“Michael, give me a kiss before you go to the bus.”
“Because I’m going to kill myself while you’re at school today.”
I was in the second grade. We had just moved into a new home and this was a day close to the beginning of the school year. I had three siblings younger than myself and my mom was bipolar.
As an 7 year old, I didn’t know what bipolar meant officially, but I sure knew what the effects of her mental illness were on life in my household.
That was a long time ago and my mother did not kill herself that day. When she did, I was 33 and living in California — a world away from upstate New York.
My mother spent most of her life undiagnosed, which pretty much meant we just lived life and thought everything was normal. I remember the first time I had dinner at a friend’s house.
At my home, dinnertime meant an endless guilt inducing tirade of how horrible life was, how much the food cost that we were eating and how much life sucked in general. My dad slapping me because I had the temerity to tell my mom she should stop screaming at us kids.
At my friend’s house, we just ate dinner.
On the upswing side, there were the times when my mom wouldn’t sleep for days. The house was almost clean, we had dinner without sobbing and migraines, and life was OK. I don’t remember many of those days, though. It could be because the scary days stand out more in my memory; burned into my soul with a red hot branding iron.
The Reality of Life
For me, this was just how life was. I had no frame of reference other than my home. No kid does. Everything their parents do is the right thing because that is the only thing they know.
As parents, our children do what we do, say what we say and act how we act. Anyone who has ever heard their child swear like them knows that our kids learn exactly how to live from our examples.
Logic will not change our kids’ perceptions. School will not change them, Neighbors, friends, the cops, Social Services will not change the lessons kids have carved into their hearts by their parents.
We all learn from our parents, or the people who fill those roles. Sometimes we get to be 50, go to therapy and figure out our lives have real meaning and are worth living. That’s what I did.
But some people don’t do that
My dad died at 68 of his third heart attack, while working full time and taking care of my mom, who at that point was an invalid. My mom killed herself at age 63, 6 months after my dad died. My brother died at 43 of a massive heart attack. His son died at 17 of a massive heart attack. My sister has been in and out of mental institutions her entire adult life.
I can’t say for sure any of those things would be different if my mom had not been mentally ill. I suspect they might have been, because her illness was such a big part of our lives, but I really don’t know.
What I do know
Mental illness is a real thing that touches more lives than just the person who has it. If a person is a parent and mentally ill, I can say from experience that a parent’s mental illness changes their kids’ lives. I would guess probably not for the better.
I know life isn’t like that for everyone, and don’t mean to imply that it is. I don’t know what my life growing up would have been like if my mom had had some help. What I do know is that when she was diagnosed at age 49, she used that diagnosis as an excuse for how she lived the rest of her life.
She wasn’t threatening suicide while I was at school anymore. But when I stopped by on my way to work, I would find her chainsmoking Chesterfield Kings, staring out the window and telling me, “Someday you’re going to come in here and find me dead, because I’ve smoked myself to death. That will be a good day for me.”
What’s the big deal
I’m reading back through this story and wondering why I wrote it. I think maybe to share my experience in the hope it will help someone.
When we’re parents, we have an additional obligation to take care of our children. If that means going to the doctor and taking care of ourselves, we should do that.
When we’re parents, and know we need help, that is important to communicate to our children. Adults need help sometimes and deserve to have it.
I’m not manic depressive. But I learned as a child that how my parents acted was how adults behaved in the world. I learned to be dramatic in everyday life. That was cool when I was a performer, but not so cool in any other area of my life.
I did get help, but I didn’t realize I needed it until I was 50.
I wanted something different in my life and became a very positive person. Not in the way of never having experienced troubles in my life but in the way that I have, and went on to create a new understanding of life that I like much better.