(this is the piece I read at my reading on tuesday. the theme was “what we are afraid of”, so I wrote about my schizophrenic mother.)
(also- I use the word “crazy” alot in this piece, and I realized, last night after reading it aloud to the entire city, that my usage could be pretty hurtful to people dealing with mental health issues- indeed, mental health is a broad spectrum and it’s a universal truth of human existence that we all struggle with mental health issues, be it depression, anxiety, bi-polar or schizophrenia, at some time in our lives- and so you should know that the “crazy” I talk about in this piece is my mother’s brand of crazy- full-blown, catatonic, “can’t talk or hear or think” schizophrenia, of the chronic variety, that lasts a lifetime and does not respond to treatment- and this is why I equate it with death, indeed worse than death. But know that I do not believe that mental health issues in general are cause for suicidal thoughts, nor am I encouraging it, this is only a story of my unreasonable fears around my mother’s particular brand of the disease. Also, did you know that 20% of the population has experienced auditory hallucinations at one time or another? True fact.)
A lot of us are afraid of one day becoming our parents. We’re afraid that those behavioral patterns that we hate so much might one day manifest in us.
My mother is crazy. She’s schizophrenic. She hallucinates, she hears voices, she’s enormously paranoid. God and the devil are real to her in the physical, tangible sense- and all of the people and events around her are part of her elaborate religious delusions. In these delusions she is the reincarnate of the virgin mary, put back on earth to transcribe god’s message onto scrap pieces of paper and the backs of old Christmas cards, so that the people might somehow receive it.
It’s not a simple mission. My mother is up against insurmountable odds. The devil has sent demons, to try and derail her progress. These demons have access to her subconscious, and so they know her history, and her very deepest fears, and the spots in which she is most vulnerable, and they use this knowledge to psychologically torture her more effectively than even the most talented torturer at Guantanamo would be able to do. They force her to relive, again and again and again, all of the terrible memories and painful moments of her life, and they make her go through elaborate rituals in order to carry out the simplest tasks, like leaving the house or answering the phone. They yell at her to keep her from sleeping, they yell at her to keep her from eating. Sometimes they even enter the bodies of those closest to her- my brother and I, when we were young- and are brought to life to conspire against her in the third dimension. But mostly they insult her, endlessly and forever, all through the night and all through the day. The insults are simple, almost laughable- you’re stupid, you’re fat, you’re lazy- but I imagine that over time, they have their effect. And daily, into the din of the demon’s voices, comes the clear voice of God- and my mother transcribes his message onto paper grocery bags, or whatever she can find, in her beautiful looping penmanship, and all of it is complete and total word salad.
This is what I grew up with, this was my only adult mentor. To a child, she was a monster- violent, unpredictable, irrational, psychotic, and more often than not, catatonic- kneeling in child’s pose on the floor in front of her gently glowing radio, incapable of speaking, or hearing, or understanding anything you might say. She subsisted off of fear, cigarettes, and mountain dew from the corner store. The government paid our rent. My brother and I raised each other.
There were moments of lucidity. My mother would walk out of her room in a cloud of cigarette smoke and see me sitting there on the couch watching TV, a bowl of top ramen in my lap. She’d look straight at me and really see me, not just the fantastical demons that lived in her head. Our eyes would lock, and recognition would wash over her. Tilting her chin back on her long, thin neck, she’d look over the room- our apartment was a mess. The floor was covered in fast-food bags and crusted pizza boxes. Paper cups filled with her cigarette ashes sat on all the surfaces. The counters were oily, the sink smelled like rotten hamburger. A lone potato moldered in the cupboard. My mother was alarmed. She quickly pulled on her long, puffy quilted coat, in pepto pink and with holes in all the pockets, and fumbled closed the toggle buttons with her thin yellow fingers. The front door slammed. She was gone. A bit of cigarette smoke traded places with a puff of cold winter air. She would return a few hours later, with heavy grocery bags dangling from the ends of her fingers. Cleanser, dish soap, windex, bleach. And food- milk, potatoes, margarine, cottage cheese, fritos, cans of corn. And a big-gulp of mountain dew, frosty and green and sweating. We’d eat the fritos and cottage cheese together, me slurping up whey-soaked chips and stealing drinks of her soda. Then she’d begin to clean, and to talk- manically, and with more and more urgency- everything was going to change. Everything, was going, to change.
Mostly, though, she was catatonic. Mostly she stayed in her room. My brother and I fished coins and bad checks and lost foodstamp bills from the ripped folds of her purse and walked to the grocery store. We weren’t very good at choosing what food to eat. Mostly we ate little Debbie snacks and cans of soup. Often there was no money in her purse, no blank checks, no matter how hard we looked. I remember the smell of that purse, old crumpled leather and tobacco that had fallen from her loose cigarettes. My mother couldn’t read, or talk, or understand anything you said, so there was no way for her to keep up with our welfare paperwork, and we were always losing our benefits. Mostly we ate the free school lunches, corn dogs and soft apple crumble. The weekends and the summers were the hardest. I started shoplifting when I was twelve, stealing tacos from the taco bar at the grocery store, crispy fried tortillas with great piles of salty refried beans, and iceberg lettuce. And lots of cheese. And olives. I would walk out without paying and eat them on the grassy hill that overlooked the parkinglot, the wind in my face.
When I was fourteen my grandparents adopted my brother and me, and we left Alaska to live with them in Colorado, in a little meth town in the desert near the Utah border. By the time I was nineteen I wanted out of that town. My grandparents were close-hearted, spiteful catholics, who had me pegged as an insufferable slut and drug addict, and my brother and I had grown apart while in highschool, which was tragic- having lived through the war of our childhood together, I felt as though his heart and mine were permanently fused, and I loved him fiercely, and he had been enormously protective of me, and he was my only close family- but now he’d taken up with the wrong crowd and made a living manufacturing meth. He also collected illegal firearms, committed armed robbery in his spare time, and had developed a hostile, drug-fueled paranoia to rival our mother’s.
I had an older cousin, Nathan, living in Portland, so I decided to move to Portland. Nathan’s brother Jason was also moving west so we drove together, in my little Honda prelude, amped up on adderal, and bonded. In Portland the three of us lived in Nathan’s moldy apartment off 22nd and Powell, and Nathan got me a job bussing at the restaurant where he worked. Nathan and Jason were a beautiful set of brothers, Jason tall and dark like his mother, Nathan stocky and blonde like his father. Nathan liked to paint and go for long runs late at night. Jason liked to read textbooks and write open-source software. We would all drink pabst together, and make endless pots of black beans.
My grandparents have six children. Two of them, my mother and a childless aunt, are schizophrenic. My grandfather’s mother and brother were also schizophrenic. Modern science knows very little about schizophrenia, and there are lots of conflicting theories about its origins, but the theory that schizophrenia runs in families has been very popular in the last fifty years. My grandparents have fifteen grandchildren, ages two to thirty two.
Since I’d grown up in Alaska, far away from the extended family, moving to Portland with my cousins was the first chance I’d had to get close to any relatives other than my mother, brother, and grandparents, none of whom I could be close to.
So it was nice to hang out with my cousins, in Portland. One night when we were drinking and walking in the rain, over the Hawthorne bridge, I told them that every new place I lived, I planned how I could quickly and easily kill myself, if I woke up one day and was crazy.
“Here in Portland,” I said, “I’d jump off a bridge.”
“I do that too,” said Jason.
“You think of how you’d kill yourself, if you went crazy?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Jason. “Everywhere I go, I think how I would do it.”
“Me too,” said Nathan. “I would totally kill myself if I started hearing voices.”
The cars crossing the Hawthorne bridge made unearthly humming noises, strangely melodic. Everything glistened, wet.
“Do you ever think about our other cousins?” I asked. “Do you ever wonder who’ll go crazy next?”
“Oh yeah,” said Nathan.
“Yeah,” said Jason.
“No-one’s gone crazy yet,” I said.
A few years went by. I traveled compulsively. I’d never had a home, and didn’t really know how to have one now. I dated people, and our courtship would always follow a certain pattern. It would be around the third or forth date, and we’d be at that point in the getting-to-know-you game where we discussed our relationships with our parents. Like, yeah, my parents and I didn’t talk for a while, but now we get along ok, although I wish they wouldn’t try and send me money all the time.
And then I would say, because it is the truth-
“My mom is schizophrenic. I haven’t seen her in thirteen years. She’s in a halfway house in Alaska. We don’t talk at all, because she thinks I’m satan.”
And then there would be a silence.
And I could almost see the gears working inside this person’s head, that churning engine of history, and book learning, and socialization.
And then they would almost invariably say-
“Since your mom is schizophrenic, do you ever think that you, one day, might be schizophrenic too?”
And I would bite my tongue and try not to laugh, or scream, and then maybe I would tell my date that not only had I thought about the fact that I might go crazy one day but that I had thought about it every minute of every day of my entire life, and also that asking the child of a schizophrenic if they had ever thought about going crazy was like if someone told you that their mother had died of breast cancer and you, after a moment of silence, and in total earnest, asked them if they had ever thought that they might, you know, die of breast cancer one day too.
As the child of a schizophrenic person, how do you go through life without making yourself nearly sick with worry that you, one day, might be schizophrenic too? The answer is you don’t. You think about it all the time, and this worry becomes its own obsessive condition. It’s intrusive, it colors everything. It takes up a good chunk of your hard drive, like an eating disorder. It hangs over you, and invisible weight. The blank canvas of the future. The unknown. Calamity, death. The end.
But I kept being alive. I kept not being crazy. I got older. I wondered if maybe I had missed the window to go crazy. But then I knew that I could still go crazy- people went crazy in their late twenties all the time, their thirties, their forties. And anyway, mental illness is a broad spectrum. How did I know that I wasn’t crazy ALREADY? I mean, maybe I wasn’t crazy like my mom was crazy, like if you looked up the word CRAZY in the dictionary, there’d be a picture of her. But I might already be crazy nonetheless, in my own way. I mean, seriously- I hadn’t lived in one place for more than eight months since I was nineteen. That’s kind of crazy. I had this intense wanderlust, and I couldn’t focus on anything. I always wanted to be in the place I wasn’t. I was impulsive. I had potential, but lacked follow-through. And not only that, but I didn’t believe in the future. There was no such thing as linear time! And I thought that there was magic everywhere- I thought that the sunset was infinity, and our imagination was more important than anything, and that every day was the morning of the world.
So was crazy just around the corner?
One afternoon a few years ago, I had a revelation. I was laying in my bed, and the sun was coming in my window. And I thought- What if one day I was old, just about to die. What if it was the last ten seconds of the last minute before I died, and I still hadn’t gone crazy. Would I feel relieved, like I had won some sort of contest? Or would I feel crushed and destroyed, when I realized that I had spent my whole life in fear of something that had never even come to pass.
And right then and there I stopped fearing the crazy so much, because I was TIRED of being afraid of it. And now, instead of thinking about going crazy once every minute, I was thinking about it once an hour. And then, only a few times a day. And at last, only if something jogged it, like a memory of my mother, or if I was feeling especially anxious. It’s like I was going backwards- growing up with a crazy person had made me, for a time, crazy, and now it was finally wearing off, like an old coat of paint being rubbed away.
And then, too, as I got older, there were other things to worry about. Real things that really happened to people I knew and loved. I could get hit by a car while biking in the rain. I could get breast cancer before I was forty.
And then I had another realization- I realized that all of it- the crazy, the bike accidents, the cancer- all of it was just manifestations of my fear of my own mortality. All of it- illness, accidents, the accumulation of passing time- it was fear of the fact that one day, this all has to end.
Because eventually, we all go crazy. Eventually, we all disappear.
One day, no matter how I live my life, no matter what I am or am not afraid of, I will disappear. One day, we will all disappear. One day the people that we love will disappear. Our journals will yellow and fall to pieces. Our photographs will crumble and be lost. Every letter we’ve ever written, every clever text-message we’ve ever sent, will cease to exist. Parents? Gone! Cats? Gone! Our hopes and fears? Gone! All of our memories will be forgotten, and everything we’ve ever anticipated will be over and done. Something else will be here in our stead- and after a good amount of time has passed, it will be as if we never existed at all. The wind will blow the leaves, the sun will come through the windows, and no-one, anywhere, will remember us
None of that has happened yet.
We’re here, sitting in this coffeeshop. It’s a Tuesday. It’s dark outside. You’re listening to me. You’re alive.
You have no idea, yet, what will happen.
It turns out that I was right when I thought that the world was made of magic. It turns out that I was right to be young, and earnest, and impatient. It turns out that I was right, when I didn’t believe in linear time. Because it turns out that there is only one moment, and that moment is
And it turns out that this moment, is the greatest, and most perfect, moment that there is.