Saturday, April 14, 2012

Gram Julia’s Sapphire, Part I

On Moving Forward in Life When a Parent Has a Chronic Mental Illness
by Marin Sardy

Part I: Something Old

My engagement ring is an heirloom that belonged to my grandmother’s mother, Julia. A single, bulbous, deep-blue star sapphire ringed by tiny diamonds that splay fan-like at the sides, the ring’s star is an optical effect that occurs when you place the stone beneath a direct source of light. Then six rays of white light shoot outward from the center of the stone, creating its depth, moving as you turn the ring, swirling around its core. Like the future, it is beyond grasping, and in the wrong conditions it vanishes with no trace.

This is how the future has always seemed to me, anyway, and I like that the ring has at least lent the weight of matter to the future I envision as somebody’s wife. But I admit I’m prone to seeing omens, and when the old, brittle platinum started shedding small diamonds and we had to ship it off for repair, I found myself staring at my empty finger as if this meant the marriage could not happen. I should be clear about my fiancé—he’s unwavering in wanting this. What I mistrust isn’t him. It’s me.

I have a long history as a true commitment-phobe, afraid of saying yes to anything that might last longer than three months. I find myself wondering, then panicking, about what would happen if I changed my mind. If I made the wrong choice. I stalled my way through fifteen years of adult life. Jobs, career moves, towns, residences, roommates, friends, lovers: all became nibblings in my years as a dilettante. I can tick off a handful of relationships that I thought of as mere test runs. Including, for a while, the one I’m in now.

I’ve been trying a new approach to life for the past five years or so—trying to say yes first and ask questions later, to break out of my old habits. This has mostly been successful, but it has also required some reckoning with the past. The engagement, now three months along, is no different.


Let me start somewhere else. Neither of my parents is currently married, nor have they been for 26 years. My mother, who has suffered from a form of schizophrenia since around the time of my parents’ divorce—whose paranoia was instrumental in leading her to file for divorce—has hardly dated since then. My dad has been with the same girlfriend for more than two decades now, but despite her wishes he refuses to marry her. He says simply, “I like my solitude,” and it’s true that he’s content to be alone most of the time. But beneath that statement I also hear darker whispers, about a man unable to make peace with the loss of his wife.

So I never had the chance to witness a functional marriage in action. But maybe more significantly, my parents both looked to the past to find their most important relationships. I’ve lived much of my life feeling that way, too—looking back on what schizophrenia stole.

My mother, despite her mental illness, was in some ways a great mother. She was the kind who, unprompted, brought home things she thought seemed fun and announced that we should give them a try—a badminton set, child-sized inflatable rafts, a Nintendo, a trampoline. On vacations she set up activities for us, had us out riding horses or swimming at a friend’s pool. But as I grew into my teens, those distractions became less important and I started craving a deeper connection to her.

“Mom,” I remember saying once, exasperated, “we never talk.”

“Sure, we do,” she said, “we’re talking right now.”

At 13, I was discovering a fact of my life that would define it for years to come: that having a mother with schizophrenia, however functional (and she is in many ways highly functional), means on some level not having a mother. Even if she’s right there in front of you, offering you a cupcake. What I had, it seemed, was less a mother than a special person, Mari, who cared about me and who, more often than not, found something to feed me for dinner. Having Mari was not quite the same as having a mother. It was like having some sort of cross between a very nice housekeeper and a miswired robot.

Take my history with rites of passage. After about the age of ten, it’s a lesson in nonexistence. In high school I would drive myself downtown to buy the pretty dresses I wore at the semi-formal Cotillion Club dances. My mother never spoke to me about the boys I knew, nor showed me how to apply mascara, nor helped me find shoes that matched my dress, nor photographed me in my outfit before I went out. I recall being amazed by friends’ mothers who chatted easily with us about our crushes and seemed as invested as we were in having our nights out be grand. I have not a single snapshot of myself in one of those dresses I so lovingly chose, those outfits I so carefully put together. I’m sure there must be some, however, in old boxes of photos my friends’ mothers took.

For as much as my mother tried to care for me, she was (and still is) unable to express a genuine interest in my life. She doesn’t experience her own life in the way most of us do, with past, present, and future all seamlessly flowing from one to another. So she doesn’t see my experience that way either. Nor can she really bridge the gap between her subjectivity and mine. That I have interests, opinions, and concerns that are as pressing to me as hers are to her—this is a concept she doesn’t quite grasp. I had to argue with her for two weeks, for example, before she would agree to come to my high school graduation. The first time I brought it up, she replied offhandedly that she didn’t think she could make it. I finally harassed her into agreeing to come, but when I graduated from college, I didn’t bother with the ritual walk.

I like to think it doesn’t matter much that she didn’t participate in my life in this way. I rarely think about it. But I also have a long-standing habit of choosing not to do things that she might not come through for. At some point I came to believe that I could not have many of the things in life that others take for granted—real connection, reliable support, genuine interest in my personality. I came to believe that there was something about me that made me inadequate for the normal machinations of human life. I saw myself as an outsider, someone whose existence was meant to take place on the fringes of the world. And I did not want to test this hypothesis because I did not want it to be proven correct. It took me a long time to learn to look forward, to have the guts to test my assumptions. Even now I have to remind myself that I can get married; I can have this cultural stamp of normalcy—normalcy which was always just out of my reach.


Moving forward in life turns out to be a common problem for people who grew up with a mentally ill parent. Researchers Dickens and Marsh identify “losing a sense of one’s own needs” and “commitment avoidance” as common themes that emerge in first-person accounts of the group they call “ACMI”—adult children of the mentally ill. Some of our burden, Marsh explains, is subjective: survivor’s guilt, guilt about inability to change the situation, anger, depression, withdrawal, empathic suffering. This list could be a summary of my twenties.

When my brother too developed schizophrenia, my life was for a while taken over by all these feelings. It was part of the grieving process, I’m sure. But even now it lingers. It’s true that I have, in some deep and usually unacknowledged way, wanted to stay behind with him and my mother—even, maybe, follow them into insanity. As if that meant I could be with them. As if psychosis were a country and I could be an émigré, finding them in their distant land and settling there. I suppose it is a way to imagine that there is still something I could do to make this better. That I could claim an ounce of control: If you can’t come with me into my world, then I’ll come find you in yours.

I settled for staying in a holding pattern, keeping still, refusing to leave them behind. I could, I thought, keep them company in the shelter of their delusions. I might still be doing that if it weren’t for my father, and his insistence that my sisters and I not multiply the damage that schizophrenia has done. “Don’t let it prevent you from having your own life,” he repeats to us every time the topic of our brother comes up. “It’s bad enough that they have no life. I don’t want you girls to have no life, too.”

There’s more to it than emotion, however. Marsh’s list, although keen, leaves out the even more fundamental concerns about bloodlines, the heritability of mental illness, and what this means when we have our own families, for ourselves and our children.

My great-grandmother, Julia, for instance, whose ring is now mine: Gram Julia was known as a “character,” a brash and charismatic figure who always wore red. She was, I am told, emotionally unavailable, a mother who didn’t quite know how to nurture. The family story is that she was “selfish.” She sneaked out of her own house to go to a party on the night of her husband’s funeral. But other stories I’ve heard don’t reveal selfishness so much as serious mental health problems. During World War II, there was the time Julia came to believe Japanese soldiers were hiding in her walls. She said they had radios. She said they were spies. She frequently called the fire department to report this, and once, men came and hacked open the walls. Of course they found nothing.

It is also said that Julia believed she was psychic, and that after the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped, she became obsessed with rescuing it. She was certain the child was hidden somewhere near her home in Chicago, and she would drive around searching, waiting to receive the right messages that would deliver her to it. Although my family never used the medical terms for moments like these, with the Japanese soldiers and the Lindbergh baby, I know them now: hallucination, delusion. This is my most far-reaching inheritance, and it is two-pronged. My grandmother, I understand now, must have grown up lacking a mother in the same way I did. But she had no language to speak her experience. Even now, at 94, she seems utterly lost in the face of mental illness. And she has been unable to help me as I grapple with my mother’s emotional absence.

Then there is the physical legacy—a genetic vulnerability reaching back through my maternal bloodline, and perhaps forward, too. Could I get sick, and unintentionally abandon my future husband as my mother abandoned us? I catch myself thinking I shouldn’t yoke anyone to me through marriage, in case this happens. I could end up being his terrible burden. Not that I think of my mother as a terrible burden. Still—the mind goes in circles with this one.

And will I have a child who falls prey to our bad genes? The chances, as I have calculated and recalculated many times, are slim. Since I do not have schizophrenia, the chance that my child would develop it is no more than one in ten. Probably less. And I only want one. A one-time risk. But could I stand it if I lost a child to this thing? Would it be worse than losing a mother, a brother? My father would be heartbroken if, out of fear, I refused to have a baby. You can’t let it stop you, he would say. I believe he is right. I don’t intend to let it stop me. But I can’t help letting it catch my breath from time to time.

[Next month, Part II: Something New]