Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Like Mother, Like Daughter

by Marin Sardy

I am addicted to my sunglasses. I keep them with me constantly, popping them on the instant I step into the sun—or even on cloudy days, if the cover is thin. “I’m sensitive to light,” I tell people, and watch them roll their eyes.

I wear sunglasses inside sometimes at the grocery store in Manhattan. Without shades I can have a little trouble working my way through the store to buy food. The intense track lights in the produce section are so bright that I sometimes have to pause and close my eyes for a moment before moving on. Whenever I’m in there I feel like someone spotlighted on a stage. But apparently I’m the only one who has this problem. The first few times I went there, I would look around to see how other people were handling the bright light, but nobody else seemed to mind it. Eventually one day after buying salad with my boyfriend Will, I asked him if the lights bothered him. “No, not at all,” he said. I explained that I could barely tolerate them. “I’ve never noticed it,” he said.

What is going on with me? I never thought much about it until I began learning more about schizophrenia, and I discovered that heightened sensitivity to stimuli is a significant component of the illness. Now it brings up a very basic question that has always plagued me: Am I normal? I have certainly not felt normal since my mother became seriously ill with some form of schizophrenia when I was ten years old. As her daughter, I felt that her strangeness was mine too; that it seeped into me. And I could see that the problems I had at home turned me into a different kind of kid—solitary, untrusting. I know now that the isolationist tendencies of my youth were typical, often useful coping responses to untenable circumstances. But what about my dependence on sunglasses?

In this case too, I may be more “normal” than you’d expect. Schizophrenia originates in hundreds of genes, each of which has a small influence on the brain, and since half of my DNA comes from my mother, there’s a high probability that a number of her abnormal genes have shaped me. Shedding some light on this are studies showing that a range of brain differences typical in people with schizophrenia are also common in close relatives like me. If we look at sensory sensitivity, I find that my mother was renowned in our family for her extremely acute hearing and sense of smell long before her psychotic break. My father still tells stories of her almost superhuman detection of noises at the other end of the house. As for her vision, she has worn a visor for decades—a shield, I recently realized, from all the bright light.

According to a number of studies, even the way I think is shaped by some key traits that first-degree relatives tend to share with schizophrenic loved ones. It is likely, for example, that my mother and I both have an overactive “default system.” This is the network of neurons that turns on when you’re dreaming or daydreaming, allowing your mind to wander and imagine. Usually it shuts off when you need to focus on a task at hand. A slightly overactive default system is associated with high creativity, and as a writer, creativity is a trait on which I pride myself. The key difference between my mom and me is that I can turn off my default system when I need to. My mother can’t. She lives inside the waking dream of her psychosis.

My mother and I also share the trait of low “latent inhibition”—a weakness in the brain’s gating system that results in difficulty screening out irrelevant stimuli. This means I’m easily distracted. If I’m surfing the Internet and I land on a web page with an ad that shakes, flashes, changes colors, or scoots across the screen, I am rendered helpless. My brain is unable to ignore the movement, so I can’t concentrate on what I’m trying to read. When this happens I either flee the site or, if I’m dying to read what it says, I move the whole browser window so far to the edge of my screen that the ad disappears off the side of my monitor. Then I can focus.

I actually don’t think of this trait as a liability, however, at least to the minor degree I deal with it. Low latent inhibition also facilitates creative thought by alerting me to connections between disparate ideas and enabling me to think outside the box in this way. I honestly cringe at the thought of having a strong gating system. A mind on rails! How limiting! But when a person’s latent inhibition is too low, as in my mother, utterly unrelated ideas and events can seem strongly linked. The result is paranoia.

Even in unexpected places, I find traits I have in common with my mother. Many people with schizophrenia, including her, show a remarkably high tolerance for pain. The same is true of about 20 percent of close relatives. I recognize myself here. For all my sensitivity, I’ve always seemed to be oddly tougher than most when it comes to injuries and pain. As a former gymnast, I’ve run on sprained ankles a few times, and in general, the knee, back, wrist, ankle, and shin problems that came with all that pounding never bothered me much.

As a teenager I would have been horrified if someone had told me I was like my mother. As a rule, I turned away from everything fantastical or emotionally ambiguous. I wanted clear, rational answers for everything, and I tried to fashion myself into someone whose choices always made sense. I would have thought that to be like my mother meant there was something wrong with me, that I was crazy—and to be crazy was to be all wrong, completely wrong. The taint of madness was so thick I thought that even a drop of it would wreck a person.

But when I was still denying everything about me that resembled her, I denied myself the freedom to be fully human—to participate in an imperfect emotional life, and to appreciate myself as I am. When I stopped resisting our similarities, I began to understand that creativity and madness are not the same thing. To be “ill” involves being incapacitated and disconnected from life. Yet only by embracing my difference could I step fully into mine.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

I Am Exposing Us, Now What?

by Melisande Randall

I recently submitted a manuscript to be published by a mental health organization, and I am going through all the emotions a writer goes through when a publishing company says, "YES" to your memoir and accepts your contract. I have poured out my soul, made myself naked, and expressed feelings that seem contradictory yet are so deep and painful that I am left numb. The emotions I feel are many. I feel afraid, naked, vulnerable, accomplished, excited, remorseful, ashamed, proud, and most of all, relieved. I have had a story to tell for so long and to finally have it out brings forth all these emotions...some go together and some seem not so quite right to go together. Why do I feel pride and shame at the same time? I guess it is because I have to accept that imperfection and dysfunction were unfortunate traits that molded my inner-child. But, I am proud that the girl within grew up, sought treatment, and was brave enough to share a story that is both an honor to write yet a burden to carry.

Over this past weekend, I had to create a synopsis, bio and acknowledgment for my book. I thought carefully about how I felt about each family member and limited myself to just the most positive things I could say. We all grew up with and under a wife and mother who had a mood disorder, most likely, schizoaffective disorder. She was never treated, never confronted, and only recently diagnosed after turning 76 four years ago. Having to make sense of a life that was confusing due to my mother's violent and aggressive tendencies, I have had to find a way to heal, make a way to accept my family, and learn to focus on positivity. In doing so, I wrote an acknowledgment to family members that have yet to grasp the impact of my mother's mental illness. They all know it was there, but they are in denial and apparently, some are hesitant about the memoir I have written which will soon be published.

Due to my fear and anxiety regarding family reaction, a good friend of mine suggested that I send my family members a copy of the acknowledgment which I thought was a great idea. So, I thought about my dad, my aunties, my niece, my nephews, my kids, my sisters, and finally, my mother. I believe it was my faith and education and desire to understand that helped me to think of how my family has been helpful to me in whatever ways throughout the years. When I finally mustered up the courage to address, stamp, and send the letters off, I thought optimistically that my family would respond with gratitude, awe, surprise, shock, or maybe even pride. Yet, I also knew that there might be expressions of fear, concern and dread too. But never in a million years did I think that anyone in my family would dare suggest that my positive gift, my acknowledgment, would be mistaken as a suicide letter...yes folks, a suicide letter.

I will not say which members of the family called me all day until I finally answered the phone, last Friday. Two in my nuclear pod thought that my letter sounded like I was checking out, despite the fact that I stated this was going at the front of a book I wrote, about to be published. After I got over the hurt, I wondered why it was that throughout my life when I actually was in pain, none of them noticed. Yet here I am today, announcing that I am about to reveal how I have healed, and this is what I got in return? Then, I had to ask myself, "Mel, are you really that surprised? You finally say nice things about your family and some cannot handle it. Could it be they don't know how because they are still blinded by denial?" So this is why I ask the two thematic questions on this blog: 1. What keeps a family blind, and 2. What do I do now that I am exposing our family's secret, that mom was mentally ill and that is why she was "off" some days in a way that scared, threatened, and harmed us all?

So what keeps a family blind?

Could it be faith? Our beliefs as Christians (in my family and many others) is that the power of life and death are in the tongue and nothing cannot be overcome without faith and trust in God. We must pray. We must believe. We must accept. There is no room for "but's". But, I used to ask myself as a child why it was that my mother hit me for no reason and why did she always say I had no rights? Why did she call me names and make me feel ashamed to be a woman? Why did she deny part of our ethnic heritage and ignore that her daughter was disabled? These questions challenged my faith. But at the same time, the faith we had kept my family from accepting that something was wrong. And in doing so, we lost faith because how can you have faith to undo something that you are not willing to admit is there? So no one knew how to pray for mom's healing. And no one would accept it if I said I needed psychological help. I want to tell my family that faith does not equal IGNORANCE and DENIAL.

Could it be shame? We all know that mental illness carries with it a stigma. I totally get that. It is evident in our silence. It is evident in our lackluster policies regarding mental health. it is evident in the expressions that cross people's faces when you tell them, your mother has schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, or major depression, etc. But why is it that no one judges a family or a family member when someone has some physical ailment that is chronic, such as high blood pressure, cancer, or diabetes? We look at mental illness and fail to see that the brain is an organ that can be "sick" too. I have read that because mental illness affects behavior, we have a hard time looking at it for what it is...a malfunction of the brain. And so, we see how others act and when they cannot control themselves, we make judgments. I get that. But how do we change it?

Could it be denial? Pain hurts. We cannot heal the pain. So we ignore it and its root case. And in doing so, we say it isn't there. If I pretend this person has not caused me harm, or is not broken, then I can ignore my pain and act like everything is fine when it is not. My family fell under my mother's spell. I did too for a long while. But I could not deny any more what my mother was doing to me, and to us, and I chose to get help and speak up and speak out. Why was I able to see and others in the family unable to see?

Could it be their ignorance? I was the first in our family to go to college. My sister followed years behind me with one of those "on line" degree programs, but prior to that, I was earning degrees up the ying yang at University. Education was part of my escape and one of the positives in my life which i used to win over and please my mother. Interestingly enough, it was my education that led me to therapy as I learned from being around other intelligent and open peers, that ignorance IS NOT BLISS. How could my family stay ignorant for so long to the point that they would choose to see my acknowledgment as my cry for help when my cries for help were ignored years ago? And instead, I am crying out to share the news that for me, I have broken a cycle. I am yelling from the rooftops that I am a survivor and I am triumphant even if plagued by sadness over the past I can do nothing about.

So, I have told my family to write their own darn books and not to tell me that my work is "fiction" when they have yet to read it. Could it be fear? Fear is a reaction to what bad can happen to us from some potential harm. I think there is fear that the truth will have to be faced, whether they choose to read my book or not. The word will get out and they will have to face themselves and their pain and their lack of ability to do anything to understand our mother. I know some will find what I have done to be disrespectful, or dishonorable, but these two things I want back: my self respect and my honor. For they were snatched from me at a young age. And as a child, I did not know what I was being robbed of. But, now as an adult, I know what to do to get back what I lost.

I wonder if my family will ever join me?