I first became aware of “mental illness” when I was eight years old. My mother began spending all of her time sitting in a rocking chair-rocking, crying, very frightened and unbearably sad. No one asked her why she was crying. No one took the time to sit with her and hold her hand. Instead they took her away to a mental institution.
That’s where she spent the next eight years of her life. This brilliant woman with a degree in nutrition, ahead of her time in her understanding of the effects of food on the body, deeply caring and compassionate, was treated with 150 electric shock treatments interspersed with various experimental drugs available at the time to stop her sadness.
She spent her days behind a series of thick locked doors, sharing a sleeping and living space with 50 other women, in a dark, smelly ward with no privacy-50 beds in one room with only the space for a small night stand between. They wondered why she didn’t get better, why she kept crying. Instead she got worse.
Instead of just crying, she started wringing her hands, walking in circles repeating over and over, “I want to die.” Several times she tried to kill herself. Sometimes she was very different. She would be racing all over the place, laughing hysterically, behaving in a bizarre manner that made us even more frightened than we were when she was depressed.
I know this because every Saturday morning for eight years, I went with my three brothers and sister to visit her. It was a truly frightening experience. This was not the person we had remembered as our mother. They told us she was incurably mentally ill. They told us not to bother to come and see her anymore. But we did. She still remembers that the next time we came to see her after they told us not to come and see her anymore, we brought her a big bouquet of gladiolas.
Something strange happened. A volunteer noticed she wasn’t having these episodes anymore. She was even helping to take care of the other patients. She still wonders if it had anything to do with that volunteer who sat with her for hours and listened to her, even took her for some rides. She says she kept apologizing for going on so, but the volunteer said to go right ahead. So she kept talking. She talked and talked and talked. Then she got herself discharged.
This incurably mentally ill woman came home to her family, got a job working as a dietitian in the public schools, kept that job for twenty years while keeping up with the activities of her ever growing family of children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. She’s now 82 years old. Thirty-eight years ago she got out of the “hospital”. On many days, I feel as if she has more energy and enthusiasm for life than I do. She’s never taken any psychiatric drugs. Incurably mentally ill?
She will never remember what it was like when we were little. Her memory of those years was wiped out by electro shock. She lost 8 precious years of her life and had to overcome the stigma faced by any person who has spent time in a mental institution.
Sometimes I fantasize about my mother’s life. How might this story have been different?
Suppose when Mom said that she wanted a part time job-just before this sadness and crying started -Dad had said, “Sure Kate, what can I do to help?” Suppose her women friends and her lovely Pennsylvania Dutch family had gathered around, listening for hours on end, holding her hand, empathizing with her, crying with her-then what would have happened? Suppose they had offered to take the kids for a day or two, or a week, or a month so she could do some nice things for herself. Suppose they had offered her a two week cruise in the Caribbean. A daily massage. Suppose they had taken her out to dinner and a good movie, a play or a concert. Suppose someone had told her to get out and kick up her heels, to read a good book, go to a lecture on the importance of good nutrition. Suppose, suppose, suppose…
Maybe I would have had a mother when I was growing up. That would have been nice. My brothers and sisters would have liked one too. I’m sure my Dad would have liked to have a wife and my grandmother would have liked to have her daughter in her life. Most important, my mother would have had herself, with all her memories intact.
Mary Ellen Copeland, Ph.D. is an author, educator and mental health recovery advocate, as well as the developer of WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan). To learn more about her books, such as the popular The Depression Workbook and Wellness Recovery Action Plan, her other writings, and WRAP, please visit her website, Mental Health Recovery and WRAP. Reprinted here with permission.