Living with Someone Else’s Mental Illness – Esther’s Story

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When Jane invited me to write for this series I shot back a long list of things that I couldn’t possibly write about. Whole sections of my childhood are marked out in red pen. I thought I might post anonymously, but then I found it hard to disguise my voice. I thought about writing theoretically, in broad and general terms, but that didn’t seem to do justice to Jane’s vulnerable post last week.

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In the end, I decided to tell the truth, as best I can, about my mother.

Many people know that my mother was a writer. She was a public figure. She was funny on TV. She had amazing gifts. Her vulnerable and courageous writing still touches people’s hearts today, even ten years after her death.

Not as many people know my mother’s struggles. She was a person for whom the boundaries of reality and fantasy were permeable. She lived with fear, and her fears were often things no other adult could understand to be true. I later came to call them by the name delusions.

As a child I was intensely close to my mother. I knew how to spot her moods coming. I comforted her. I used what skills I had to keep our family in safe situations, to cover for her when I could, and to prevent the knowledge or intervention of CPS.

As a teenager I broke free. I was fully independent at age 16 and didn’t speak to my mother for years. It was a deep struggle for me, to make sense of it all. It took years of personal work, including professional help, to throw off my mother’s version of the world and see instead with my own eyes, which are not clouded (or gifted) in the same way as hers.

I have walked through anger and confusion. I expected mental illness in myself, and when it didn’t come, I felt relief but also a confusing sense of wrongdoing on my own part, even betrayal. I have not expected others to understand these things. I have kept my secrets well, and felt lonely in them.

I don’t believe there are easy answers, in the question of privacy and someone else’s mental illness. Confidentiality is no joke in the realm of mental competency. These assertions can lose people jobs, right to self-determination, mutual respect. They can bring on criticism, public shaming and disdain that could trigger dangerous episodes of depression, rage, and violence.

But what I most want to share is none of that. It is not the story of loneliness or even confusion. I think loneliness and confusion are nearly universal in the human journey, don’t you? What I want to share is the gifts I have received, being the child of a guardian with mental illness.

These are complicated gifts, but also precious ones. They are tolerance, patience, and compassion. They are the ability to see deep, through the brokenness of the day to day into the beauty of the heart within. They are a nuanced understanding of able-ness, the wisdom that an intelligence that doesn’t fit inside the box of “normalcy” is an intelligence that brings alternate, challenging and possibly much needed perspective.

My mother’s readers were touched and blessed by the very same vulnerability that made it hard for her to sustain relationships, intermittently impossible for her to put a meal on the table or keep a job.

Today my own readers are touched and blessed by the very same depth and compassion I learned from her, being her child, her dependent, her human companion.

My mother came with lots of jagged edges. She wasn’t always a safe place for me. In fact, often she wasn’t. I grieved what mental illness took from her (and by extension, from me) long before she died.

But it never took her humanity. And humanity is a bottomless and never ending gift.

These days I hear often that I look like my mother. Except, actually, not so much after I cut my hair. Still, I hear that I write like my mother. I am radical like my mother. I love words and dirt and animals like my mother.

I am like her, and yet I never could or had to go the places that she went. Now I carry her in my body, like all daughters carry their mothers: sometimes an encouragement and sometimes a devastating weight.

This was the woman that was my mother: human, flawed, extraordinary, vulnerable and loved.

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estheremerywriterEsther Emery used to be a freelance theatre director in Southern California. But that was a long time ago. These days she is pretty much a runaway, living off grid in a yurt and tending to three acres of near wilderness in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. She writes about faith and rebellion and trying to live a totally free life on her blog. Connect on Twitter @EstherEmery.

  • Pingback: Living With Someone Else’s Mental Illness (over at Jane Halton’s place)()

  • Diane Lauber

    This is really really beautiful. Its honesty is powerful. Thank you for this sharing.

  • This is so beautiful. And healing for me, in many ways

  • wnhen@aol.com

    Thank you so much for this sharing. I am touched deeply.

  • Thank you for sharing this. My experience growing up as a child of a mentally ill mother are also marked out as “topics about which I can write.” I often struggle with how to write about what it took from me, from our relationship, while still honoring her and what it gave to me. You did that so beautifully. Thank you!