There’s nothing I could say that would do justice to Jeri Walker’s moving account of growing up with a mother who has a mental illness except please read it. For those of you who have lived through it, her words will seem all too familiar. For those of you who haven’t, you will soon understand. Jeri is a unique and beautiful writer and I’m truly honored to share her story here today.
When your mother is crazy and you’re five, no one bothers to explain exactly what that word means. Your state of mind is of no consequence: mom has center stage. So crazy means you get to ride in the red Chevy Nova with your mom and your aunt once a month to Spokane where the big hospitals and important doctors are. (Local facilities cannot accommodate her. Somehow, crazy is big-city material.) As Mom talks with the doctor—a distinguished gray-headed man who looks like Phil Donahue—your aunt takes you to a park that has a bridge over a small stream of water. Crazy must be good if it means monthly park visits.
While you pass through grade school, Mom and Dad vaguely refer to “the time Mom was sick.” You know she takes medication, a pill called Lithium that reminds you of the crystals that power the U.S.S. Enterprise. Sometimes, Mom gets drunk. A no-no for Lithium takers. Uncontrollable, loony, embarrassing—that is crazy. You learn this from television. Crazy is glimpsed in two-hour intervals when she drinks. Then she is normal again. It still doesn’t stop you from hiding your best toys under the bed should she ransack your room.
Crazy’s meaning becomes clear when Mom encounters some stress and quits taking her medication. Her laughter and smiles turn to madness and tears. Who is this woman up at four in the morning, breaking furniture and slamming cupboard doors? She stomps through the living room and the kitchen and the hallway, ranting about how everyone in the world is a bastard. You hide under the covers until you have to get up and go to school. Maybe she will forget you are even alive. Certainly, you wish you weren’t alive.
Two years before she gave birth to you, she had to go away, and a few years after your birth, she went away again. They tell you that you were a Lithium baby—sweet and quiet—who should have been born with a hole in your heart. Phil Donahue had recommended abortion rather than putting Mom at the minimum Lithium dosage.
You need a mom (all girls do), but you figure out she has few memories of you from eleven until you turn sixteen. Her trips to the hospital blur; she goes at least twice a year. The first check you write is for over ten thousand dollars because your dad can’t figure out the checkbook. (Paying for Mom’s illness is the only way Dad shows he cares.) Every time she comes home, you anticipate her smile. Mom smiles when she’s okay.
You’ve heard the story about your older sister who whacked her classmate on the head with a textbook for teasing her about her crazy mother. For some reason, no one ever teases you. You’re tough. And you’re paranoid. It’s a small town. People are bound to know.
Between hospital stays, Mom’s inept doctor can only drug her out of her mind. She doesn’t know day from night. You come home from school and she wakes up from a nap and thinks it’s morning and makes pot of coffee and starts doing her Jane Fonda’s. You get angry and yell at her like she’s the child. Unless you’re in your room, you constantly hound her. She takes pills at all times of the day because she can’t keep anything straight. How can your family do this to her? You’re only thirteen and they won’t listen to you. Grandma calls you a little self-centered bitch when you cry over your mother. You hate your grandma after that. Grandma thinks Grandma is a pro. Her daddy was crazy as could be, and that was before families sent their odd brethren for extended hospital stays.
You can’t believe no one cares about your mother. You love her so much it’s driving you crazy, but what to do? This is what crazy does to a family. Luckily, your two older sisters escape all of this. They live on their own. You call them for support. You need someone to care. About you.
Between baby-sitting an overmedicated rum-dumb, punch-drunk mother (that’s what Dad calls her when he’s frustrated), and being a teenager, you long for guidance and for goodness and for okay. Okay becomes a beacon no one in your family can reach. Other families are okay. Your family is not like other families.
You read a lot and live inside your head and become your own best friend because you’re too afraid and embarrassed to ask anyone to stay the night. You spend a lot of time with a friend who lives with her grandma. It’s been rumored around town that her mother is crazy, too. You never ask.
Anxiety becomes your normal state. Mom lives in limbo between okay and mania. Dad sneers no matter what. You can’t figure him out. He’s a lousy bastard and he treats her like dirt and cusses at her and makes her cry when she’s so low and depressed. Even looking at her makes you cry. You cry continually. Emotions flood your heart and press in upon you, suffocating you. You know there’s no such thing as normalcy, but you long to be closer to its soothing connotations. The one person capable of comforting you can’t. She’s lost to the mess inside her head and the pills that make her a zombie.
When Mom is away (getting better), Dad pays you decent wages to clean the neglected house and buys lots of meals to go from the Greasy Spoon. You will clean, but you won’t cook for him. After school, you retreat to your room and he watches television in the living room.
Mom comes home, again. Somewhere during all of this, she switches to a doctor in Coeur d’Alene. Her new doctor also has manic depression. Mom can respect this. Mom gets new medication after nearly dying from an overdose. The new doctor has something to do with the old doctor saving his ass, but your parents never give you the details. Kids never get the details.
Mom and Tegretol make a good match. She smiles again, but you’re older now; you sense her moods. She is disgusted with her life, but at least she’s not crazy. She becomes your friend, not your mother, because crazy people make bad parents. Before she is crazy, she is your mother. You love her.
And even though you love her desperately, you still feel ashamed and your face burns when memories flood your brain. You can be thirty-six, married, and living thousands of miles from home and still wake up in the middle of the night crying because you can hear her stomping around the house. You see her caged in that house by her illness and her husband. She could be so much more. But could she? Mom is crazy. Longing for explanations and a stronger sense of the love you wanted her to give, you are haunted.
Jeri Walker-Bickett was born and raised in Wallace, Idaho, a rough-and-tumble mining town with a checkered past. The storytelling urge struck at a young age, but an undergraduate degree in writing led to a graduate degree in English education. Between living the scholarship-laden life of an academic bum, she did seasonal work in national parks. Jeri met the love of her life in Yellowstone and later married him in Las Vegas. This phase in their lives sparked an obsession with food and travel. They currently live in North Carolina with their pets. She recently published a collection of literary short stories titled Such is Life. Her forthcoming novel, Lost Girl Road, is a ghost story that takes place in the woods of northwest Montana.