I was 21 and set to go on a Mexican cruise when my mom went to a mental hospital. If during the first two decades of my life you mentioned that MY mother would detox at a mental institution, I would have laughed in your face. That detail didn’t fit inside my family’s narrative. We were the ideal, God-fearing, all-American, one son, one daughter, one dog, vacations to Disneyland, public servant father, and stay-at-home mother sort of family.
But mental illness doesn’t just come to those on the fringes. It doesn’t care what car you drive or which church you go to. It finds all kinds of people, even the best mothers in the world, the lovely ones. For my mom, anxiety and depression found her. And a dose of chronic pain. This mental hospital would be a safe place for this woman I love to withdraw from Hydrocodone and Xanax.
I went on that cruise while she detoxed and spent time with other struggling women. It was an odd, helpless moment in my life. When I got back, she had been released, but the effects of withdrawal hadn’t freed their grip on her small body. She was in torment. No words will ever describe the terror my mom went through. We sat on the couch together during this time and watched Something’s Gotta Give with Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton on repeat because it was the only thing that would offer brief moments of relief from the pain and intense mental assault she was experiencing. I call this time: Please God, Something’s Gotta Give.
When the withdrawals started doing horrible things to her body, she couldn’t take it anymore and went back to a medical hospital. Desperate. I sat there with her for hours day after day. A nurse offered her a new medication for the intense nausea. Terrified of putting anything addictive into her body again, she looked to me to make the decision. Suddenly, our roles reversed. The woman who took such good care of me when I was sick, taught me how to tie my shoes and read works of literature, and guided me through my angsty teen years needed my help.
It wasn’t that she wasn’t strong. In fact, she was at her strongest. Xanax is the strongest, fastest acting Benzodiazepine there is – and Benzos are one of only two drugs with a withdrawal that can kill you. She was fighting for her life. Bravely. Choosing to stay alive and alert each minute instead of fading away. She went through hell and chose to keep walking.
She hadn’t wanted to be an addict. She didn’t nonchalantly plan for addiction while reading a novel one boring Tuesday afternoon. My mother was a fun lady who made our family casseroles, went to Bible studies, drank tea, and did crossword puzzles while watching Jeopardy.
But she also had chronic, debilitating migraines. I’m puzzled when I see people out and about complaining they currently have a “migraine.” I grew up with a woman whose migraines meant she had to hide in a pitch-black silent room with ice packs surrounding her head for hours. She needed pain relief, so doctors prescribed Hydrocodone. It only took the edge off.
Then she was really brave one day, a few years before the detox. She admitted to a doctor that she loved her life and her family, but felt anxious and depressed. That was probably an understatement. My mother suffered from untreated anxiety and depression through much of her life. Once we all understood that fact, it was easy to see how long she had been suffering. Her doctor gave her an anti-depressant and Xanax. My mom obeyed. Doctors always know best right?
I didn’t know my mom had anxiety when I was a little girl. To me, she was just the lady who played Seals and Croft’s “Summer Breeze” for living room dance parties. But as a woman looking back on my childhood, it is clear in a simple way. She was gripped by anxiety, saddened by depression. She wasn’t free to be herself. Each day that went by untreated, it got worse.
Some will argue, but I believe wholeheartedly that fear and shame-based faulty theologies of a demanding God only fed her anxiety and depression. When you think God is mad, you panic and do anything to please him. When women’s Bible studies teach you that good wives have to live THIS way or good moms have to be THAT way, anxiety builds. In the end, these teachings had more to do with fearful social expectations than they had to do with God, and they fed my mom’s chemical imbalances. All while she was trying to do the right thing.
This dogmatic teaching never told my mother that she was beloved as she was. They taught her she must be better and hide all the rusty parts. Only show the shiny parts. I think I like her rusty parts best.
She visited therapists who just wanted to sit on a couch and regurgitate her childhood again and again. It wasn’t helping. They weren’t teaching her how to cope today. The doctors gave her more Xanax. They were feeding her a drug that can kill you. (All while Marijuana was still illegal. I never understood that.) The medicine helped reduce physical and emotional pain. But she began having withdrawal symptoms while on still on the medication. Her body had become dependent on the amount she was taking and required more.
Of course, she didn’t realize that while it was happening. She only knew she had hit rock bottom and thought she was going to die. That’s when she asked my dad to drive her to the detox facility. The medication, pain, anxiety, and depression were overtaking her body. She was done: mentally, emotionally, spiritually done. But she refused to call it quits. I’m so glad she was brave enough to refuse to check out of our lives.
Eventually, the withdrawals eased. Months felt like decades. As the Hydrocodone left her body, she was shocked to discover that her migraines decreased each month. Without the Xanax, she was able to think clearly and find a therapist who gave her tools to help her function day-to-day. This therapist used Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and taught her emotional regulation and mindfulness – how to be fully aware and present in each moment – and acceptance – of herself, her illness, her emotions. This woman taught my mother how to not just survive anxiety and depression, but how to thrive by owning her story and owning all the parts of herself. The DBT even helped her cope with the pain more effectively.
I don’t think that medicine is the root of all evil by any means. I am not a doctor or therapist, but I do know some people need medication. In fact, my mom stayed on one safe antidepressant. But I think we can do better in supporting those with mental illness beyond medication:
1. Most importantly, we can support those with mental illness by not denying that they have a real medical condition. If one more person says, “You don’t have depression, you just need to find your joy,” or “You don’t have anxiety, you’re just wound up,” I may lose my shit. Nobody denies that cancer patients have cancer or that diabetics need insulin. Why do we treat people with mental illness like they just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and deal with it?
Lesson #1: Mental illness is real. Educate yourself. Also, the archaic narrative of “People with mental illness are weak” is old and ignorant. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Show compassion. Learn and grow.
2. Almost as importantly, we need to know the difference between feeling depressed or anxious and having depression and anxiety. People will tell my mom things like, “I felt depressed a few years back and started a workout regimen. Worked like a charm,” or “I’ve only felt anxious once or twice in my life. I really try to relax.” As if the person with anxiety hadn’t thought about “just relaxing” before!
The best way I can describe the difference is this: If you get bronchitis one winter and have trouble breathing for a few days, you cannot compare yourself to an asthmatic who has had a life of breathing treatments and scary trips to the hospital because their lungs don’t function properly. Lesson #2: Everybody experiences feeling depressed or anxious, but that IN NO WAY means you know what it’s like to have Major Depressive Disorder or Generalized Anxiety Disorder or other mental illnesses.
Possibly the thing that scares me the most about my mother’s anxiety and depression is the fact that I see traces of it in myself. I feel the overwhelming panic crawl into my chest; I feel the lack of motivation hit me at the oddest moments. We are intimately connected, my mother and I. Her blood runs through my veins. See, I’ve been telling you a part of her story (and it is only a part of a complex, beautiful story), but it’s my story too. Maybe I’m a little rusty too. I think I like the rusty parts best.
But my mother gave me a gift: she walked through hell already. She taught me how to be courageous when all you want to do is give up. She taught me how to express my emotions even when I want to hide. She taught me that you could have mental illness and still THRIVE, not merely survive.
The road has been long for my precious mother. She is the healthiest she’s been in her entire life. Of course there are still rough patches. That’s life. When we look back we will see splotches of blood, puddles of tears, and hills we barely got over. There’s no perfect ending with a pretty little bow on top. This isn’t “5 Ways to Kick Depression and Anxiety to the Curb.” This is “Life is so hard, but we get through it together.”
What is it like to have a parent with mental illness? Hard sometimes, and scary. But beautiful too. I’ve received the rare opportunity to see my mother as a human being, not simply a mom. “Mother” is her role, not her identity. The person she really is – well, she’s a mixture of rusty and shiny.
But I think I like her rusty parts best.
Perfectly shiny is TOTALLY overrated.
Please share my mother’s story on social media to help bring awareness of mental illness, not as some idea that we like to analyze, but as a story. A common story that touches the lives of at least 1 in 5 adults in the US. Let’s work together to de-stigmatize mental illness and lock arms in support of those we love and those we too often forget about. Or, perhaps, her story will help somebody not feel so alone.