Living with Mentally Ill Parents: An essay for The Feminist Wire

A piece I wrote about both my mother and father was published today at The Feminist Wire, since they’re doing a series on mental health/illness. Here’s the beginning:

Walking with my mom, Maggie, as a kid, I heard someone call her crazy. She wore her black wigs until, with wear, they turned into frayed, layered gray clouds. Her thick nails were caked with layers of chipped maroon nail polish. She stuttered when she spoke, unless she was angry. Her black purse was thick as a mail carrier’s with letters, rosaries, but no wallet. We usually didn’t have money, so missing a wallet was no big deal.

“I am protected by the Lord Jesus Christ, my savior,” she started. And then, all that Cherokee blood that made her cheekbones so high rose to her face. She knew Jesus, yes, but she also knew how to go off. Curses and spittle followed until the accuser backed down.

Maggie had both borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder, triggered by the death of my 12-year-old brother Jose in 1976, but I wouldn’t learn about her diagnosis until I was older. Jose was the youngest of her five children. I was born in 1978, named for Jose and a childhood friend of hers.

Maggie never married my father, Victor. She had been working as a secretary at the time, after a lifetime in Philadelphia via South Carolina. He was a tall, handsome ex-military man who worked in civil engineering. He liked to drink, maybe too much. He had endearing brown eyes that seemed to smile even when he was frowning.

Maggie followed the invisible trajectory of most people who don’t trust therapists, don’t want help and still manage, somehow, to make lives and babies and homes. She unraveled over decades, spinning through communities that believed God alone could cure her. She attended Mass daily before her health declined and it would be hard to prove God hadn’t saved her, since there were no other real reasons that she should have still been alive.

Her mother, Edna, died when she was young. She went to live with an aunt, but she never felt like one of them. She was lighter and quirky, beautiful and thin. She loved chasing men her whole life, even though she once considered becoming a nun.

It’s not exactly light reading, but you can read the rest here. Let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from you.

6 thoughts on “Living with Mentally Ill Parents: An essay for The Feminist Wire

  1. Uncomfortably real, yet hauntingly beautiful. A youth lived with family bearing mental illness is one that a dictionary full of composed words cannot convey, so disorganized and illogical is the experience. Thank you for dissecting and sharing a bit of yours. Best to you.

    • Indeed, it is complex territory. It sounds like you can relate. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and for reading it and responding.

  2. A hard read, so honest yet without that tendency to distance oneself from all that emotion. I applaud your courage!!!

  3. I had to post that to my FB page. Your words are so elegant, touching and humbling. Thank you for sharing your story.

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