My Mother’s Obsession With Mental Illness Made Us Both Get Help — But It Also Pushed Us Apart
When I was growing up, my mother taught me that the worst thing you could do to someone was call them “mentally ill.” I don’t mean that she taught me to be sensitive about using that language; I mean that she literally taught me that if you needed to destroy someone, you did it with those words. And my mother was always in the middle of destroying someone. When I was a kid, it was my dad; she would shriek, “Mentally ill! You’re MENTALLY ILL!” at my father over and over during their constant fights, like an incantation. After he moved out, I became the one marked for destruction. During our own fights, she’d run through every other ad hominem attack before bringing out what she thought was a total and utter mic drop: she’d tell me I was crazy.
When she did this, I was mostly just confused. At 13, I cared when popular girls made fun of my arm hair, or boys I had crushes on told me I was weird, or even when my mother said harsh things about my friends or my shyness. But calling me crazy? Everyone I knew’s parents were confused by them; we were 13, after all. My mother was usually a master of emotional attack, but when she flashed the “crazy” card, I usually just shrugged.
It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that my mother’s obsession with calling other people "mentally ill" wasn’t random; it seemed tied to her own fears about her mental health. She dropped clues here and there: insinuating that psychiatrists were "charlatans;” that the then-new antidepressant Prozac was for “nuts" like "your father;” that if anyone was dumb enough to tell their secrets to a therapist, they’d end up locked in a psychiatric ward and they’d deserve it for being so stupid.
But my mother’s hang-ups became clearer to me when I was 15 or 16, when she took me to a therapist for the first time. To her, this was an enormous punishment for me; she told me that she was tired of fighting with me about my rebellious behavior, and that she was taking me to someone else who would talk sense into me. But she also presented the experience as a punishment; a humiliating ordeal that would make me realize how good I had it at home.
That is, of course, not what happened. I had never had an adult listen to and support me before; my teachers always seemed confused about how to talk to me, and my friends’ parents made sure to avoid heavy talk about my home life. But this therapist listened as I told her what upset me about my life, about how confused I felt, about how my mother controlled everything and went absolutely atomic whenever I tried to act like a regular teenager. I had never before discussed my feelings with someone who didn’t want to judge me, with someone who seemed to be pulling for me to win. The therapist never directly said to me, “Your mother has problems,” but she told me to hold on, that I’d be out of my house soon.
After a few session, my mother picked a screaming fight with the center’s billing office, so that she’d have a reason to never take me back. “You shouldn’t believe whatever that therapist told you,” my mother said, as we drove away. “Therapists tell you whatever you want to hear.”
It wasn’t until a decade later, when I started therapy in earnest, that I learned that my mother’s schoolyard taunts had actually been factual: I did indeed have a mental illness. This was a profound relief; I had been paralyzed by anxiety for my entire life, but I had always thought I just missed some essential lesson in how to be a "normal" person. To find out that I simply had some misfiring synapses that had given me something called Generalized Anxiety Disorder — I was so happy, I wanted to start a parade in the middle of the street.
But as ecstatic as I was to have a diagnosis, and all the hope that came with it, I was sad that my mother would never have this for herself. She had obviously been battling demons my whole life, ones that confused her the same way mine had. Pre-therapy, I had dealt with my problems by self-medicating with alcohol; she coped by either yelling at whoever was handy or numbing out with TV. Therapy helped me make a life that once felt like hell start to seem manageable, livable, sometimes even nice. I felt sorry that my mother was so clearly terrified of this thing that could help her, too.
And it was clear that she was still terrified of it. Not long after I started therapy, we had a phone call where I broached the topic of whether medication could help her. “Maybe YOU need Prozac!” my mother screamed back, the worst insult she could fathom. I was tempted to scream back, “Actually, I need Xanax!” But instead, I hung up. Soon after, we fell into the first of many extended stretches of not talking.
It had never occurred to me that actually, maybe, I didn’t know my mother at all.
So I was surprised when, in the summer of 2013, I received a phone call informing me that my mother was now a patient at a psychiatric hospital near my home town. We hadn’t spoken for several years at that point, but she had still put me down as her emergency contact.
I was encouraged by the counselor to not speak to my mother while she was getting treatment at the hospital, and I didn’t. But I attended a family and friends presentation for her program, where I learned that my mother was in treatment for issues related to borderline personality disorder. She was in classes for eight hours a day, learning coping techniques and how to better understand her emotions. She talked to therapists, took art classes, learned about yoga. They gave us visitors worksheets outlining the hospital’s treatment plan, which I marveled over on the train ride home. I felt like I had reached into the pocket of an old pair of pants and found a million dollars. My mother was finally getting help. It felt like anything was possible from here — including our having a healthy relationship.
A few weeks later, I had a phone call with my mother’s psychiatrist; my mother was no longer at the hospital, and was now receiving treatment at the doctor’s office once a week. The psychiatrist thought it was still too soon for us to talk directly, and I agreed. We talked about my mother and the challenges we’d had in our relationship, vaguely but hopefully; she told me that my mother had hoped her treatment would bring us back in touch, that that had been one of her biggest motivations in getting help. I made plans to visit the office a few months later, to meet with my mother and her psychiatrist together, to talk, to try to reconcile.
That is, of course, not what happened. My mother didn’t scream and yell or make accusations, as she had in the past when we’d had disputes; she was calm and polite. But she still didn’t understand the problems I raised about our relationship. She didn’t want to hear about why I was hurt by the ways she'd betrayed my trust through the years; she just brushed past them, saying that I should have trusted her to fix the problems that resulted from her actions. She didn’t want to discuss my hurt at all, it seemed. She sounded eager to return to our old dynamic, where any resistance I gave her would be entirely for show; I would scream and argue, but in the end, I’d give in and let her make my decisions for me, every single time. I didn’t want to go back to that. I left the office feeling more hurt by her than I had felt in years.
In all my years of fantasizing about my mother getting mental health treatment, I assumed all the parts of her that I liked were the real her; I believed that all the parts I didn’t like were a product of her illness, and that they’d go away as she managed it. It had never occurred to me that actually, maybe, I didn’t know my mother at all. I sometimes feared her, sometimes hated her, sometimes felt sorry for her, and sometimes even loved her fiercely — but I had no idea who she actually was, what she genuinely thought and felt, how she saw the world in her calmest moments. Therapy had shown me who I really was outside the mental static of my illness, and it had shown my mom the same. But it turned out that I couldn’t work with that person any more than I had been able to deal with her histrionic doppelgänger.
I don’t talk to my mom now, so I don’t know if she stuck with treatment, or if she feels it’s helping. I do think getting treatment helped my mother, because she no longer deluges me with letters and emails, as she once did; she can sense my not wanting to talk to her and if not respect it, at least honor it. I believe she’s healthier. And maybe for her, like me, being healthier meant not having a relationship with me.
Bustle’s ‘Family Thread’ series looks at the many ways our family relationships and our mental health are connected — and how that shapes us.