Coming to Terms with My Mother's Mental Illness

By Dawn Clancy 05/22/18

Whether my mother was sitting on her couch polishing off a case of Budweiser or lying on a cold, hard table in a morgue, I didn't know or care.

Sad little girl sitting on bench.
Despite everything that was wrong, my instinct was to protect my mother and I was naive enough to believe I could.

Sometimes I did it cross-legged in bed, but most of the time it happened while sitting on a stool in my kitchen. I'd face the white wall that separated the kitchen from the living room, and I'd stare and cry. It wasn't the kind of cry you'd expect from someone who, after losing a close race drops to her knees just beyond the finish line, visibly defeated and worn. My cry felt exhausted and old. The tears that slid down my face were the only part of me capable of movement under the heavy weight of depression. The kind of depression that stopped me from showering, buying toilet paper, brushing my teeth and showing up for work.

I'd only been temping at an advertising agency for a few months when I woke one morning, sat up in my bed, faced the blank wall behind my pillow and cried. It felt as routine as getting up and going to the bathroom. I don't remember how long I sat there mentally limp, but when I came to, I picked up my cell and called my supervisor at the advertising office. I couldn't admit I was riding yet another wave of depression so; instead, I lied and said, "I'm not coming in today because my mother died."

Whether or not my mother was sitting on her couch chain-smoking while polishing off a case of Budweiser or lying on a cold, hard table in a morgue, I didn't know or care. At the height of my depression, in my mid-twenties, I hadn't spoken to my mother in over a decade. Our relationship ended the day I let go of her to salvage what was left of me.

There isn't a memory I have of my mother where she isn't some version of drunk. As a kid, I could handle the blacked-out version but not the one who called me a rotten little bitch or forced me to "dance sexy" in front of other drunk people I didn't know or the one who beat the shit out of me when I couldn't remember my multiplication tables.

I learned a painful lesson one of the times I tried to object to her drinking. We were in the living room watching an episode of The People's Court with Judge Wapner when my mother wandered to the kitchen. I heard the refrigerator door open and then a short pause. The door shut and there was a soft hiss followed by the pop and crunch of ripping tin. Just as I feared, my mother walked back into the living room with a Budweiser between her lips. I looked up at her, and before I could speak, she pointed at me and said, "You shut the fuck up."

It wasn’t until I turned eight years old that my father, who divorced my mother years before, pulled up in front of my mother’s house and crammed the back of his rusty red GMC Jimmy truck with every stuffed animal and piece of clothing I owned. I don’t remember our goodbye and although I understood I was leaving hell for good, I felt everything but relieved. 

After my move and at my father’s discretion, I was allowed supervised, sober visits with my mother, but over the years it was her phone calls, free of any restrictions or rules, that tipped our relationship over and beyond its end.

Whenever my mother called me not only was she drunk but every slap, punch and kick she would’ve thrown if I still lived under her roof was replaced with its evil verbal twin. On some calls, my mother promised to kill me or threatened to kill herself. Sometimes, I was a two-bit whore or a burden that nobody wanted, but no matter her degree of drunkenness I was always some ugly version of a bitch. Once, I gathered up my nerve and even though I knew that under normal circumstances I’d get in trouble for saying it, I threw the evil right back at my mother and said: “No, you’re the bitch!” The screaming that followed ended with my father prying the phone from my shaking hand and hanging up on my mother. I was about 12 years old at the time, and even then, hysterical and dizzy with adrenaline, I agreed when my father suggested it was time to end all contact with her. From that day forward, my mother and I became a word I never heard before: estranged. At that time, I naively believed that word only applied to the physical distance already set between us. Sadly, I had no way of knowing estrangement would mean losing my mother in ways I couldn't even begin to understand.

It wasn't until I reached my 30s and over two decades had passed that I thought about contacting her. Although I still don't have a clear idea of what motivated me to track down her phone number, I know the rumor that she was finally sober had something to do with it.

When my mother picked up the phone, I told her who I was. She didn't believe me. I spent the next 10 minutes trying to convince her that it was me and not, as she claimed, some random person who stole my identity. Everything beyond that awkward exchange is still a blur. I don't know what I hoped or expected to happen, but I remember getting off the phone and feeling nothing.

Over the next several months, I spoke with my mother occasionally, and when I got engaged, although I had no obligation to do so, I did something I thought I'd never do and invited her to my wedding. To my surprise, she agreed to come.

I remember sitting on the edge of my bed in my bridal suite expecting the photographer when there was a knock on my door. When I opened it, my mother stood there alone, looking fragile, exhausted, and smelling like she inhaled a pack of cigarettes. She came in, fell limp in a chair, released her head between her shoulders and cried. Her distress, as she explained it to me, was from the embarrassment and shame she felt while staying at the hotel in the company of people who remember her as an abusive, unhinged alcoholic.

As she continued to sob, I watched her transform from a sixty-something-year-old woman into a pitiful child who forgets she's clutching a wad of tissues in her hand and wipes her tears and the snot slowly oozing from her nose with the back of her arm. I remembered a time many years before when my best friend was Marie, my Cabbage Patch Doll, and I believed that one day I'd live with Barbie in her pink, plastic Dream House. Instead, my mother and I ended up on a park bench one night off of Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia. She passed out, after one beer too many, with her head in my lap. Although it was dark and I could barely reach the ground with my feet, I stayed awake the entire time to protect my mother. In my mind, I imagined a thousand what-if scenarios and escape plans while periodically sticking my hand under her nose to make sure she was still breathing. Looking back, I now understand how fiercely and unconditionally I loved my mother. Despite everything that was wrong my instinct was to protect her and I was naive enough to believe I could.

Back in my hotel room, I realized those instincts and the little girl who obeyed them were long gone, and so was the woman I once knew as my mother.

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Dawn Clancy is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Fix, The Establishment, Dame Magazine and others. Her website is