Meditation on Mental Health

Today is World Mental Health Day, so it seems an opportune time to bring the topic out of the dark cupboard and shine some light on it. This year’s focus is schizophrenia, and as some may know, I have a close relationship with that topic in the form of my mom.

There is still a great deal of shame shrouding mental illness — especially severe conditions like schizophrenia — but even quite common conditions like depression and anxiety are not subjects to bring up at job interviews or dinner parties.

I was ashamed of my mom’s condition when I was a kid. She made random conversation with perfect strangers, laughed at jokes only she could hear, talked under her breath to her “voices,” and dressed like hippie vagabond — with a dozen clunky necklaces, multiple rings on every finger, and brightly mismatched skirts and blouses. I developed a quiet tolerance for her behavior, but underneath my bemused smile I was angry and confused.

For years she was undiagnosed, or mis-diagnosed. But even when the label schizophrenia was applied, no one was able to explain what that meant, apart from symptoms like voices and paranoid delusions. And there was still this myth that you just had to take your medication and you would get better.

People with chronic mental health conditions don’t get better, they manage symptoms. A person who suffers from depression can be helped immensely by medication, and remission may last for years, but there is always the possibility of a relapse. A person with schizophrenia is lucky if they can function in the world, even with medication. My mom can’t.

In the 1970’s my mom worked at health food stores, bakeries, and diners. Many of her jobs didn’t last long, but the health food store became like a family for her over the years. Eventually ownership changed, and she went to work as a hotel maid. Whatever glue that held her mind together enough to function in minimum wage jobs dissolved in the early 1980’s, when her delusions became her world.

It would take a whole book to describe what it was like living with my mom in the 80’s (one that I hope to write someday), but suffice to say it was stressful. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety since I was a kid, but didn’t realize how deeply living with my mother affected me until I started seeing a therapist 10 years ago. I also have symptoms of ptsd. You don’t make it through someone else’s mental illness unscathed.

But it didn’t have to be that way. If I had been educated about my mother’s condition and taught skills for coping, it might have been easier. If she had had access to effective therapy, she may not have had to be hospitalized quite so often. But we were in North Idaho and poor. These options simply weren’t on offer. So we lived through it.

The more people are educated about the realities of mental illness, the better. The ability to recognize symptoms, get people the help they need, and cope with the psychological fallout can help everyone — not just the mentally ill, also but those of us who share homes and lives with them.

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Glacier National Park: A Prophecy

The first time I was locked out of a car I was 8 years old and on top of a mountain in Montana. My mom and I had been whisked from Idaho to Montana by her friend Joan. It was 1979.

This was one of the occasions when my mom was suicidal. Joan — who had a good sense of humor — said, “if you’re going to kill yourself, you might as well go to Montana first.”

This was my first road trip with my mom. In addition to all of her other diagnoses, she was agoraphobic and had panic attacks in cars. Somehow the exhilaration of not killing herself made her brave enough for a drive to Montana.

I had a denim purse, and probably about $20 my grandparents gave me for souvenirs, some of which I spent at a gift shop at Glacier National Park. And I left my purse there, somehow… I was 8, I swear I wasn’t drunk.

We drove past weeping walls and cloudy blue glacial lakes, until we got to a peak, with a view of a glacier.

That glacier is probably mostly gone now. Glacier National Park no longer has glaciers to speak of.

There was a visitor’s center of some kind. I have no memory of what we did there. I’m sure there was some interpretive info about ice ages and ice dams and floods… the forces that carved the landscape I knew.

We went back to the station wagon as the sun was setting, and the keys were locked in.I was a little scared, but mostly I was exhilarated by this unexpected adventure. Joan got a clothes hanger from some RV nearby and was able to sneak it in and unlock the door.

That was when I realized I didn’t have my purse. We drove back down the mountain in the waning light and stopped again at the old-west-style gift shop. And they had my purse, but the person who turned it in had taken the last $8 from my wallet.

It was clearly a child’s purse, and they took the time to hand it over to the clerk. But they took my $8. This is what I’ve learned to expect from life. Yes. I made a mistake and left my denim purse on the ground outside a tourist shop in Montana. It was my fault at the end of the day… but still, someone chose to take my $8.