Sunday, September 18, 2011

Why I Write

I was not allowed to be expressive at home. My mother's mood disorder was coupled with an obsessive notion that anyone not agreeing with her was a show of utmost disrespect. I was not allowed to explain myself. I was not allowed to rationalize with my mom. I was not allowed to cry when she made me angry, otherwise, she would get just that much more angry.

So, I cried behind closed doors, very much like I do now. I learned to smile when there was NOTHING to be smiling about. The facade we created for neighbors, friends, and relatives was a pseudo one. They knew we had problems but no one was brave enough nor willing to speak out loud, what we knew about Mom and that was the undeniable fact that she had anger issues. Momma could curse, Momma could hit, Momma could tear you down with words. But daddy would not defend us much. Aunties turned their heads in denial. My older sisters left rather than hang around to share the onslought of rage that their much younger sister was used to and often had to deal with alone and in silence.

I suffered along with my father who drank and worked and found his escape outside the home. My only escape was school and friends. But my diaries were where I expressed most of my pain. With my blank books and black or blue ink pens, I chronicled my emotions on a near daily basis. I threw some of the journals away later in life because reading them would make me literally sick. It was sometimes hard to relive a date and revisit the inernalized pain and anxiety I was feeling as mom and dad fought and then I was punished for things I had nothing to do with. RE reading the unfairness of it all was like watching old films of how people in history have been mistreated and then you just get angry all over again and wanna just turn the program off.

I hated being hit. I hated being called out of my name. I hated that I was an overachiever whose rewards were met with great appreciation from a mother who would forget about them the second they were announced and then slip back into her nasty moods. There was no pleasing her but I lived my life to do just that....make an unhappy woman, happy. It was all in vain.

So, i write to get the poison in my system out. I want the world to know what the emotions look like from the eyes of a child growing up in a household where mental illness exists. People can be told that your family member is "sick" but until they have concrete examples of how a day becomes an eternity as a child sits unkowingly, waiting for a storm to pass that has no time limit, they really have no idea what it is like. Until people "get it", they won't be inclined to help change it and deal with it on the societal level. Unlke the adults who can get away from dysfunction, the child growing up in a crooked house has no escape.

Resilience, strength, hiding, and great character seem to be cosistent themes among us. I pray more people pay attention to the children of mental illness as this has got to be one of society's best kept secrets. WRITE your story, and FIND the stories of others....and share and compare. Kill the stigma.

Melisande Randall

Monday, September 5, 2011

Why Storytelling Matters

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion once wrote. “We live entirely … by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images.” I think of this often as I struggle to fit a narrative line onto the years since I first watched my mother’s sanity fray. After nearly three decades of managing untreated schizophrenia, her life remains a story of slippages into and out of reality, and it’s still difficult for me to describe myself in a way that includes these slippages and how they shaped us.

I was about nine years old when I first noticed my mother’s thoughts and actions going awry. A couple of years later, my father sat me down and explained that she had “schizophrenic tendencies.” But I was mostly left to decipher my mother’s behavior on my own. Soon those tendencies became overwhelming symptoms, and she was hospitalized twice before taking off on a paranoia-driven trek around the world. She eventually stabilized enough that my siblings and I could live with her half the time (my parents were divorced), but schizophrenia continued to distort and break apart her sense of space and time, robbing her of a continuous life narrative. This is what oral historians call a narrative crisis, and it seems to me that this kind of crisis is a fundamental experience for people who suffer from mental illness, and their children too.

After my mother returned—-still delusional but functioning better—-schizophrenia settled in as the ghost in our machine, an invisible force that shaped our lives without being fully recognized or understood. Even my father comprehended her illness only in abstract terms—he rarely witnessed how it affected her. He, like her parents, siblings, and friends, had difficulty grasping how deeply compromised she was. Only we, her children, really saw it. And we had few of the tools we needed to make sense of it.

As an integral participant in the drama of my mother’s shattered reality, I felt my own life story fragment just as hers did. To cope with the madness all around me, I stayed cloistered in my safe world of daydreams and books, and I tried not to notice what was going on in my family. As I shoved more inexplicable and painful events to the back of my mind, my crisis only intensified. I could not see how to fit the growing pile of disturbances into a bigger picture, so I stored such moments as I experienced them—out of context, in isolation. I still find it challenging to fit together the disjointed pieces of our life as a family. This is why storytelling matters.

A narrative is a kind of map. When we tell stories about our lives, we nail down what is what, and link cause with effect. Theorists who study narratives point out, however, that narrative continuity can easily be disrupted, broken, or fragmented. This happens when an event seems inexplicable, or utterly separate from everything else in life, or in conflict with a preexisting conception of the world. Yet people need narrative continuity, and when we tell our life stories we struggle to fill in the gaps and arrange the fragments in order. Memories acquire meaning through association: successive events enrich and shift the significance of previous events as we retell our stories over time. Storytelling becomes an act of integration and self-creation.

At some point in high school I realized I could describe my situation to my friends—sort of. I would carefully assure them that they shouldn’t be alarmed if my mother did something strange, explaining that she had trouble knowing what was real. But the language I used was borrowed from my father. I couldn’t allow myself to feel schizophrenia, to find my own words for it, or form my own sense of what had happened to us. So my pile of unprocessed memories lay waiting, until I escaped my mother’s house and finally my self-protective buffer began to break down. One winter, at the age of 25, I sat down to my word processor and started recording a flood of recollections. It’s clear now that I was trying to pull them together into some kind of shape, but they came out in abject disarray, and stayed that way. I did at least begin to deeply consider the emotional impact of those events—to try to make sense of the thing that had torn sense away from me.

It was a good first step. However, I needed more than simply to open myself up. I also needed stories from other people, and basic facts that could help me understand what I had lived through. I needed context. Now, after a decade of reading, listening, learning, and telling and retelling, I do have some sense of context. But I still have many questions. So as I write for this blog in the coming months, I hope my stories and thoughts will help all of us to better make sense of ourselves, our lives, and our special position in the world as Daughters and Sons.

——Marin Sardy