When your mother is mentally ill, sadness is terrifying. It takes on a life of its own, full of shadows and lurking questions. I’ve dealt with sadness many times before – long-term depression even – as a teenager, and then in post-partum years later. Periods of sadness or depression were awful before, but this is hard on a whole new level.
My mother’s four suicide attempts in one year have changed me. They hold power over me. I am constantly thinking about her mental well-being, and analyzing every indication of her mood. I think that is an expected and natural outcome for a daughter of someone with mental illness.
The unexpected result of this however has been the change in the way I see myself. I grew up always hearing from my mother how much we are alike. “You’re just like me,” was, and continues to be, a regular utterance from her. And she is right in many ways. We both are sensitive, good spellers, and like to eat dessert. We are both funny, have good memories, and are trustworthy. We like dogs, we were the exact same age when we had our first child, and we crank up the air conditioning in the summer.
So what if she is right? What if I am just like her?
What if a sad day turns into a month of sad days? And what if they are followed by a month of mania? I already know that I have the same anxiety that she has. So what if it’s only a matter of time before I’m in a hospital room and it’s my children that don’t know what to do to help me?
Anxiety is really not helpful in sorting this out by the way. If the voices we hear in our heads were people at the beach, 80% of my voices would be yelling “Shark!” and running in circles after a dolphin swam by. The other 20% would be calm, but they would be driving away in their cars, because they would also be sure it was a shark. They would just be more capable of doing something constructive about the shark. None of them would be floating carelessly on the waves.
So I see a sad day, and shout shark. Most of the time it ends there. But I wish that I didn’t even see sharks in the first place. I wish that I could just enjoy the beach. I have 10 years to go until I am the same age that my mother was when something changed in her. It scares the hell out of me.
In the meantime I focus on working on myself in much the same way that someone with a family history of heart disease would take extra care of their physical health, in a determination to head off the shadows of mental illness. I make an effort to make and keep friends; stay close with my husband and enjoy shared interests; hug my children; keep myself mentally active; and pursue my own interests.
All this in the hope that I can get through the sad days should they become something more – before the sharks start circling.