On Getting Married in the Shadow of a Parent's Chronic Mental Illness
by Marin Sardy
Part II: Something New
Getting married in the shadow of my mother’s untreated mental illness comes with hurdles both practical and emotional. I’ve spent the past few years trying to reconfigure my approach to life, to give up the stalling and avoiding and just dive in. It’s still a new mode for me, which is why I find it so hard to be without my engagement ring. I have now been without it for two months while the hundred-year-old setting for the heirloom sapphire has received extensive repairs. I’ll have it back in a few days, but I feel that without the big blue stone, its weight almost uncomfortable on my knuckle, I keep forgetting to believe that this engagement is real, that it’s happening, that it’s not going to slip away. I need my great-grandmother Julia’s sapphire so I can know that the future exists, at least in that practical way that makes it possible to function.
Maybe also I need it as a talisman, for magical protection. It is genuinely strange to find myself possessing a partner after two decades spent mostly alone, independent, and thinking of myself as some kind of misfit. It feels dangerous. It feels as if having something to lose is a precarious, even threatening, position to find oneself in. But more than that, truly moving forward requires reckoning with the past, and for me that never feels good and is never less than exhausting. After Will proposed, it took a couple of months for me to sort through the old memories that kept rising to the surface. And then a couple more to face some uncomfortable facts about what my wedding will and will not be.
Since my mother has no telephone, and lives in Alaska, and hasn’t been calling me lately—falling off the map like this is typical of the vicissitudes of her illness—I couldn’t actually tell her that I was engaged. In December, a few days after the proposal, I wrote her a letter relaying the news the old-fashioned way. I received a note back about a week later, in which she wrote that she was very excited for us. “The news is wonderful!” she reiterated in a more recent note. But that doesn’t mean she’ll be present at the ceremony. I keep the hope alive that she will. This is quite possible. We plan to hold it in Santa Fe, a town she loves and knows well. But then, she didn’t go to my older sister’s wedding, and no one knows why. She sent a few gifts and said she was sure it would be a wonderful day, and then flatly refused to show up.
If she doesn’t make an appearance at mine, that won’t be surprising so much as disappointing. Disappearing is my mother’s big “thing that she does”—the habit that worries and upsets the rest of us more than any other. When an event is stressful for her, she reacts by bolting. And the idea that a wedding would stress her out makes sense when you look at her life. She was married twice and twice divorced, and both divorces seem to have been related to her mental health problems. During her second divorce, from my father, her mind was so overtaken by delusions about him that she still believes he’s an impostor and that her real ex-husband was killed by a tidal wave in Hawaii.
What might be more significant is that she then had to figure out in her forties, in the full grip of mental illness, how to think of herself as an independent woman. She often touts the value of being able to support and provide for oneself, and she openly compliments me for being “brave” and “capable.” Providing for herself is something she would love to do but has never managed. She has held low-paying jobs off and on, and now she lives off Social Security and support from my grandmother.
So for me, she hopes for better. When I was single, she used to enjoy coming up with elaborate plans for my future. Although the specifics were often unfeasible or utterly impossible, the gist made sense: I should study something practical, find a stable career, take advantage of opportunities in growing industries. And she has repeated innumerable times that I should move in with my sister, living together as roommates—two sisters watching each other’s backs.
When I first began dating Will, my mother was effusive and welcoming toward him, but as things progressed she became more distant. During a phase when we were having problems, when one day I told her that the whole thing had me feeling quite sad, she said casually, “Well, maybe he’s found someone else.” This is her typical way of speaking about men, even the ones she likes. She said it almost wistfully, not aware of course that the words hurt. The message for me was simple: I may as well face facts and see men as they are. Not to be trusted.
When Will and I resolved our problems and were planning to move in together, she actually had an outburst. One evening at my grandmother’s house, I asked her, as we prepared dinner, “So, do you like Will?” I admit I was fishing for praise. Will had, after all, been about as perfect as could be when it came to my mother. He was completely accepting of her quirks, and was genuinely delighted by her, and had recently shown up at her doorstep to deliver to her a birthday gift of freshly baked cookies.
She said nothing. I asked again, and suddenly she was shouting, “Why would you ask me that? Why would you ask me that right now, when I have all this other stuff going on?” I was floored.
“What other stuff?” I demanded.
“I have to serve dinner,” she said fiercely, “and Barbie’s going off to Hawaii.” The latter comment, about one of my aunts, was such a non sequitur that I was stunned into silence. Then I got mad.
“Mom,” I said petulantly, “I just asked if you like Will.”
“I’m not going to talk about this right now,” she said, and pursed her lips in defiance. I stewed. She rather aggressively dished salad into bowls. We went out to the dining room, where my grandmother, Will, and Will’s daughter sat waiting.
I was baffled by this conversation until it hit me that this was the first time in my life that I really had a partner, a man to build a life with. I realized there was something about truly attaching myself to a man that may be deeply frightening to my mother. But I was still mad. I can’t do one single thing, I thought, without her acting like a six-year-old about it.
I’m not angry about this anymore, and if my mother doesn’t come to my wedding I’ll be sad, but not mad. I know her illness is somehow the cause, making it difficult or impossible for her to have a broader perspective about the lives of her loved ones. The scope of her own life is shrunken in the same way: She lives week to week, unable to plan or remember in the long term, in a world always shifting beneath her feet, subject to the shape-changing power of dreamlike delusions. If she were still the way she had been before her psychotic break, nothing could have kept her away from my wedding. A few months ago an old friend of hers showed me a note Mom had written in their high school yearbook, to her friend who was a year younger. “I’ll be at your graduation,” my mother had declared, “come hell or high water.”
I don’t hold it against her that she is no longer like that. But I do hold it against schizophrenia. So I have fantasies that schizophrenia is a punching bag and I envision myself beating the crap out of it.
What’s more difficult now is embarking on planning a wedding without a mother to help out, rely on, and just generally share the joy with. My father is thrilled that I’m getting married, but he’s not the kind of man who gets excited about something as froufrou as a wedding. When it comes to conversation topics, if it’s not skiing, hiking, cycling, business, or politics, he’s not really interested in a discussion. When I mention to married friends that I might like to get together over coffee and gather wedding-planning advice from them, they tend to say, “Oh, my mother took care of all that stuff.” I hadn’t thought much before about how weddings are planned, and the discovery that nearly everyone turns to her mother for assistance knocked the wind out of me for a few days.
I understand more than ever why children of mentally ill parents so often hesitate to make major steps forward. Every time I do, I butt my head against things I don’t want to confront. There is the fact that in key ways my mother can’t share this with me, which brings with it a feeling that my marriage will carry me farther away from her. There is always a voice in my head saying I’m wrong to leave her behind in her stilted place at the fringes of society, and that the only way to be a good daughter is to stay there with her.
That is a feeling I’m accustomed to by now, and I just try to manage it. But it was only recently, during my first appointment at a bridal shop, that I realized there are symbolic elements of a wedding to be considered, too. That one of a mother’s most important roles is to be a witness. Not only is my mother not available to help me choose invitations and flowers, she may never even see me in my gown.
Part of me has always tried to evade these moments of truth. I know that if I have a wedding and she’s not there, then the possibility of her absence will become the permanent reality of her absence. My mother might not go to my wedding will become My mother was not at my wedding. I will never be able to go back and place her there retroactively. She will always have been not there.
All I can do is know what I know. I remind myself of what my father says: that if I let my mother's illness get in the way of my own life too much, I just add to the tragedy. I remind myself that I’d rather get married without her than not at all. I remind myself that she would be there for me if she could, and that although the force that prevents her from doing so is invisible, it is still real. And even if she’s not there I still know that she genuinely, truly wishes me happiness. I don’t doubt that.
I consider my ring. It struck me, when I first examined it, as a fragment of the night sky that had been broken off and placed on a fragile strip of platinum. Gram Julia, its original owner, might have thought her star sapphire possessed psychic powers. Perhaps she received messages from it. It easily lends itself to storytelling, and that’s part of why I like it. I’ve even made up my own story for it: Most stars live in the sky and shine down on everyone, but this one lives on my finger and shines on our family.
Anyway I have this story, too: Julia got married. And so did her daughter, Barbara. And so did her daughter, Mari. And it is my turn now.