My mother Was Not Her Disease

May is National Mental Awareness Month. May also celebrates Mother’s Day. May also marks the  anniversary of my mother’s death. In this post I would like to celebrate and honor my her. Her name was Joyce (which was rather fitting as she was often joyful!), but to me she was mommy. For most of her life she battled the disease of schizophrenia ( my aunt, her sister suggested I not capitalize it as to not give the disease any more power and I agreed). In the Merriam- Webster dictionary it is defined as : (N) A psychotic mental illness that is characterized by a twisted view of the real world by a greatly reduced ability to carry out one’s daily tasks and by abnormal ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. In her early twenties this was her diagnosis, just as it had been for her mother, my grandmother.

Her life did not stop though. She did not disappear from the world. Mommy met and fell in love with my dad, Richard. The two of them married and began a family ( by the time I was four the marriage had fallen apart and my dad was out of our lives until just before his death when I was sixteen.) Mommy was in and out of hospitals through the years, taking a toll on all of us. Sometimes her medications and therapy worked ( when the combinations of meds did work). Sometimes they did not. Just as with any other disease, my mother was not only one affected by it.

I don’t know what dreams she had for her life. Did she fear her daughters sub combing to the same disease? That we too would be lost to the whims of our brains? Her life was interrupted by it but not stopped. Not in the least.

She was the kindest, sweetest person you could ever meet. Silly too, she could be so silly! One of my fondest memories is sitting with her in the car as she cranked up the radio, grasped the steering wheel and “car danced”. If you have never done this, I would highly suggest it. It’s great way to to relieve stress. Sleepovers at the apartment she shared with my grandfather were a special treat. Time for just the two of us. She allowed me to stay up way past my bedtime and eat hostess cupcakes for breakfast. Often we went to evening mass on Saturday and I remember her praying with her hands covering her face. I have wondered over the years if she prayed for her disease to go away. She continued to attend mass and pray until the end of her life.

She loved her children fiercely. Fighting back against the tides of schizophrenia she did her best to mother us. There would be a calm to our lives for years. Mommy doing well and things settled into a routine. She lived not even a mile away from her sister, my aunt who had taken guardianship of us when I was five. A role switch that had to be difficult, to bravely give over the mothering of her children to her younger sister. I am so grateful to her for doing that for my sister’s and I were provided a loving home in which to be raised in.

Often she walked over to have dinner or visited for the afternoon. She picked me up from school, taking me for a snack before I headed to my weekly CCD class at the church. These were the good periods.

Then there were the not so good ones. Such as when she was hospitalized. I hate to say it but I hated visiting her in the hospital. It smelled like urine and bleach. Even today when I go to a hospital all I can smell is that combination. She was not my mother at this time, she was someone else, lost to us. She was far away from us. I was angry with her. As a child I could not understand that she had no choice. This was the ravages of the disease. It stole her away from us. When I grew up, I understood this better and began to see that she was not her disease.

Just as a cancer patient is not defined only by their cancer, so too was my mother. Society though does not allow this for those afflicted with mental illness. It is easier to label and cast them aside, defective. People to fear as they are capable of anything. Yes, they are capable of anything. Just as you or I who are not afflicted are capable of anything. The answer is to not warehouse them in prisons or government hospitals where they will not receive treatment and support.

My mother was blessed and did so well for long periods because of the support system of a loving family. She had access to doctors and medicine. The quality of her treatment was not always so great however. There are others with no access to care at all. Whether due to their own choice or lack of funds and resources. I do not know what can be done or how to go about fixing this. Treatment is not one size fits all and that must be remembered. Strides have been made since my mothers diagnosis in the sixties but there is still a way to to go in fully understanding how the brain works. Most especially in how schizophrenia itself operates.

First and foremost we must not demonize the mentally ill. The stigma must end so the healing can begin.

I ask that when you know someone who is battling mental illness to see beyond the diagnosis. To see the person in front of you. To love them. My mother was not her disease. It was part of her story, but not the entire story.

We lost her when a blood clot traveled to her brain causing an aneurism. This was wholly unexpected and shocking for both our family and her doctor. At this time mommy was in the hospital again after another breakdown and her health was improving. 

Side note: My sister tells me that its possible that our mother may have been misdiagnosed and was most likely manic-depressive. My aunt however disagrees.

I am grateful to John and Linda Doherty for continuing the legacy of adoption in our family. To my sister Christine Connelly for being the mother I needed as a young child when mommy could not. Even as you too were still a child. To Michelle Amigo for being an wonderful sister. I have been blessed with many mothers.

my sister’s and I do not battle schizophrenia, it is however something we know can be a possibility for future generations.

Thank you for reading.


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