Mind Over Matter
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life, it’s this: peace of mind is only a temporary condition.
My mom was a paranoid schizophrenic.
Sometimes, I forgot that she had it.
Therein lies the problem with mental illness. It’s different than most other types of illness because you can’t see it. It doesn’t manifest itself physically. You can look at someone with paranoid schizophrenia and smile at them. They’ll smile back. Everything looks fine and sounds fine. But it really isn’t. That’s probably why I’ve always avoided doing any sort of research on schizophrenia. I’ve lived in a constant state of denial. I don’t really talk to my family about it…or anything really. My brother and I made jokes about it. My mom never mentioned it. So, I’m left to make sense of something that really doesn’t make any sense at all.
I had an internship during the summer of 2006. I worked for the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation. They’re the people that are responsible for all the crappy public hospitals in New York City. I sent my resume out to as many places as I could because I wanted some money for the summer. My mom helped me. She sent it to places she had worked before. And she spent years with HHC, in various hospitals, as an administrative assistant. I think her secret dream was for me to work there and become a secretary too. She always told me how great it was. I tried to remind her that I’d make a pretty terrible secretary.
I got called in for an interview. My mom was thrilled. I had no idea what the job was for and I didn’t really care. It was going smoothly, when I finally decided to ask my interviewer what the job was about.
“Well,” she began, “have you heard of Kendra’s law?”
I shook my head.
“Kendra’s Law was created in 1999 as a result of a woman who was pushed into the subway tracks and killed by a mentally ill person.”
Oh boy, I thought. Mental illness? Great. Just fucking great.
“Certain patients deemed at risk to themselves or society are then court mandated to receive outpatient treatment. That program is known as the Assisted Outpatient Treatment Program.”
“It sounds like an interesting program.” I say this honestly.
“It is. They do good work to help people who really need it,” she continued.
“So, basically, we want to do a study on the effectiveness of this program. We’re going to have you and the other interns gather the patients’ medical information and then call them up,” she finishes.
“Sounds good,” I say.
“Do you have any experience working with mental illness?” She asks.
I smirk a little at the irony of her question. Should I tell her about my mom? What should I say? I look down at the floor then up at her sitting across the desk.
“Yes, actually I do. My mom has had a few nervous breakdowns. She’s schizophrenic.” I immediately hate myself for sharing so much with a complete stranger, someone who is going to possibly be my boss.
“You must have had to grow up really fast.” Her face softens and her eyes look at me sympathetically.
“I guess. It’s ok.” I lied.
Of course I grew up fast and of course it’s not okay that my mom is crazy. But I didn’t want her to know that. I didn’t want to share so much. More than that, I didn’t want what I said to be real.
“Schizophrenia is a severe brain disease…” is the opening paragraph to webmd.com’s explanation of my mom’s illness. I immediately want to click to another site. The paragraph doesn’t get any easier and my heart falls a little further into my stomach as I read every sentence. “It is often disabling and can profoundly affect all areas of your life. It is a life-long disease that cannot be cured, but usually can be controlled with proper treatment.”
I often thought about the medication that my mom would take. I really wished I could understand why her brain didn’t seem to work without it. Sometimes, I wished she could’ve stopped taking it, that way she wouldn’t have been so tired and lethargic. Whenever I was home I would scold my mom about her sleeping habits.
“I’m just taking a cat nap,” she’d say to me in between loud snores. I’d laugh at her. I wasn’t even sure that cats napped as much as she did.
“Come on ma, get up. Go somewhere. Talk a walk. Do something!”
“Leave me alone.” She’d say and then nod back to sleep for the rest of the day.
My mom had nowhere to go. She had resigned herself to never working again- “It’s too stressful”. She didn’t have many friends. Isolation became the most glaring symptom of her mental illness. With nowhere to go, nothing to do and virtually no one to do it with, my mom had become paralyzed.
She. Was. Stuck.
So she slept.
My brother and I often joked about our mom’s clueless nature. The medicine had made her some sort of space cadet.
She stared off blankly off into space when looking at us sometimes. She’d use her finger to write invisible words in the air. She’d smile vacantly. She called herself the female Homer Simpson. It was funny. But Homer Simpson isn’t schizophrenic.
“The behavior of people with schizophrenia may be very strange and even shocking.”
I’ll never forget when my mom was in the middle of one of her breakdowns and she thought everyone was trying to kill her. On our way home one day she refused to enter our apartment for fear that when we entered, the people inside would kill us. We never went home that night. We walked for days and days after, through areas of the Bronx into New Rochelle. She was looking for my grandmother although she was already dead. It was cold. As my brother and I tried to sleep, on the side of a highway, my mom sat straight up moving her hands back and forth through the orange leaves that surrounded her; she tried to cover us with leaves in an attempt to keep us warm. My body began to shiver uncontrollably. So, she decided we should keep walking. For a few more days. My brother screamed for my mom to take us home. I stayed quiet. Somehow, we made it back.
The paragraph on the website that really scares me: “There is some evidence that genetics may play a role. Your chance of developing schizophrenia is 10 times greater if your parent or sibling has the disease.”
My grandmother was schizophrenic and died homeless because she never got the treatment she needed. My mom was schizophrenic. My brother and I don’t talk about it much but we’re both scared. We both worry that we could be … next.
During the internship, I made the trek to various hospitals around the city in search of the patients’ medical charts. I was basically a robot. I input the information I gathered about the patients onto a computer. But what made the job interesting and what gave it life were the stories I found within the pages of the medical records. Each chart held a story. Some people were rich, others were poor. Some people were murderers, others were mothers. Some spoke English, others didn’t. The charts kept me, ironically enough, from going crazy during the long and tedious hours I spent inputting data. The two other interns I worked with often made jokes about the patients we read about. I laughed. I didn’t want to seem like a complete tight ass. And sometimes I couldn’t deny the humor of the ridiculous things the patients said and did. How can you not laugh at a patient, for example, who believes he is God? Many of the patients were highly delusional and occasionally violent.
As I read through the charts, many times I wanted to cry. Though I never showed it. Some people reminded me of my mother. I wondered if the other interns would laugh at my mom’s chart too. Some of the stories were devastatingly sad. These people, many of them, were good people who just couldn’t control their minds. Some patients ended up in jail, some in mental homes, and others ended up dead. The reality of mental illness was never lost on me. My grandmother could have been one of the people inside the pages of these charts. My mom too. Maybe even me.
One day, my mom decided to give some food to a neighbor. We barely had any food in the house as it was. I became angry at her.
“What are you doing?” I said, “we hardly have anything to eat and you’re just going to give food to other people?”
“We have enough and if we can help someone then that’s what we have to do.”
This was my mom: she had a heart of gold.
If there’s one person in the world who didn’t deserve to suffer through mental illness, it was her. But schizophrenia doesn’t care. It doesn’t discriminate.
In fact, I think schizophrenia has some sort of vendetta against my family. Long before my mom, was my grandmother. My grandmother’s struggles became so bad that her children were placed into foster care by my grandfather. My mom–and her siblings–never got the chance to be close to their mother ever again. My grandmother bounced in and out of hospitals. And into and out of various addictions. No one could save her from herself. She gave into her mental illness. And she died because of it. Alone. Homeless. This is all I know about her. That’s all I’ve been able to piece together. Schizophrenia took my grandmother from me. It tried hard to take my mother. Who will it try to take next?
“There are several types of schizophrenia, and the specific types are diagnosed based upon symptoms. The most common type is paranoid schizophrenia, which causes fearful thoughts and hearing threatening voices.”
During my mom’s worst breakdown, she heard voices telling her to leave home; that is was unsafe to remain in our apartment. I was in high school at the time, so I was old enough to understand what was going on. She tried to get me to leave with her because people wanted to kill her again. I fought her. I argued with her. I tried to will her out of her delusional mental state. It didn’t work. Her illness was too stubborn to listen to rationality. She swore there was nothing wrong with her. I naively listened. I left home to go tell my family and she proceeded to go missing for ten days, wandering the streets of New York City in her disheveled, unorganized mental state.
The day they found her is a memory I’d rather forget. We– my bother, aunt and I– made our way to the hospital after we were informed that the ambulance had taken her there. As we sat in the doctor’s office, a short, obese woman made her way towards us. It took me a minute to realize it was my mom. Her face was sun-burned. It had been an unusually sunny Easter week. Her short black hair was wild and wavy. She walked very slowly. She had developed blisters on her feet from her days of aimless wandering around New York City. But the sight that stung me the most was her eyes. Her eyes wandered around the room refusing to make eye contact with any of us. She was dazed. I was never more further away from my mom than I was in that moment as she made her way towards me. Her first words to me as she cupped my face in her hands was, “Are you okay?”
My final day at my internship, and exactly a week before I was to come up to Oswego to begin my senior year of college, my mom had another nervous breakdown. She had appeared sullen and withdrawn the entire week. She stayed up all night and cried for reasons that she refused to divulge. I continually asked if she was okay. She continually said yes. I repeatedly asked if she was taking her medication. She repeatedly said yes. The night before it happened, I knew something was wrong but I was hoping it was just a momentary lapse. She paced up and down the apartment and into and out of my room the entire night; this was her ritual every time she had a breakdown. I ignored it. When I got up for work having not slept the entire night, my mom was highly irritable; she seemed angry at me. When I asked her to go to the bank and deposit my paycheck for me–seeing as how she had nothing else to do—she became upset. Although, she had been more than willing to do it for me a few days prior. We bickered back and forth and then I headed off to work, in hopes that she would be better by the time I got back. She wasn’t.
When I came home, she was dazed and distant and could not stop her pacing. She hadn’t slept in a few days as it turned out. Her eyes were bloodshot. She could barely look at me when I spoke to her. She refused to talk at all. Her hair was disheveled. There were deep bags under her eyes. She hadn’t eaten. She wouldn’t touch the McDonald’s I had brought home for her either. With the help of my aunts, who I had called, we convinced her to come with us. Convincing her was not easy. When my mom had a breakdown, she was incredibly manipulative: to herself and to others. She swore that she didn’t need to go. I yelled at her and insisted she did. She eventually gave in. As we drove to the hospital, she said nothing in the car. We waited in the emergency room most of the night. They had no rooms available for her. The nurse had informed us that it was an usually busy day in the Psychiatric ER.
She was placed in a bed eventually. I sat with my mom as the monitors beeped and the bright lights burned my eyes. She laid in the bed; her nervous and wide eyes refused to go to sleep. She was fidgety and she kept shifting from side to side. My brother was making the trip down from Pittsburgh that night–where he lived–so in that moment, at least, I felt very alone. I watched my mom lay helplessly on the bed. I felt helpless myself. I refused to cry in front of her, knowing that it would only worry her and make her more nervous. Though, at that point, she barely realized I was in the room; she was so lost inside her own head. I stared at the floor and then back at my mom. I hated seeing her like this.
When the doctor came in to examine her, she remained silent as he asked her questions. She only spoke to tell him that she wasn’t sure how much of her medicine she had taken. He concluded that she had tried to commit suicide by over-medicating. The nurses forced a liquid charcoal solution down her throat to determine just how much. And as it turns out, she hadn’t over-medicated at all. Somehow, inexplicably, the medicine just stopped working. But in the tense moments as they held her down to forcibly place the charcoal solution down her throat, she had urinated on herself. She had lost control of her mental functions and then of her bodily ones. She had become a child.
She remained in the hospital for more than two weeks. I left a week into her stay to start my fall semester. And then on a regular old Tuesday as I sat in a regular old classroom, I remembered that my mom was being released.
I sometimes tried to forget about things so I could cope better.
The problem I always had with schizophrenia is that I walked, I smiled and I laughed; I’d go about my normal day and my mom still had a mental illness. I was never able to reconcile this. Should I forget about it now? Pretend it didn’t exist?
I lost my mom in 2009. To an illness not at all mental. And now that my mom is gone, what do I do? How do I move forward from all of this? Should I forget that it once controlled my life?
The first signs of a relapse of schizophrenia vary. However, some common first signs of relapse include: Withdrawing from other people. Forgetfulness. Problems concentrating. Daydreaming. Not paying attention to what is going on.
I saw my mom display all of these symptoms at various times. I know them all too well myself. They sound a lot like me too. Maybe schizophrenia is normal. And maybe, just maybe, it’s ok if I don’t think about this all the time. It’s ok to move on and forget it sometimes. I have to.
I struggle with these questions everyday. I also struggle to remember. As time goes on and I get older, I move
further and further
away from these events. And since I couldn’t believe they were happening when they were actually happening, sometimes I can’t believe that they happened at all. Sometimes I worry that they didn’t and that I’ve made all of this up in my head because I’m as crazy as my mom was.
No. These things happened.
Even when I’m blinded by the monotony of “normal” life, I know they did.
I feel like I’m always waiting for the other shoe to
When am I going to lose my mind too?
As I look over to the side of the webpage, a picture of a man’s skeleton stares at me. The picture is a part of the website. It’s a symptom checker. You click on a part of the man’s body, where your body is hurting, to receive a possible diagnosis.
The main problem for me with this diagram is that there’s really no way to click on the heart. Not where it really hurts for me. There’s no cure for that.