If you had caught a glimpse of my mother on December 6, you might have seen her naked, outside her home, holding a knife and clearly very, very unwell. Someone did see her – presumably one of her kind neighbors, and called the police. They came, and she was taken into custody, in handcuffs, and admitted into the psychiatric hospital where she stayed for the next 48 days over the Christmas and New Year holidays. I wanted to highlight this bizarre scene, not because it’s sensational (it is), or because it’s funny (it’s not), or because we need more depictions of this kind of “crazy” version of mental illness. (we don’t.)
I wanted to paint that picture in your mind first, so you can contrast it against my mom’s very lucid, reasonable and pleasant conversation with me, here. Sometimes it is impossible for us to imagine that someone like her – in the worst moments of a psychotic break – could ever be so normal, or ever was normal, sane, clear.. whatever you want to call it. And the flip side to that contrast, is that even hearing the clarity in her voice and enjoying this wonderful conversation we had, there will almost certainly be, dark days ahead. The threadbare unpredictability wedged between sanity and psychosis is the world she lives in, and the life my brother and I continue to struggle figure out.
Here’s our conversation. (I transcribed it because at times she is a bit difficult to understand and the audio quality is not wonderful.)
Transcription of a telephone conversation between my mother and I, Feb. 6, 2017.
me: Okay mom, you’re on speaker.
her: Okay I want to say this is an honor on behalf of the mentally ill.
According to my daughter we are not that bad of people. we are beautiful in our own way. I think we are very interesting. Not boring at all because we can’t think straight half the time. (laughter)
me: I wanted to – can we go back?
her: Yes, Emily.
me: I just wanted to um, let people know, because the last time I sent any updates, you were still in the hospital and you weren’t doing very well and so I think a lot of people would be happy to know you are home and that you are feeling well. And so, you want to talk about that? How you are doing?
her: yes, I’m home. I’m not in ideal conditions because I’m isolated from people and I know the hospital is gonna miss me and I’m gonna miss them. They had a great staff, the hospital. High morale. The worst thing about it was coming off the nicotine. I smoke 2-3 packs a day and I got down to 10 cigarettes a day and that was really hard to do.
me: It was hard to come off the nicotine, you said?
her: Yes, weaning off the nicotine was very difficult and they had to physically bring me in from smoking a few times to begin with. And that was very difficult for me.
but they kept us busy with group activities and eating and I know I’m skinny. I only gained one pound. I ate three square meals a day plus Ensure at dinner. I must have a high metabolism. Off the charts.
me: Yeah, I think you do.
her: I’m blessed that I don’t have to worry about what I eat. I think I’m lucky.
me: Are you glad you went to the hospital? Do you feel like you needed to go?
her: I’m glad that I went to the hospital. I was taken in handcuffs and fought the policewoman. But they did what was right. I was dancing outside naked with a knife. Which is kinda crazy if you ask me.
her: I thought my ex husband was threatening me in the attic.
me: You thought what, mom?
her: I thought my ex husband, Dave, was threatening me in the attic, which is really crazy. Really, really crazy. And somebody called the police on me.
her: I really needed to go in the hospital. Christmas was such a hard time for me. It is every year.
her: A lot of people get very very ill at Christmas. There were way more people at Christmas and then it cleared out after Christmas. I was there the longest. Forty-eight days. Some people were sent home too soon and others were kept too long.
me: So you said, some people were sent home too soon and some were kept too long?
her: Yes. yes. I worked hard to go home. I enjoyed the staff very much. Gabby and Cheryl and Troy and big blue and M&M. I called Troy “Mr. T.” He went about his job without flirting and he would work out with weights. And he was a very quiet, solemn man.
I was told I could really dance at 64. And my son told me when I got home I cleaned the house very nicely.
her: And I am back to being isolated. I would love to hear from anybody who cares to write me a letter. And I really enjoy my daughter and my son. They are great. It’s an honor to be their mother.
me: We love you too, mom.
her: And I mean that. It’s an honor to be their mother.
me: Do you want to talk about.. I don’t want you to feel stressed out, but, I know you had mentioned some things you didn’t like about the hospital that you didn’t like so much and that you wished were different.
her: I wished I didn’t smoke so much.
me: You wished you didn’t smoke so much?
her: Coming off nicotine is so hard for me that I was physically brought back in the hospital from the smoking courtyard 2 or 3 times. And also it was a little too cold. It’s a hospital in winter and luckily I didn’t catch pneumonia. They put me on cough drops and I had a problem coughing because of the smoking but, I read an article in Scientific American that smoking helps the brain of schizophrenics.
I did have a terrible voice in my head. And a good voice that I made up that I control. But now, I don’t have any voices. I’m on depakote, a new medicine, that’s helping me quite a bit. Also, I had nightmares before I went in. And the nightmares are gone. So it was a blessing. It was a blessing to go to Laurel Ridge.
me: Good, I’m glad that you feel that way. Sometimes when I spoke with you, you weren’t well enough to have a good conversation. And you seemed really upset and agitated and not very lucid, and I used to feel sad and worry about you and wonder if you were going to be okay. But I’m glad you are…
her: I’m so sorry. We are all are sorry. The mentally ill are sorry.
me: Well don’t be sorry! Don’t be sorry. I know it was not your fault.
her: They (caregivers) learn how to cope with anything because if you can cope with a mentally ill person you can cope with life.
me: I guess that’s true, mom. Well, we love you.
her: I love you all.
me: If you wanted to talk to someone who is having a really rough day, or who is in kind of a dark place right now, what do you want to tell them? Because you were in a pretty dark place not that long ago and now you are okay. You are talking to me on the phone and you are laughing and having a pretty good day. What do you want to say to anybody right now who doesn’t feel optimistic?
her: Try to see the other person’s side. Try real hard to see the other person’s shoes. There is always someone walking in worse shoes than you are walking in. And if you can see that, you will know you are blessed.
me: Yeah, we do that a lot, don’t we?
her: Yes, yes.
me: Have gratitude.
her: I know the staff wrote a dictionary that they had.. It was their job to write what they saw about me. There was only one girl or man who beat me at staying at Laurel Ridge the longest. I was there 48 days and I wonder if they had better insurance than me.
her: Because I was well long before they sent me home. Also, one of the schizophrenics there said it’s a trap. It seems like it’s the same people who always go. I remember one girl from before. And people there love to share. They share clothes, they share bedrooms, bathrooms, everything.
her: And, it’s very nice for social interactions.
me: Yeah. Um, sometimes..
her: And I’m way too isolated right now.
me: Right, right.
her: And I’m honored to have Emily and Seth in my life. They are the best thing that ever happened to me.
me: Thanks, mom.
her: They walked through hell and they are still alongside me.
me: We love you.
her: And they are the blessings of the world.
me: Sometimes I want to talk to you about your experiences and your illness, but I worry that I might stress you out or agitate you or something. I wonder sometimes if you feel like you want to talk about it a little more, but you don’t get the opportunity to?
her: Um, I wonder if mental illness’s root cause is something that happens in childhood or teen years. The root cause that we can’t cope with like other people. Like molestation or bullying, or… or things like that.
me: A traumatic event.
her: Our voices are bullies. Our voices are the bully of schizophrenia. And it’s a very cruel disease. There was one girl there, about four feet tall. Um, my age. But she looked like a little girl. And she babbled. Non-sensical talk. And that is cruel. The disease is that cruel, that she constantly babbled non-sensical talk.
her: And it is not life-threatening, unless you commit suicide.
her: And I don’t own a gun on purpose because I’m afraid I’ll get sick and might use it on myself accidentally.
me: Yeah, yeah.
her: Also, I’m not a threat to other people or would never harm anybody. There are people in mental institutions who would harm other people, but they are the exceptions, not the rule.
me: Do you think some of those people who have more violent tendencies probably could be more successful if they were treated better or had better access to care?
her: I think they need to get the root cause of their aggressiveness out. I am aggressive with my mouth when I’m coming off drugs or narcotics, which I take. Or nicotine, which I take. And I wish I weren’t passive aggressive. That’s my worst is being passive aggressive. I need to put myself in the other person’s shoes a lot more than I do.
me: When you feel agitated and upset and I guess, psychotic, do you remember how that feels? Can you remember that right now, that you are feeling well and you are lucid and you are having a good day and your nightmares are gone and your voices are gone.. do you know how that felt when you were weren’t well?
her: Yes, yes. I tried to substitute everybody. I tried to correct my thinking that causes schizophrenia. People I haven’t really forgiven in my life, I tried to correct my thinking about those people and think to myself “they must have worse problems than me to have acted like that towards me in the past.”
me: How hard is it to correct your thinking?
her: It’s not that hard to correct my thinking. But it took a miracle drug – depakote – to get me off the nightmares and the voices, so I can be honored to be on behalf of the mentally ill.
me: A lot of people that you don’t know, know about you and know about our story and root for you and our family and care a lot about you, mom.
her: I know that, and that makes me feel real good and I wished I could be as good a person as they are. Because I think our family is worthwhile, because we have a lot of love.
her: Seth has walked through hell with me because we live in the same city. And he’s always there for me when I have a problem and I try to help him by telling him I love him and I’m proud of him, like I tell you, Emily. That I love you and that I’m proud of you.
I think that’s very important to tell your children that you love them and you are proud of them. It think child abuse is terrible.
me: Right. Do you and Seth sometimes, because you are so close and connected, I think you guys sometimes have some frustrations with each other, but.. you usually work it out.
her: Yes, we have frustrations with each other. And usually I’m wrong.
me: I think Seth knows that, and he loves you and that’s why we, of course, love you and stick with you even when things are really rough and difficult for all of us.
her: Yes, I don’t even remember Christmas Eve in the hospital when he was there and I’m very sad about that.
me: Yeah. That’s okay. That’s not your fault.
her: Oh, I know. I want everyone to know that mental illness is not your fault. And you are all beautiful people. You have a cruel disease that makes you cruel and mean sometimes and if you can change your thinking and try to look… the sun is going to come up everyday and the stars are going to come out at night, even if they are hidden by the clouds.. and there is usually a rainbow at the end of a sunny ray. I would like to think there is a reason we are on this earth.
me: Hey mom, I’m sorry to interrupt. Your phone is kinda cutting out a little bit.
her: Oh, I’m not speaking clearly into it.
me: That’s okay, it was just a little bit garbled there.
her: I do have side effects from my medicine, which makes my hands shake a little bit. But I’d rather have side effects and my brain.
me: Mom, I’m gonna take us off speaker now. I think that was really nice what you said. Um, I think people will be really happy to hear from you and I loved how optimistic and nice you were about some of the rougher parts of mental illness.
her: I love you very much, Emily.
me: All the hope and inspiration and niceness in you is really clear to me and to people who know about you and know about us and even though we know life is really hard for you…
her: You are a nice person, Emily. Just as nice as I am.
me: Well, I got it from somewhere, right?
her: Well, hopefully it was from me.
me: Thank you for doing this. I appreciate you being so honest. What you are saying and being so open about your illness, and your life and your thoughts, I think is meaningful to other people who like to hear it. So I just wanted to thank you.
her: Oh I hope so. I hope so. And try to keep a sense of humor. I kinda got in an argument in the doctor’s office with Seth. And on the way home, out of the clear blue sky, Seth said “I love you.” And that was the best think he could have told me. Because I was feeling so aggressive. And then he said something else and he laughed and that broke the ice and then I started laughing. Try to see the sense of humor in the mentally ill.
her: We can say some ridiculous things, can’t we?
me: Yes, yes. But we know that it’s not really “you” saying those things – we understand that your brain is all kinda mis-wired at those moments and I know what you are saying is not making sense.
her: Our brains are mis-wired and firing wrong neutrons at each other or something like that.
me: Right, right. And then when you come back around and you are having a conversation like what we are having today, it’s obvious that you don’t believe those things and that’s just a side effect of an illness.
her: Yes, thank you for telling me. It really is not your fault, you people who have schizophrenia. We struggle so hard to get rid of the voices. We need more money for research.
her: For better drugs.
me: One of the things I believe, mom, and we’ve talked about this before is that part of the reason we struggle to get more funding and more care and more support is because of the stigma and that people feel ashamed.
her: Yes, stigma. We’re not doormats, and we’re not evil. Some of us do wrong things.
me: I think a lot of people need to understand that severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bi-polar and really bad, severe depression or severe anxiety, or whatever – there’s a million different versions and variations of tough mental illnesses that people cope with all the time, but that – we’re all just people, right?
her: We’re just people underneath it all, who have wrong thinking wired into their brains.
There was a patient there who couldn’t get over the death of her daughter. It depends on your make up, and your strength. Other people have been molested, raped, hurt.. and they can cope much better than the mentally ill. But I do believe it’s the root cause. If we don’t spend more money on research for the mentally ill, we will never get to the root cause. We are only treating the symptoms.
me: Right, I agree, mom.
her: Thank you for agreeing, Emily.
me: Well, I love you. I’m going to take you off speaker and we are going to wrap up our little phone interview, okay?
her: Great interview, Emily.
me: Thanks, mom. I’m gonna take you off speaker now.