My mother has gone missing. She is quite a wanderer, and pretty good at taking care of herself, so it’s not usually a problem when she goes traveling, staying in roadside motels and taking the train from place to place. But the last anyone heard from her was about six weeks ago, and we’re all getting a little freaked out. Yesterday one of my aunts called to ask if I had heard any news, and to say she was getting worried. I told her I would see what I could do to track down more information. Among other things, I called one of my uncles and asked if he had received any calls or postcards from her, and found out he hadn’t. That meant probably nobody had. I hung up with a stone in my gut that soon began shaking outward, into my limbs, my back, and my head. Here we go again.
I am deeply concerned about my mother, and doing everything I can think of to find out if she’s okay, but I’m not writing about her today. This essay is about me. What about me? As Daughters and Sons, we tend to forget to ask ourselves this question. Maybe this is because few others ask us, either. Neither my aunt nor my uncle wondered, in either conversation, how I am holding up. How I am feeling. Whether I have the support I need to cope with the worry, the stress, the anxiety. Whether I have taken the time to take care of myself. This is the way it has always been in my family. My uncle’s wife is a family therapist, yet neither of them has never asked whether I have someone I can talk to about my feelings. It’s as if my aunts and uncles don’t even understands that this is difficult for me, and that it is not only stressful to think about my mother perhaps being in danger, but it is stressful to have the past reawakened inside me.
When I was a child, my mother used to take off on long trips, often without letting us know beforehand, to places only vaguely described, for reasons unknown. Once, when she was gone for six months, she would call occasionally and act very nonchalant about the fact that when she left us, she pulled the earth out from beneath our feet. I was about eleven that time. She had run away from my grandfather when he tried to have her admitted to a psychiatric clinic, and didn’t resurface for two weeks. I was in fifth grade and, having no idea where my mother had vanished to, I puked for days and thought it was a bad flu.
My father had no patience for what his parents’ generation would have called a “weak constitution,” and he harangued me back into acceptable health. Any failing on my part—faltering, forgetting, spacing out, losing possessions, leaving clothes strewn on the floor—was something he immediately pounced on and hammered back into order. It’s obvious to me now that many of these “failings” were just signs that I was a normal child, and many of them were signs that I was experiencing psychological trauma. Usually if I was forgetting appointments or misplacing toys, it corresponded with my mother acting out or going away. But the more one of my siblings or I struggled, the more our father was right on top of us, verbally pounding us, drawing the line below which we were not allowed to fall. In other words, there was no nurturing in my life at the times when I most needed it. The result was that I went numb, and I more or less stayed numb for years, long after my mother returned from her long trek and somewhat stabilized.
Now that my mother has taken off again and we don’t know where she’s gone, and we haven’t heard from her for longer than usual, I feel a flood of the old childhood terrors overtaking me: terror of being abandoned, of losing her even more completely than we already had, of my father’s impossible standards, and worse, of falling short of them. I know he drove us so hard because he was afraid for us, afraid that any sign of weakness meant that we too would become ill, like her. But in my mind, his rebukes just proved that I was the hopeless failure I believed myself to be.
Because why else would my mother have left us, if not because I wasn’t a good enough kid? And more importantly, who was there to tell me that wasn’t true—that I was doing a good job? Who was there to say it was okay to struggle, to fall short? Who was there to point out that everything I succeeded at, I did by overcoming a deficit of support and safety that would have been unimaginable to kids from a healthy home? Nobody.
Who helps me now, when I need to help my mother? My partner, Will, is an incredible support. I couldn’t do it without him. My father was already divorced from my mother when she fell apart, and has understandably backed away from her problems. The aunt I spoke to yesterday frets over my mother’s absence but asks me to do the work of trying to find her. I call my sister for assistance with that, and feel pangs of guilt for pulling her into the search effort. I calm this guilt by telling myself it is okay to share the burden. My uncle, when I call him, is distant and tells me he’s leaving town for several days so there’s not much he can do. This is reasonable, of course, but as he hangs up, I think to myself, “Couldn’t he have shown some concern about how I am handling the strain?” In times of trouble, the family focuses solely on the problem at hand. And by their understanding of the way families work, my mother is almost entirely her daughters’ responsibility.
This makes me so angry I want to throw myself against a wall. It’s bad enough that I have had to deal with my mother’s mental illness for twenty-five years. I have struggled for nearly two decades of adult life to carve out a space for myself amid my mother’s permeating illness. It has taken me all these years to learn that I am not invisible, although her schizophrenia renders me in many ways invisible to her. She is rarely able to step outside her delusional world to see that I am a separate individual, a person who is more than an extension of her, who has my own dreams and hopes and troubles and battles to fight. I have worked with therapists for a decade to become capable of being in a healthy partnership. I have worked to become a writer, and taken risks for that, and accepted financial insecurity in pursuit of it. Yet my mother barely grasps what I do, and certainly has no sense of why it matters to me.
This is part of her illness, and I don’t begrudge her for it (except in a few exasperated moments). But with the fact that the rest of my family, and our entire culture, seems unable to see me—the daughter who grew up without a mother, who now must mother the mother, who has no one to mother me—I haven’t yet managed to make peace. Add to that the potent force of “caregiver stress.” I woke up last night in a panic, my head swirling with images of my mom, questions about her, memories from long ago. My stomach remains in knots, and my throat is dry, and my skin is breaking out in hives, and when I sit down to write the book that I have determined to write, my head won’t focus on the page. I am trying to take care of my mother to the best of my ability, while also fighting against the impact of neglect, abandonment, witnessing psychosis, fear for her safety, and grief.
Am I just feeling sorry for myself? I don’t think so. I think I am acknowledging a truth that many of us understand from experience, but which has not been verified by science until recently. Neuroscientists who study stress have learned in recent years that interpersonal stress can do powerful damage to not only our mental health but our overall physical well-being. Trauma and chronic stress create cascades of neurochemical changes in the brain that dampen the body’s immune system and sensitize people to the effects of more stress. This in turn increases the likelihood of developing depression, anxiety-related disorders, and a host of other problems. The fight-or-flight responses we felt so often as children, such as when a parent disappeared or frightened or abused us, triggered developmental changes in our brains’ hormone regulation systems. For many of us, including me, this derailed our capacity to regulate stress and left us vulnerable in the long term. In childhood, these cascades can be stopped or even reversed by nurturing behavior from a caregiver. In adulthood, it’s not so simple.
People who have had traumatic childhood experiences—such as parental mental illness, parental addiction, physical or sexual abuse, loss of a parent, or emotional neglect—are much more likely to suffer from heart problems, substance abuse problems, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. This is true even when you correct for unhealthy behavior. In other words, a smoker with a difficult past is more likely to develop major health problems from smoking than a smoker who has led a placid life. Doctors are beginning see the anxiety that people like us feel as not merely a side effect of a difficult life but a central issue undermining our health. It’s like getting punished for being unlucky.
So, interpersonal trauma and stress create lasting changes in both the brain and the body. What can we do to help ourselves? How can we strengthen our immune systems and calm our nerves? How can we rewire our stressed-out brains? Not much is currently known, although it certainly appears to be possible. (We are a thoroughly under-studied group.) Things that have been shown to help are cognitive-behavioral therapy, yoga, acupuncture, meditation, and deep breathing exercises. And one of the most powerful stress fighters involves the simple act of sharing our thoughts and feelings in an understanding community. Families need to learn to do this with one another. When family members fail to understand and support one another’s feelings about having a mentally ill loved one, they make a hard situation much worse for all involved.
If that kind of community doesn’t exist within our families, we do have an alternative: we can find or form a support group. On Monday night, I went to NAMI-NYC’s monthly Daughters & Sons support group meeting, where I sat around a table with six other women and talked about my fears about my mother’s absence, anger I have felt about her illness, and practical steps I can take to find out where she is. A few times, I also laughed about it—and some of the women who had lived through similar tough times laughed with me. It lightened the load. I spoke and was heard. I listened to stories that reflected many of my own struggles. I remembered that I am not alone. And when I stepped out again into the night, I knew I would be okay.