Finding Reality

 Source: Amelia Cacchione

Source: Amelia Cacchione

I can’t remember my mother without schizophrenia. I still remember the first day that she was hospitalized. It was a few days before my ninth birthday when she suddenly began spewing incoherent nonsense. She kept repeating a bible verse she had recently heard at church. My dad tried to calm her down, but she kept going on and on to the point that it started to terrify us.

Suddenly, she froze—her body rigid, her mind in a stupor.

I pushed her, trying to provoke a reaction, but it was like pushing against a statue. However little I was able to move her, she instantly snapped right back into place. I was horrified. I looked up at her face and I could see that she was struggling. It looked like she was battling herself, trying to unfreeze herself, but something wouldn’t let her. I couldn’t understand what was going on. Why are you just standing still, deliberately ignoring us? Why won’t you move? In my eyes, she seemed to be doing these things intentionally. But how can you tell an eight-year old boy that his mother has schizophrenia?

That night, she was hospitalized. It would be the first of multiple hospitalizations. On my birthday, I remember hearing a voicemail left by my mom from the hospital, but I couldn’t bear to listen. I missed her, but I felt abandoned, betrayed, lifeless.

Throughout my childhood, there were periods of relative peace in the house followed by long stretches of futile fighting between my parents that would stem from my mom’s paranoia and persecutory delusions, which almost always revolved around my dad. She would accuse him of conspiring against her, whether it was cheating on her or trying to ruin her financially; her accusations had no grounding in reality but were formed out of her greatest fears. Sometimes these fights would become so intense that I would hear her shrieking, making me agonize that the neighbors would hear.

Things only got worse from there. She must have stopped taking her medications, probably refusing them because of the side effects or because she believed she wasn’t sick. As time passed, she began to isolate herself from us. Each day, she worked, cooked and then slept alone on the couch or in the guest room. She never wanted to do anything with the family, which broke my heart.

As I became more understanding of her illness, I tried to calmly reason with her whenever she would accuse my dad of some heinous act or make an offhand remark. This would almost always escalate into unceasing fights between us that only made matters worse. Each new delusion would become more ridiculous. Trying to talk to her in this state was like trying to talk to a brick wall that only grows more resistant with time.

At dinner, she would sit across from me, glaring as if she was trying to burn holes in my eyes. I never understood why she did this, but it always unnerved me. It probably wasn’t me she was looking at, but some hallucination, some character that formed out of my presence. Whenever she was home, I found it exhausting to focus on my studies. I was always on edge, anxious for the moment she would go off.

Oftentimes I would question how much of what she said was her illness and how much was actually her. What if everything she did was intentional? There was no way of knowing for certain, but I couldn’t understand how she performed at work when she acted psychotic at home. After all, she’s a child psychiatrist.

I tried to be loving, but it's hard to love someone who’s antagonized you your entire life, who’s been the cause of your greatest pains, even if that someone wasn’t actually her. Things eventually got to the point where I wanted her out of my life and never wanted to see her. I hated the fact that she had schizophrenia, but I also hated her. I hated her for having schizophrenia, even though it wasn’t her choice. I hated that she was my mom.

After a while, my dad realized that anger and fighting never solved anything, so he grew patient with her, responding to her in a calm, rational manner. I tried to follow my dad’s example, but I couldn’t. I became adept at concealing my resentment and humiliation; at burying my emotions down deep. Eventually, I wouldn’t be able to hold those feelings in any longer.

I tried to detach myself from my mom, but she became convinced that I hated her. I ignored her anytime she said something paranoid and tried not to care how she reacted. I tried to tell myself that I didn’t care what she thought of me and that I didn’t care about her. But these were lies I perpetuated to protect myself so I wouldn’t hurt as much. I had to defend myself from my overwhelming sadness, my hopelessness, my guilt that I was making her worse every time I fought with her—that somehow I contributed to the cause of her illness. The last thing I wanted was to see her go to the hospital again. She’d lose her job. But how else was she supposed to get better?

Deep down, I knew that she still loved me. I knew she worked hard and called me every day from work because she cared. I knew that when she would buy something expensive for me or unexpectedly give me money, she was trying to show her love. But I didn’t want material possessions. I wanted her to comfort me when I needed guidance and support. I wanted to be able to have friends and family over without feeling like I needed to hide her from them every time. I wanted a normal mom.

Despite the troubles I faced at home, I often went to school with a fake smile. I couldn’t let my friends or teachers know what was going on. I had to be strong. I couldn’t afford to lose focus. I had to do well in school. I had to prove to myself and others that despite growing up in this harsh reality, I could still succeed.

When it came time to apply to college, I decided to write my personal statement about my relationship with my mom. It was the day before the deadline of my application to my dream school, and I decided to let my dad read the essay before I sent it out. For a long while he said nothing.

Suddenly, he exploded, “You can’t use this essay! You need to change it.”

“I can’t change it!” I protested. “It’s due tomorrow! I spent the entire summer writing this. It’s too late now.”

He said that my essay made him look bad and how other people can’t read it because he had a reputation to uphold as a doctor of our community. He was acting as paranoid as my mom.

I couldn’t understand why he was so mad. He seemed to care more about himself than helping my mom get better. I thought he was a coward. I thought he had given up. I had been hopeful up to this point that by some stroke of luck, my mom would magically get better; that by writing that essay, it would somehow make things right. But I realized then that my parents would never be truly happy like they once were. Pretty soon I’d be off to college and so would my sister, and my dad would be stuck with my mom, who would never get better. Never have I felt more defeated in my life.

Looking back, I understand why he was so mad. It wasn’t me. He knew that I wasn’t trying to hurt him. He was angry at this life he’d be given. He was ashamed that he’s married to, in his mind, a mentally handicapped human being, and there was nothing he could do about it.

 

It was the night before my college move-in, and I was with my family in a hotel room in Ann Arbor. All I wanted was for our last night together to be problem-free. My mom made an additional payment to my college tuition even though I told her not to because the government loan would be applied the next day. We had talked at length about this before, and I told her multiple times not to make the payment, but she did right then, and it just set me off. In a split second of rage, I threw my phone at her and nailed her right on the knee cap. The instant the phone left my hand, I wished I could take it back. But it was too late. My mom turned frantic, accusing me of trying to break her leg. I tried to apologize and calm her down, but this only made things worse.

“Can we forget everything that just happened?” I pleaded. “Tomorrow I’ll be going to college, and I won’t see you again for a while. Why do we have to be doing this now?”

No matter what I said, she wouldn’t relent. After a certain point, I just couldn’t take it anymore. As much I knew I was in the wrong this time, I couldn’t let her win. I called her psychotic and told her that she needs to get help. She immediately responded with her typical automated defense mechanism, “You don’t know anything, David. You don’t even know.”

And with that, I stopped. I could tell she wanted to say something, but she didn’t. She just stared at me. Slowly, her locked glare melted to a pitiful frown. We retreated to our ends of the room, and though we were only 20 feet apart, it was the most separated we’ve ever been. She’d glance at me, look away, and glance again. All the while I kept my eyes locked on my phone, resisting the temptation to look back. Neither person wanted this to happen. We didn’t want to leave each other like this. We didn’t want this to be the last memory we shared.

This terrible moment reminded me that this has been just as hard for her as it has been for me. I realized why she would always become so defensive. Part of it was the fact that she couldn’t think clearly when she was in a manic state. But the bigger reason was that she didn’t want to believe that she was sick.

The stigma of having schizophrenia was greater for her than for anyone else. As a professional, she had to be perfect, immune to all mental disorders. After all, she was the one who treated them. God forbid her peers found out. She would be ostracized, humiliated, questioned on her qualifications to be a psychiatrist. They wouldn’t bear to have a flaw in the system, or else risk losing their credibility as medical practitioners.

She had become the very thing she worked every day against. Her defense mechanism was her only way of preserving her dignity, at least of what tenuously remained.

When I saw my family again at the end of this summer, I tried to be the most loving and respectful son I could be. It was the least I could do. But it broke my heart to see that she hadn’t gotten better, but instead worse. She seemed mellow, but more disconnected—lost in her tangled thoughts. We went on vacation to Disney World, and like every past family vacation for as long as I can remember, it was hell. Sure, fancy hotels and delicious cuisine can be gratifying, but they only provided temporary happiness. Anytime I spoke, I had to be careful of what I said, for fear it would trigger her. Sure enough, at almost every meal we had, my mom would take something I said and twist it into some delusion that satisfied her distorted reality. All I could do was keep a straight face and ignore whatever she was saying for fear of creating a scene. I didn’t care if she said the most irrational things to me in private, but in public, especially at a restaurant, I couldn’t bear to have her embarrass our family in front of the waiter, even if he was some random stranger.

It became clear to me here that the root of the problem lied just as much with us as it did with her. Even after all this time, we were just as ashamed of her illness as when she was first diagnosed, enough so to hide the fact from others and stop seeking out medical attention when clearly more attention needed to be given.

My dad still loves my mom and wants her to get better, but he says it’s not that easy. He says it’s expensive, and that he has to be careful about what he does. I’m not satisfied with his answer. I think he’s afraid to act because of how other people will judge him if they knew the type of person he was married to. But my dad is not a coward. His beliefs and actions are a result of how society has conditioned him.

I know that only science will cure my mother. And yet, there has to be something more I can do now to at least help. I won’t be satisfied until she is cured. I can’t be.

I know I must address my family of the reality of our situation. I know I must confront my mom and convince her to see the reality of herself.

But I don’t know how. And I’m afraid of what will happen if I do.