it, it was evidence. Was I sane, or insane?
For example, when I finally got to college, I experimented with drugs. Nothing hard-core; nothing out of the ordinary for a kid who’s on her own for the first time. I happened to mention this to a friend of mine from back home in a letter. Someone who, incidentally, had already done far more experimenting then I had ever done, or ever would do.
I could not have been more stunned by his response. He inscribed to me a lengthy lecture regarding my behavior in recent years, and cautioned me strongly against using any more recreational substances.
“How could you be so stupid? What if that was what drove your mother insane?”
I was so angry that I responded with a letter containing the return address of an insane asylum and a detailed description of how my basket-weaving courses were going.
The last laugh was on me, though. Seems people were so ready to believe that I had gone off my rocker that they entirely missed the sarcasm of my missive. In return, I received delicately worded responses from other friends wishing me a speedy recovery.
My mother’s condition is not something I’ve advertised over the years. It’s hard to explain something like that. And it’s better not to try.
Because people do think of you differently, when they know. Consider my circumstances. My mother was violent and irrational. I lived in a state of constant fear, and after I left home, I lived in my car. It would have been crazy to expect me to be happy and well-adjusted. Yet no one ever looked at me and said, “All things considered, she’s doing pretty well.”
All things considered, I was doing pretty well. I made my own way in the world without any help from anyone – which is an achievement of which none of my “saner” friends can ever boast.
Yet there were still those who breathed a sigh of relief when I got to be old enough where it was unlikely that I would turn out to be schizophrenic. All those years of watching, waiting, and evaluating had finally drawn to an end.
I can’t guess what it’s like to be truly mentally ill. But I do know how the world treats those that are, and it isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s precisely why people like my mother never get treatment. Who would ever want to admit that they had a problem if they knew how harshly they were going to be judged for it?
My mother died in 2007. I no longer have to equivocate when people ask me about her.
“She’s dead,” I say simply.
People are sorry. I suppose that’s nice, that they’re sorry that my mother is gone.
But why wasn’t anyone ever sorry when I said she was ill?
Lori Schafer is a writer of serious prose and humorous erotica and romance. Her flash fiction, short stories, and essays have appeared in numerous print and online publications, and she is currently at work on her third novel. Her memoir, On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened: A Daughter’s Memoir of Mental Illness, is being released in November 2014; it is now available for Kindle pre-order. You can find out more about Lori by visiting her website at http://lorilschafer.com/.