I was ten when my mother had her first psychotic break. It was May. I was looking forward to lazy summer days at the pool, an art camp, a stack of Babysitters Club books, and daydreaming about my first crush, a boy with a splay of freckles and a mop of dark hair.
Instead, I was forced to grow up too soon.
This meant wearing deodorant and shaving my arm pits.
It also meant seeing my mother in a state of complete psychosis, one in which she thought maybe she had killed the postman or the neighbor girl.
“I didn’t. Mean. Tokillthepostman.” Her words were all wrong, strung together in a series of hiccups and stretched entirely too thin, like a ribbon was attached at the end.
She pranced around the house naked, claiming no one should be ashamed of their body. My mother had recently had a hysterectomy and was feeling ‘less than,’ she wasn’t even sure if she was a woman any longer without her uterus.
She thought she was going to die on the eve of her birthday. She said, “I am afraid that if I go to sleep I won’t wake up.” She had no idea how this would happen, just that she was not fit to live any longer. “Don’t worry,” she said to my dad, “It won’t be like with Aunt Lorraine; it won’t be suicide.”
And then she said she smelled something funny coming from the basement. “My brain,” I think, “My brain is rotting and it’s trapped in the basement.”
She thought she was an angel and could fly. She thought she was God and had a mission to save the world. She believed my sister and I were the devil and she had to kill us. When my father’s Ironman watch beeped, she felt it was an indication he was being untruthful.
My mother thought she could get energy from lying under a lamp in the living room, that it would restore her and rest her mind. She hadn’t slept in three days.
She worried incessantly about cancer and dying and who her soul mate was.
She said, “I would rather die than go to the hospital,” when my dad tried to coax her into the car.
“Please,” he said to me, “Help me get your mother into the car.”
She fought, twisting, squirming, torquing her naked body into pretzel shapes. I convinced her to slip into her beloved blue robe.
My mother snatched the car keys from my father and said, “Let me drive.”
“No,” he said. He pried the keys from her fingers. He held them high above her head. We managed to get her into the front seat of the car and buckle the car seat. She pouted.
Twice, she tried jumping out of the moving car.
At the hospital, a flurry of white rushed to our car, brisk, soothing voices attempted to get my mother into the icy-cool efficiency of the hospital. She fought again, holding on to my father’s waist, her ballet slippers scraping along the asphalt of the circle drive. “Intervention is the wrong thing here, just ask me and I’ll tell you what to do.”
In the backseat, my eyes grew large, my mouth dropped. I’d never seen my mother in such a state. What happened? Why is she acting this way?
“Mom,” I said, rolling down the window, “Mom, do what the doctors say.”
For a moment, I had her attention. Her gray-green eyes locked with mine and she relaxed.
“Please,” I said.
“I should have killed you when I had the chance.”
When we visit, a day later, in the hallway outside her rubber room, her blue robe has been replaced with a white and blue johnny. It does not cover her behind. Her legs are prickly and her face is gray, saggy. I look into the Plexiglass slot in the big, heavy door. There is a mattress on the floor, thin and navy blue. It is pushed against a spongy wall. My eyes lift to the ceiling. Wall-to-wall softness. A single light switch is on the outside of the room. A chamber, a cell.
My mother grabs hold of me, “Oh baby!” she coos. “You came.” My ribcage slams into her hip bone. She squeezes and smells rancid, like rotting meat, old cigarettes, and dirty hair. I wince and twist from her embrace. My mother is a husk, like the cicadas that litter the landscape that summer.
It starts to crumble, our house. Where once there was a tiny fissure of unease, it has grown into the size of a fault line, large and jagged and gaping. I think it may open wide, swallow the entire two-story in one single gulp, rejecting the pieces that are indigestible: shards of glass and thick mortar, brass doorknockers and kick plates.
Our home becomes a type of prison. Where it once flourished with hearty meals and décor that rivaled spreads in Better Homes and Gardens, it becomes a shell of nothingness.
I can’t focus to read. I do not ask to go to the pool. I start asking, “Can it happen to me?”
Dad rubs his eyes behind his glasses. He says, “I don’t think so, kiddo.”
“What is it,” I say. “What’s wrong with mom?”
At the time, they called it manic-depression but we know it as bipolar. Mom was in what we believed her first acute psychotic manic state. Dad said, “She’s going to take medication; it will get better.”
“But can it happen to me?” I asked again. “Is it…contagious?”
He shook his head. “Not like that.” He cleared his throat, “It’s a chemical imbalance in your mom’s brain. It’s nothing she did or didn’t do; it just is.” He said more, too, things about mom’s childhood that may have contributed to her bipolar. He was getting to the nature versus nurture dilemma, but didn’t know how much to divulge, seeing how I was only ten at the time.
For years I lived in fear that I would exhibit bipolar symptoms like my mother. I learned that children and teens who have a parent with bipolar disorder are 14 times more likely than their peers to have bipolar-like symptoms themselves, and two to three-times more likely to be found with anxiety or a mood disorder, such as depression.
Full disclosure: I started feeling depressed when I was about sixteen. It may have been a combination of dealing with an unstable mother all those years, struggling through my parent’s tumultuous divorce, typical teenage angst, school pressures, fear of launching into the adult world, but I started on an antidepressant right away.
There’s a virulent string of mental illness on my mother’s side of the family from schizophrenia to narcissism, depression and anxiety, alcoholism, and also physical and emotional abuse.
Children of psychotic parents are rarely seen. The focus is all on the parent’s symptoms and treatment. This is understandable. If someone you know is experiencing a severe mental illness or psychosis and children are involved, keep these tips in mind:
- Tell the child it is not their fault their parent is in a psychotic state. Kids often think their poor behavior or something they said may have caused their parent to act strangely. This is simply not true.
- Focus on what the child is observing. “[Your] Mom is crying and behaving strangely, isn’t she? Do you want to talk about it?”
- Keep the explanations simple. Gauge how much and what you say based on the child’s developmental age.
- Older kids may want to talk about the whys and hows. Try asking, Why do you think mom is acting this way? How does this make you feel? There are no right or wrong answers, but these questions can be used as a guide in directing the conversation.
- Realize that things the child’s parent says in a psychotic state are scary. This is true for adult observers, too but children are especially vulnerable. For example, my dad avoided taking us to church for some time after my mother’s psychotic episode in which she believed she was God.
- If your mental health institution allows children to visit, consider this option with care. Who will benefit? What might be the repercussions? Respect their opinion if they don’t want to go.
- Allow the child(ren) to just be a kid(s). Taking on the role of caregiver is strenuous for anyone, especially kids. It is not their job to make sure medication is taken, meals cooked, or siblings cared for.
- Remind child(ren) involved that they are not their parent. Saying, “You are just like your mother/father can be hurtful and confusing.
- Help the child(ren) be his or herself. Support their hobbies/activities/interests. See that they get a good night’s rest, exercise regularly, and eat right. Make sure they have outlets where they can be unburdened from responsibilities of dealing with mom or dad’s mental state: play dates, friends, a trusted friend or family member who can take them to the park or a favorite restaurant or other activity.
- Remind them if they feel their mental health is in jeopardy, they can talk with you about it and you’ll help.
- Let them know you’ll always be there.