I’ve finally started reading into schizophrenia, the disease my mom suffered from ever since I can remember. I’m barely 30, and most people assume that I’ve enjoyed an easy life because I don’t talk about all my drama, and I try to treat everything with a wry sense of humor because that’s how I survived all the nights in the hospital, or watching her dragged out of the house in handcuffs, or sleeping with my bedroom door locked. Sometimes I even convince myself that those years weren’t so bad on me. After all, I have advanced degrees, a lovely job that I don’t complain about too much, and even a spouse. People have no idea that I’m a victim of what psychologists would describe as extended, severe abuse across multiple categories: physical, emotional, neglectful, and sexual. Hey, even I didn’t know I had it that bad until I looked into it.
It turns out that psychologists know all about me, and I wish I’d read Sharon Smith’s article “The Longest Bereavement,” about adults who grew up as children of schizophrenics, when it came out in 2004. It’s written for other doctors, but easy enough to understand. Maybe if I blog about it, someone else will come across this article sooner than I did and find a little peace with their upbringing.
Dr. Smith argues that children of schizophrenic parents usually experience “the longest bereavement,” an extended or even endless (in my case) period of guilt, remorse, and shock at their parents’ transformation, the loss of the parent they had to mental illness, or the wish for a parent they never had. Children of schizophrenic parents suffer all the same emotional burden as watching a loved one succumb to Alzheimer’s or Dementia, but we do so at an age we’re not even remotely equipped to handle it. Plus, we also experience the fun of fearing for our health and safety. I know that not all schizophrenics are violent, but my mom was dangerous, especially before she was diagnosed, because she was trusted with me alone. The same goes for many children riding the same roller coaster.
Where do I even begin? Reading the narratives and discussion gathered here made me feel normal for once. The sympathy and understanding Dr. Smith shows to people like me was almost spiritual, and a little unsettling, but it was also cathartic to have a complete stranger write about my types of experiences with such clarity. I read about other adults whose parents threatened them with knives as children, tried to introduce them to the voices in their heads, drove cars off cliffs, beat them because they thought their own children were aliens. The consequences of my mom’s schizophrenia weren’t things I’d made up to console myself.
I’ve lived through everything Smith describes. Parentification is a particular form of abuse I’m familiar with, since I had to assume the motherly role–buying groceries as early as age 16, supervising my brother’s homework, cooking, keeping my mom from hurting herself. When she wanted to take the car for a spin, I was supposed to keep the keys hidden from her. I wonder who else at the age of 16 had the tables turned like this? There was also the time I had to drive us home 4 hours on the highway from my uncle’s house at the age of 15, barely after receiving my learner’s permit, while my mom rambled about conspiracies in the back seat. Plus, I also assumed shared responsibility for making my mom take her meds, something she often turned violent about if you pressed too hard.
The emotional abuse was probably the worst, and has left the biggest hole. My mom used every play in the child abuser’s handbook. For a long time, I didn’t even make a connection between strange things I did and all the verbal assaults. This one time, for example, I was out drinking with some friends at a crowded club. I did something silly, and a friend laughed at me and said, “You idiot!”
She was only kidding, but I felt like she’d just cast a spell on me. I stared at her a few seconds, and then my heart-rate spiked and I couldn’t speak or hear anymore. Everything sounded like it was under water except for that one word “idiot” echoing through my head. I turned and walked straight out of the bar, two blocks to my car (parking was shit) and drove home where I sat in the dark for an hour. “What the fuck is this?” I kept asking myself. I knew she was joking, but I couldn’t control the emotional response.
It was embarrassing, and I just tried to lie about why I’d left the next day. Awkward? Yeah. To this day, when I’m feeling like shit for no reason, even after good news, I have to sit in a dark quiet place and remind myself that I’m always probably going to feel slightly off, always a little pissy, and sometimes weepy. I just don’t trust my emotions. I have to listen to the left half of my brain during these spells, and wait for the right side to shape up. (Yeah, I’ve made more than one stupid decision based on what my emotions were telling me. I thought starting this blog was one of those bad decisions, but it’s been more than a month and I’m still here, so that says something.)
I don’t often share because I don’t like being a victim, or treated like one. I don’t want anyone’s sympathy; I want their respect for overcoming all this shit I was dealt, as early as age six. I’m proud that I’ve climbed up out of my abyss. My family struggled through the worst ourselves, without much help from relatives or friends or even the medical system, and now my mom is finally in a facility because she’s too frail to cause any more trouble (just can’t take care of herself anymore). I haven’t spoken to her in almost six years, and the distance has deadened my recurring nightmares and occasional panic attacks. I struggle to keep my cool when listening to other people talk about their “problems” or “hardships,” and I used the picture above to express what they look like to me. But I’m getting there. Pretty soon I’ll be able to offer support to other people and listen to their problems without getting triggered. For now, I think I’m going to follow The Doctor’s example and use cards: