The story of a misunderstood soul.
As soon as I saw my mother’s area code pop up on my phone, I knew something terrible had happened. She never really called me, so I doubted she was on the other end. It turned out to be a West Plains, Missouri, police officer who informed me that my mother was dead.
I’d been preparing myself for the news for years. My mom had a few mini-strokes and walked with a cane. I also knew she had problems with her heart. These things were only vaguely known to me since we didn’t have much of a relationship. I knew time was running out for her, but I never took an opportunity to reach out and make up with her. I’ve never forgiven myself since.
The officer told me that my mother had an accident at home. He tried to make it sound better than it was because my mom had nearly cut her foot off with a blender blade she left in her living room. She apparently made it over to the couch, her phone sitting next to her, and allowed herself to bleed to death. I could only imagine the pain and suffering she went through as she sat there dying, but she didn’t call for help.
When I got to West Plains to help pack up her apartment, a huge swath of carpet was missing. The couch had also disappeared. Her landlord told me he did it out of kindness so I wouldn’t have to see where she died. He also showed me a copy of an eviction notice he’d sent her a week earlier. The notice mentioned hoarding, and one look around her apartment confirmed it. There was old food and dishes everywhere and QVC boxes that went unopened. I couldn’t even walk into her bedroom because it was piled so high with stuff. Not only was it a horrible way to live, but it was a horrible way to die.
I imagined my mother, her foot throbbing in agony, afraid to call 911 because her landlord would see the mess in her apartment. It made me feel mad at him, but my anger was misplaced. The truth was that I really hated myself. Why hadn’t I checked on her more often? I thought maybe if I’d known, it would have made a difference, then realized I probably would have done nothing at all. My mother scared me so much that I’d leave the room whenever she was on the phone with my 9-year-old daughter so I didn’t have to hear her voice. I called it “self-protection,” but it hurt both of us and made reconciliation impossible.
I never understood my mother growing up. When I was ten and we moved to New York to live with her parents, she began acting like a teenager and yelled at them every day. She stayed out all night. She drove drunk, sometimes with me in the car. Her behavior had always been eccentric, but suddenly it bordered on dangerous. She had an on-again, off-again relationship with a man who was already married and broke down every time he went back to his wife. She went from treating me kindly to viewing me as an anchor who stopped her from having fun.
Things got worse over time. She was hospitalized for mental illness for several months and then moved to Florida without me. I remember the rest of the family feeling sorry for me over losing my mother, but it was honestly a relief to have her gone. She was no longer the mother I knew when I was little. I became more afraid of her with every outrageous thing that she did or said. In middle school, I had terrible nightmares of a half-mother, half-monster coming into my room to attack me. I always woke up just before the monster lunged at me, but the bad dreams would stay with me for hours.
Right before I started high school, the family decided I should move to Florida and live with my mother again. I remember being furious because I was starting to heal from her damage and letting a few friends into my lonely life. When my mother picked me up from the airport, I was an angry person who didn’t love her anymore. That’s the way things stayed as I grew into an adult and had kids of my own. My mother was literally chaos, and I vowed never to trust her again.
Only after her death did I finally understand. Since she was a teenager, she’d been given every mental health diagnosis except for the correct one. As much as I’ve come to accept my bipolar disorder, I now realize that my mother also suffered from the same illness. From her acting out to spending weeks crying on the couch in the same clothes, her symptoms became obvious to me when I looked back into the past. My teenage daughter also has bipolar disorder, but it didn’t even occur to me that my mom also had it.
Bipolar disorder can be extremely hard to live with, especially when you don’t realize you have it. My mom had been on tons of psychiatric medications, but her doctors never found something that could help her because they were looking in the wrong place. Before my own diagnosis, I made terrible mistakes that hurt people, and I lost everything in the process. I found it frustrating every day that other people could manage their lives and responsibilities and I couldn’t. My prayer was that someday I’d find something that clicked and turned my brain into a normal one. The fact that I’ll probably always be different because of my bipolar has been hard to accept.
It breaks my heart that my mother was cheated from living a full life. She was the smartest person I’ve ever known, and I imagine the things she could have done if she had the right treatment. When I finally got my diagnosis, I felt cheated the same way but learned to be grateful that at least I knew what was wrong. My mother never had that chance. She lived her entire life fighting her demons, and with her death came the end of opportunity. If only a doctor had screened her for bipolar or gotten curious about her family history, her life might have been totally different.
I remember a particular conversation I had with her, probably because it didn’t happen often. This happened after I gave up custody of my children due to being too sick to care for them. I also lived in a halfway house because I’d been self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. I was at my lowest point and ready to give up entirely, and at that moment I turned to my mom.
“Honey,” my mother said, “you may think everything looks hopeless right now, but you’re so smart, kind, and resilient that I know you will turn things around. You won’t be miserable forever. You’re going to look back on this day and realize you never had to worry at all. You’re going to have a beautiful life.”
My mom was right. Today, I’m grateful for every second of my life. I never imagined my world could look like this, but my mother did. I only wish someone had told her the same thing. She was a survivor like me who suffered in silence. If I have inherited half her strength, I’m proud to say so. She wasn’t a monster. She was just battling an illness she didn’t understand.
I wish she knew I finally forgave her. We weren’t like a real mother and daughter, but deep down we were truly the same.