I wasn’t sure I wanted to write this story. I’ve written about my childhood before, so it’s not the vulnerability that concerns me. I guess I don’t want to be misunderstood. I’m not sharing my story to invite a pity party, nor is it a cry for attention. I just want to shed light onto an angle of motherhood that people read about in the news or hear about in political posturing, but maybe have never seen the real face of it: Mental Health and Motherhood.
My mom was a drug addict who suffered from bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia. You might have noticed I used the past tense “was” in introducing her; that’s because she died in 2009, when I was twenty-two years old. She struggled with addiction and impaired mental health for all of my life. I’m pretty sure her battles began before I was ever born.
She once told me a story about my older sister that illustrated her mental instability. As an aside, my older sister died before I could ever meet her—she had health issues and severe mental retardation, probably owing to the fact that both of her parents conceived her while under the influence (we didn’t share a father). Anyway, one night she was crying, inconsolable, and my mother, exhausted and delirious from unsuccessfully comforting her wailing child, covered her face with a pillow to escape from the mind-numbing screams. She left the pillow there until my sister quieted—she had lost consciousness. My mother didn’t kill her, but she relayed to me many years later that it was this night when she realized she was unwell mentally. She also said it was this night when she began to hear the voices in her head that would haunt her for the rest of her life.
This story is only one example of how my mom’s mental health struggles impaired her ability to relate to her children in “normal” ways. I could tell you many such stories, all equally horrifying. Like how she asked me to burn my stepdad’s clothes in the yard after they’d had an argument, and rewarded me by burning my new Easter clothes three days later when they reconciled. How she taught me how to weigh out marijuana, and asked me to bury it in the yard once when the county was on their way to raid our house (I was ten at the time). How I discovered her sitting in a cold bath, covered in blood, after her first suicide attempt when I was twelve. Or like how she kicked me out of the house when I was thirteen years old, because I refused to place my body underneath her boyfriend’s truck to prevent his abandonment of her.
I could tell you about how she was in and out of jail until she died, arrested on charges like forgery, possession/distribution of controlled dangerous substances, and larceny, which happen to be the primary offenses for women incarcerated in Oklahoma. At one point, she was even listed among Oklahoma’s Ten Most Wanted, which I discovered by seeing her face broadcast on TV during a public service announcement.
My mom was just one woman of many just like her in Oklahoma, which incarcerates nearly twice the national average of female offenders, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In that same study, critical issues for incarcerated women are explored, and chief among them are history of substance abuse, mental health issues, and women offenders as mothers. My mother was a classic example of the mental health crisis in Oklahoma, and how it affects the rate of incarceration for women in this state.
For me as an adult, my mom’s mental health has not affected me as directly, but it still impacts my life. When I was in college, I was ultra sensitive to the reality that I could very well develop some of the same mental health disorders that plagued my mom. I did struggle with anxiety for a while, but I learned how to cope through spirituality and lifestyle adjustments. Since becoming a mother myself, I have felt the absence of having a healthy mother to mentor me or to turn to for guidance and wisdom. As a mom, I can’t understand the decisions she made toward my siblings and me, or how she treated us as her children.
I tell this story for two reasons: one, to give a human face to something that’s more than just a policy issue; two, to motivate. I will be the first to admit I’m not as involved as I should be in making my voice known to those who have the power to do something about it. But I hope by writing this story I’m taking one step towards being more active.
My mom may have had a chance at rehabilitation if there had been a mental healthcare system that could have provided her the help she needed. Instead, incarceration was the band-aid applied to the gushing wound of her mental instability. My story, her story, is not unique; a quick Google search of “mental health issues in Oklahoma” will illustrate the gravity of the mental health crisis in this state.
From postpartum depression to personality disorders that fuel substance abuse, mental health and motherhood are inseparably linked. If we don’t give a voice to these issues and put a face on them, they will remain as simple policy positions and budget line items. Nothing will change if nobody tells their stories. This one is mine.