My Mother Mental Illness – 20 years later…

My Mother Mental Illness Rachel Sahaidachny
I am 18 on the day of high school graduation. Grammie and Baba next to me.

The Broken Goddess

In 1997, I thought I was broken. When I look at this picture now, I see a Goddess. And these Grandmothers beside me must be pillars of strength. The Matriarchs of our family both survived unspoken trauma. The silences and shadows of pain that laced through my parents’ early lives were perhaps part of what drew them together.

This photo was taken on the day of my high school graduation. After several tumultuous years of fury and disarray, we all gathered on this day like a real family. Mom was living at home. In a couple months, I was going away to college. Maybe life would turn out, after all.

At 18, I was riddled with layers of mental health issues as a result of surviving my mother’s repeated psychotic episodes over the past six years or so. My mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia while I was in high school. Her diagnosis did not ease the chaos of our lives, just explained it to some degree. Negative coping mechanisms and self-harm were the threads weaving my days together. Constant migraines, chronic ear and sinus infections, stomach ailments, and insomnia kept me in near constant pain. My mom’s mental and emotional abuse and name-calling had me believing that I deserved to be in pain. I held myself together by quietly cutting myself and keeping my secrets.

My journals from my first years at college repeat nearly the same things every night. I can’t sleep, my head hurts, I have so much to do tomorrow. I sought out chaotic friends and situations. I played beer bottle baseball in a plot of woods near the river. I slept in a house while a couch burned. I was suicidal and reckless. Outcasts and punk-rock locals flocked to me.

I sought out therapy but struggled to commit because I didn’t want to talk about all the memories and fears coursing through me, then. At a really low point, after my third year of school, I gave up my scholarships and some of my credits and dropped out. I didn’t say goodbye to a single friend. I blamed myself for all the pain and turmoil I felt. I had no compassion for myself, only loathing. I abandoned that life, or version of myself, much in the same way that my mother had walked away from her life with us just the year before, in 1999.

I see this girl in the picture, now, and realize she was strong, beautiful, creative, dynamic. Luckily, I did not destroy her.

My Mother Passed Away in September 2021

When the pandemic came to close the world off, I started speaking with my mother more. Despite the healing I had managed in my life, I had always struggled to have compassion for my mother. In my forties now, I finally realized that she did the best she could. I found compassion. Patience. Forgiveness. I realized that she survived against nearly impossible odds. She passed away under the care of her daughter (my sister, Karena Dawn) – not in a ditch, or on the road somewhere, as we had feared might be her fate so many times in my life.

In the months of her declining physical health in 2021, I spoke with my mother more times than I had in the previous twenty years. There were times while she lay afraid in her hospital bed that I spoke to her every day.

In June, I saw her in the hospital. And the old trauma hidden in my body rose to the surface in her room in San Diego. Frozen: my face, my mind, my body. I hadn’t seen her in five years. Which, isn’t that bad I suppose. Since my mom fled in 1999 I have only seen her enough times to…not even count on both hands. After the visit, I spent a couple days feeling haunted by old ghosts of loneliness and abandonment and neglect.

My Mother Mental Illness

This past spring, before the visit to my mother at the hospital, I found some writing I had put together from when I was 22, in therapy. I wrote per the suggestion of my therapist. I think I was trying to understand what happened to my mother. Or, how I felt about my mother, or how I wanted to feel. There was this lingering statement haunting me – “it’s not your mother it’s her mental illness.” Then, who was my mother?

It’s been twenty years since I wrote it, in 2001. As I read the words, I struggled to grasp the memories. “Can you believe this happened!?” I said to my husband, Matthew.

As I read on, the behaviors, feelings, and actions I had struggled with as a young woman (like dropping out of my school, hurting myself) made clearer sense to me. I guess I hadn’t realized in a while that there was a part of me that still needed to forgive myself, and to accept that I, too, did the best I could. I too had survived despite difficult odds.

Sharing Old Secrets

I’m going to share the essay, here, and as it was written then (honestly, I can’t bear to rewrite it) because I believe it’s important to speak out and share the struggles that we experience in this society as a result of mental illness and mental health issues. When I was stuck inside “the bell jar” of life with a mentally ill mother, it felt dangerous to let anyone know. Even now, I feel frightened to let these memories, thoughts, and words into the world, and out of my secrets and shadows.

Today, I am 42. I am still healing. My mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when she was about 38. She did not seek treatment through most of her life. I am mostly not afraid anymore of developing the disease. Rarely ever does that nagging thought reoccur, but as a younger woman, I sometimes couldn’t dream of life because a sentence to her fate seemed lingering.

She’s gone now, and I’m still learning what that means. But, for my path right now, it means reflecting on her life. Reflecting on what I overcame, and what I am still working on. And learning to share the journey and help others not to be afraid, to feel alone, or to be stuck silent. It means sharing my words, my writing, my story. It means working together to make the world more compassionate, welcoming, and loving.

My path now means being open to the flow of being broken. Allowing parts of me to come to pieces, to resolve and to unravel, and then for those pieces to wind their way into something new. It means embracing the joy of change. Growing up in chaos meant that later in life, change felt scary, excitement for something new felt the same as anxiety. Grief makes room to relearn. I am here for it.

My Mother Mental Illness - Rachel Sahaidachny
Me with my mother, Linda Joy Tompkins, at my high school graduation 1997. Here we smile, but she doesn’t touch me, and keeps her hands crossed behind her back.

An Excerpt:

My mother is hidden in the corners of the house. After battling her disease, her hatred, and her legal rights and hospitalizations for eight years my father finally let go and divorced my mother. She wasn’t coming back and she thought he was a minion of Satan, anyway. He packed up her clothes, her underwear, her shoes and shipped them to her mother’s house where they now exist crated in a closet. Some of my mother’s smaller belongings found their way into me and my younger sister’s lives – a tube of lipstick, a small set of ruby earrings. Other relics of her still hide within in the house.

Downstairs in the family room on the tall narrow bookshelf, on the bottom shelf beneath the dusty cookbooks for fondue and whole grain bread, rests her journal – written during the last few months she lived here. Its pages detail her disgust with her disease, Schizophrenia, and the disaster it has made of her life, the cloudiness the medications create – something very distressful for an artist, it gets in the way of her paints. The entries end abruptly one month after she quit her medicine, one month before she disappeared again.

*Typed on a word-processor, forgive the errors.

**I’d like to note that in this 2001 essay I use the term “crazy” a few times to refer to my mother or what is happening. I am more sensitive about this word now, as I find it can be a derogatory and abusive word used to diminish people experiencing serious illness. But, I have decided to leave it in, as it does represent the internal struggles between language and experience that I was dealing with at the time.