When I was 15 years old, a simple trip to the dentist turned into a traumatic and public family crisis.
I didn’t know my mom had schizophrenia. I just knew something had stolen the best of her a year before, and she hadn’t been the same since.
When she picked me up at school, I could tell it was happening again: her process of slowly drifting away from us until the inevitable hospital stay and another try at the pills she hated to take, even if they seemed to help. I knew she was not completely with me, although I didn’t understand why.
But I couldn’t have known how quickly she would spin into her world of delusion and shut down—just in a matter of minutes. In the time it took for the dentist to clean my teeth.
When I returned to the waiting room where I had left my mom, I soon realized she was non-responsive. She sat rigid, staring at something only she could see, her hands locked around her purse in her lap. She didn’t acknowledge me when I told her it was time to go. She didn’t move when I touched her shoulder and gently shook.
I gripped and shook her more firmly. I spoke in her ear. I put my face in front of hers. I tried all the ways we had roused her back to reality before—and nothing worked. I realized I was going to have to get her out of there somehow. I also realized that although I needed help, I was on my own—the other people in the waiting room sat watching me or staring at the floor, refusing to get involved.
Shame fell on me like a dark and weighted curtain, thick with dust and density and folds that would keep me trapped for a long time.
My shame grew when I asked the receptionist if I could use the phone and she pointed to the pay phone around the corner. It darkened as I wrestled Mom’s steely arms to dig a quarter from her purse while my silent audience looked on. It grew heavier when I asked the receptionist to keep an eye on Mom while I used the phone and she asked in horror, “Is she dangerous?”
I was able to reach Dad at work, and when he arrived, one of the dentists helped us get Mom to the car. We headed to the hospital, where my shame and love mingled with desperation as I watched Mom suffer through hallucinations that made her cry.
After she was admitted, I went home, made dinner, and never talked with anyone about what I had experienced.
I didn’t tell others about Mom’s illness, hospitalizations, and medication. I didn’t introduce her to my friends if I could help it. I went to school, and tried to be normal, and took care of myself. And as I grew up—through Mom’s unpredictable behavior, life in homeless shelters, and prison time—I tried desperately to prove to myself and to the world, in case they ever discovered the truth about my mom, that I was nothing like her.
But I am like her. I look like her, laugh like her, and love my kids the way she loves hers. I’m smart like her, and I love nature the way she taught me to. And sometimes I’m weak, tired, and afraid like her. I’m also strong like her, and I’m determined to be healthy and to live up to my potential to make a mark on this world. Just like her.
For a long time, shame kept me quiet about my family’s experience with mental illness. Then after many years of growing up, doing therapy, and understanding God’s love for me, I wrote an article in the hope that it would help other people find the kind of support my family needed. Then I wrote a book that helps churches understand how they can help. And only after I started writing about it, and hearing from other people about their own experiences, did I understand how very “not alone” we were.
Some people think when a person is diagnosed with a disease like schizophrenia, life is basically over. No more meaningful contributions to society, nothing for their loved ones except heartbreak. It doesn’t have to be that way. Mom’s leaving a positive mark on the world. She’s taking her meds, exercising, getting rest. She talks to a friend when she needs help sorting reality from delusion. And she’s letting me tell a bit of her story because it just might help someone else.
I’m very proud of my mom.
You see, I had it all wrong. For my mom, there’s no shame in being sick. And for me, there was no shame in needing help.
Amy Simpson is an editor, a freelance writer, and author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission (InterVarsity Press). You can find her at www.AmySimpsonOnline.com , on Facebook, and on Twitter @aresimpson.