Trauma ruptures our memories–rearranges the order of things, and makes you question if what you vaguely remember really even happened…
All of it comes back to me periodically, like a flash—my mother’s closet cluttered nearly from floor to ceiling, her still body on a stretcher being placed into an ambulance and the eyes.
The eyes always come back to me.
The first time I was ever able to recount what it was like living with a mentally-ill mother was through a short story, wistful and fragmented with an unreconciled ending. It was fiction—but it was real, too.
It all felt rather fantastical at the time.
One day I knew my mother. Then suddenly this new woman replaced her—with new eyes, a face twisted in perpetual distress, who mumbled and yelled at an empty room. It was like experiencing a kind of death—an inexplicable death.
I discovered the term “ambiguous grief” while trying to find another word for grieving a person who is still living. Sometimes, it comes with the impending death of a loved one due to some terminal illness and sometimes it is physical or psychological separation. Incarceration. Dementia. Schizophrenia.
This was the thing I had been looking for, that I had been feeling, but could not put into words. It is the thing that has raged in my body from childhood to now, rupturing my ability to fully trust the durability of both platonic and romantic relationships. Loss was familiar.
Somebody was always leaving me.
When I lost my mother to mental illness, I also lost a part of myself. I lost an idealized version of her that lived in my head since I was old enough to know her as “mama.”
With that grief came resentment. Years of feeling like I hated her because she should have been there for me no matter what. As children, it is difficult to simultaneously recognize both our mothers and ourselves as victims. When you compound that with what trauma does to a child’s brain developmentally, it takes decades to see how the forces that failed our mothers led to them inevitably failing us, too.
My grandmother is on the phone telling my great aunt that my teacher said she had never seen such a small child look so sad. I remember this because it hurt my feelings. At that time, I had little control or awareness of my bodily responses to loss.
Once a week my grandmother picks me up early from school to take me to see Ms. Maureen, a counselor. Every session, Ms. Maureen would make me hot chocolate and we’d go into her office and talk. I don’t remember any of those conversations.
I finally worked up the nerve to ask my grandmother, over two decades later, if she remembers. “Separation Anxiety or something like that,” is what she told me. “You couldn’t be left alone, wouldn’t sleep alone, every time I had to leave you thought I was never coming back.”
I do remember this.
When my father and I talk about my childhood, he tells me the same story each time. “I’d tell you, I’m gonna go pay for the gas. You can see me, right there through the window. I’m gonna wave at you. I’ll be right back. But you would go off, every time.”
Here’s how I remember it.
Him looking back at me. Smiling and mouthing, “I’m almost done.” But my brain tells me: pull the lock up and set off the alarm, run arms-wide across a gas station parking lot, cars swerving around you, screaming, “Dada, don’t leave me.”
Even when they say they won’t, they always leave.
I don’t know what denial looks like as a child, but long before both my parents walked out of my life, my mother aimlessly wandered in and out of my world for years. And I adored her no matter the days and weeks, sometimes months that passed without seeing her. And I waited at the window until bedtime on the days she promised to come see me, but didn’t. I told myself she’d come tomorrow.
A week later, I’d forget each time she let me down.
I came across the term “bipolar eyes,” after having my first and last session with a therapist who tried to convince me in less than 30 minutes of meeting that I was bipolar.
I went googling the symptoms and found the phrase. It’s based on anecdotal reports of changes in the eyes related to pupil dilation, gaze and eye color in folks living with bipolar disorder. The evidence is mostly inconclusive since not everyone who is bipolar will experience this, but nonetheless it took me back in my own memory.
When my mother’s eyes changed, it seemed like she was always angry. I could not do anything right. My body was always doing the wrong thing in her eyes. I could not blink wrong, walk wrong, look at her in ways she deemed threatening. I was a monster…to her.
The first time I told my mother I hated her, we were outside of a video rental store. She had terrorized me the whole ride there, hurling insults and accusations at me, I was conspiring with others against her.
I was tired.
And so, I jumped out of the car before we pulled into the parking lot, screaming as loud as I could, I hate you!
I didn’t mean it, but my body would feel what I misconstrued as hate for years.
At some point, my mother got treatment. She was stable enough to work, have healthy social interactions, no delusions or extreme paranoia. She was seemingly better and wanted to mend our relationship, but I looked at her and could no longer see my mother.
I struggled much of my teen years trying to find a new normal with this different, and less volatile mother. I felt as though I hated her, and I hated myself for feeling that way. I was so angry. And mean. When my mother dared to try and have a conversation with me, I raged. And then I cried because I didn’t understand why it hurt to even speak to her.
I resented the loss. I resented the way she wanted to move on as if nothing happened. I resented the hand God dealt me. I resented my real mother for leaving me. And I especially resented her eyes, no longer hateful, just empty and sad.
I have been trying to make deals with God since my parents split up back in the nineties. I would say, “God if you put my mama and daddy back together, I’ll be a good girl forever.”
And then, “God if you bring my mama back, I promise I will be good, forreal this time.”
And then, “God if you save me from my mother, I will never be a bad girl again.”
I never held up my end of the bargains, but I guess that makes two us.
One day, I wake up and I am no longer myself. I am my mother. Or at least I think I am.
I am crazy, just like her, that’s what spiteful family members would say about me under their breaths. Black families always resent the “crazy” ones and hold contempt for their children. Guilty by association.
Maybe they were right.
I moved away from home at sixteen to attend a residential high school. Within the first month there, I was diagnosed with depression by the school therapist. Severe depression according to the assessment she had given me.
In college, a clinical psychologist would tell me the same thing and make me complete a “suicide safety plan” during our first meeting. When I got home, I would stuff that safety plan in a drawer, and finish off a bottle of wine that sat on the floor near the head of my bed. And I would spend the rest of the night crying, thinking to myself: You’re gonna end up just like your mother.
I am not my mother. And my mother is not just my mother.
She is a Black woman. She is a survivor … of domestic violence, suicide attempts, drug dependence, the criminal justice system. And there is always a cost to living through conditions you were never meant to survive.
During a car ride, my older cousin, for reasons I still don’t know, decides to tell me about my mother before she was my mother. He tells me how beautiful and brilliant she was growing up. How she could’ve been anything she wanted to be in life. He tells me about the complicated relationship between my mother and her mother. He tells me that she is not solely to blame for her plight in life.
I already knew some of what he told me. I saw the way her and my grandmother struggled to love one another in healthy ways. I witnessed the pain in my grandmother’s voice, when she told me all the ways she tried to save my mother. This grief— my grief—is generational.
But it took a while to recognize it as that. To accept it as an inheritance from my mother that I don’t have to succumb to. To decipher between mourning my mother, rather than hating her.
Today, and always, I am thinking of my mother and her mother. And I pray we find a way through and beyond this grief.
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