Mental Illness is a Magnifying Glass

I’ve been an unwilling witness to various forms of mental illness all my life. Recently I figured out the illness serves as a giant magnifying glass.

My sick relatives suffered terribly intense emotions. Every feeling, every fear, every reaction was far stronger than what I experienced. Some relatives had access to the time-consuming, difficult process of finding a medication cocktail and therapy that helped. Many chose to quiet the storms in their minds with addiction.

A psychiatrist who treated a young relative once likened the child’s illness to wearing a belt of straight pins pointed inward. Despite this torturous belt, the child was expected to behave well and learn in school.

How would I behave if I was stuck with pins all day, every day?

 My mother’s illness used religion as a point of obsession. She was terrified of hell, and in turn she terrorized her eight children with the threat of damnation. She needed us to reflect her beliefs exactly. Independent thought was perceived as a threat and earned severe punishment.

My dad needed Mom to take care of the eight kids he was working to support. Guilt made her feel bad, and when she felt bad, she turned to addiction. So he discouraged her guilt for the child abuse. We needed the discipline, he explained.

On the surface, Dad was a very loving man. He never realized he’d converted his spousal impotence into more subtle abuse. While dodging his wife’s rage, his fragile male ego couldn’t tolerate the feminine strength and intelligence of his six daughters. He ground down our confidence, belittling and disempowering us.

I don’t know why mental illness exists, but like a magnifying glass, it showed me with great clarity that threatening others with hell is truly crazy. It’s crazy to force others to think like you and then reject and abuse them when they don’t.

Mental illness taught me that only deeply frightened people discourage strength in others.


My Sick Mom’s Pearls

My poor mother. She had a multitude of children. We were what they used to call a “good Catholic family.” I was one of the younger kids.

On the frequent occasions we refused to listen to her instructions or follow her advice, deep frustration would goad her to drop this special pearl of wisdom: “Well, then you can just DIE DUMB!”

Of course we laughed helplessly, even if we still refused to give in.

What steals my breath as I write this is the self-fulfilling prophecy. My mom had died dumb after refusing to treat her mental illness. Instead she’d chosen to indulge several addictions.

As she lay dying from nicotine damage surrounded by several of her children, I offered in a wobbly voice, “Do you want us to pray with you?” She looked uncomfortable with our focused attention but agreed.

As we said the Hail Mary, I was reminded of our family’s old custom of reciting the rosary after supper. Mom made sure we were on our knees in the darkened living room, properly respectful. I’m told I once disrupted the reverence with a cross-eyed look that triggered a domino-effect of siblings toppling over in laughter. Only my extreme youth had saved me from dire punishment.

Beside her deathbed, after we finished the prayer I dared to ask, “How do you feel?”

She gave an impatient click of her tongue and threw up her arms. “I feel dumb!”

We all laughed helplessly, and then we went on with the business of helping her die with grace.

I’m happy to say her blunt humor was passed on, sprinkled here and there among the generations. It has its uses.

During a tense restaurant dinner with relatives, I noticed the utensils matched ours at home. I tried to lighten the atmosphere by lifting one and commenting, “This looks familiar.”

A young relation looked at me as if I weren’t put together quite right. “It’s a FORK.”

We all laughed helplessly.

So thanks, Mom. You were funny even when you didn’t mean to be, and if your mental illness was carried forward, so was your blunt honesty.

Love you.