LAUREN, “Minds Interrupted” 2009
When I was a little girl, my Grandpa used to take me to the Museum of Science and Industry. I loved that building with its granite columns and indestructible stone façade. I wanted to be a physicist, just like Marie Curie. Science is based on laws of cause and effect. Everything happens for a reason. The Museum of Science and Industry was made of granite. It could never fall down.
The first time my mother suffered a schizophrenic break and our family’s walls came tumbling down, I was six years old, the eldest of four. My sister, Jessica, was still a baby. We were living in upstate NY in a big house.
Before Mom got sick, we loved holidays. She and Dad didn’t believe in buying presents. We made everything by hand. Mom dyed beans and popcorn. We kids helped her to string them onto garlands. Our family celebrated the eight days of Chanukah followed by the twelve days of Christmas with a few other days thrown in for good measure. Dad would take us out to the forest to cut down a tree. We’d stop at the country store for hot apple cider and then go home and put a Jewish star on top of our tree. Mom knitted us brightly colored stocking caps and Dad made stick horses. We jumped off the porch into piles of snow Dad had shoveled just for us.
Before my mother became ill, she was the most beautiful woman in town. People stopped to stare when she walked by. She was a loving and attentive mother. After Jessie was born, Mom’s behavior began to change. One day, she walked out of the house for no known reason, leaving the four of us in our backyard in the care of Rhodie, our German Shepherd. I don’t remember much about this episode other than Rhodie herding us, and Jessie’s shoulders becoming bubbly from sunburn. We had to leave Jessie in the tub for hours to treat the third degree burns.
A few weeks later, as the oldest child, I became the stand-in for Rhodie, herding my brothers and sisters into the kitchen with our teddy bears and turning on all the lights. I had woken up and suddenly discovered we were all alone in the house in the middle of the night.
After the midnight incident, Mom disappeared for a little while and no one would tell me where she went. I got used to no one telling me what was happening to Mom. Soon, we were bundled off to Chicago to live in an apartment with my grandparents and Dad left for New York. After a while, Mom reappeared at Grandma’s house, but we rarely saw her. She stayed in a back bedroom with the curtains drawn. It was always dark in her room. She was sullen and angry…not the same person at all.
One day, after we had been living with Grandma for about eight months, I woke up and found Dad sitting at the kitchen table. He had come to take us back to New York. We piled all our clothing into suitcases and trunks. Soon we were sitting in the back seat. I turned and watched out the back window as Mom and Grandma pulled away, their waving figures growing tinier by the moment. That was the first of many moves in which some of my family went one way, some another. I assumed all families were like that.
Within six months, I returned to Chicago alone. My mother had her own apartment by then, a few blocks from Grandma. She had taken a job as a caseworker on Chicago’s south side. On weekends, we would put on wigs and ride our bikes to the used bookstore, piling our baskets to the rim with books and jazz albums. On weekdays, Mom left early for work. I would dress, make myself breakfast, and leave for school. I was new and had no friends.
One day, I decided to play hooky. I was eight years old. Our apartment was not very secure and a man broke in and assaulted me. For the next few months, my life was filled up with social workers, nurses and police. The police drove me to and from school. The stress and guilt were too much for my mother. Her illness returned full force.
She listened ceaselessly to a song about a French revolutionary who had been murdered in his bathtub. She sat, staring at the turntable day and night as the record went round and round. Suddenly one day, Mom stopped listening to the record. She told me that bad men were coming to take her away and I musn’t let them in. She locked herself in the bedroom. I pushed our living room furniture against the door, trying my best to protect her. I didn’t know she had swallowed an entire bottle of medication and that Grandma had called the police.
Soon, there was an insistent pounding. It was the police but I wouldn’t let them in. We lived on the third floor. So they had to break in through the windows. Grandma was there too. I fought with them, but they took Mom away on a stretcher. Grandma told me later that was the worst day of her life.
The next time I saw Mom, she was in a room with a metal door and bars on the window. There were other inmates, all wearing green uniforms; they had blank stares, dead eyes. I was convinced Mom was in jail and it was my fault. She was in jail because I had played hooky from school.
For years, I erased all of these terrible memories from my mind. All that remained was a nightmare, every night the same. I’d wake myself up trying to scream. Most of the time you wake up and feel a sense of relief but for me, waking up was even worse – I felt like I’d done something for which I could never be forgiven – I just didn’t know what it was.
That is why I have chosen a career that allows me to help families whose parents suffer with mental illness. I don’t want other children to have the experience I had of visiting their Mom in a place like jail and feeling it was their fault.
I last saw Mom the day before she died. She had lived for years with her two cats in an independent living facility. Every day, Mom got up and walked down to the diner at the corner, sat at the formica counter, and chatted with the waitresses.
One day, her medication stopped working. It turned out that years of heavy smoking and emphysema had blocked its effect. She may also have suffered a stroke. My sister placed her in a home for elderly people suffering from mental illness near her own house in the suburbs. I got on a plane and spent two weeks with my sister, visiting Mom every day. She seemed so happy to see me.The day after I left, she died peacefully in her sleep.
Now as a grown married woman with two children and no disabilities, I often wonder how my mother managed to raise four children, however imperfectly. We always had a roof over heads and food on the table. She occasionally even found strength to confront horrid teachers and neighbors on our behalf, always with a great sense of humor.
I want to leave you with one last wonderful memory. One day my mother, angry at the downstairs neighbors for mistreating me, made a trip to a Korean restaurant and ordered the smelliest kimchee on the menu. She told Mrs. Berebitsky our refrigerator had broken and asked if she could place the carton of “Chinese Take-out” in their fridge for a few hours. The kimchee stayed there long enough so Mrs. Berebitsky had to empty the food from the entire kitchen. Mom and I laughed for hours.