Today is World Mental Health Day and I am thinking of my mother.
She was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when I was a newborn. It was her second nervous breakdown — the first was when she was in college. Maybe it was the physical strain of two pregnancies in quick succession, or the mental and physical load of having two under-twos in the house, that triggered it.
Or maybe one had nothing to do with the other. There’s so much we don’t know about mental illness.
I was lucky. My mom, for the most part, was great about taking her meds. My dad made sure we always had good, comprehensive medical insurance, because, hot damn, we were going to use it. She had the resources to stay as healthy as possible, and she had the tenacity to stick to the plan, even on those days when it felt like the plan wasn’t working.
My mom received a one-two-punch when she was diagnosed with a rare form of frontotemporal dementia at fifty-seven. The doctors gave her seven years to live. Ever obstinate, she doubled her life expectancy. It was fourteen years before she passed away. It’ll be two years on October 15th.
I am proud to be her daughter. It was hard. There were times when I had to manage her, I had to be the parent when she couldn’t handle it. I could have lived without the weeks on end when all she talked about was Jesus and God and Sin.
Yeah. A bit sick of that one.
But she was unfailingly kind, had a gift with animals, and made sure art and creativity were constants in my life. My childhood memories revolve around all the places we would go. The art museum, the library for storytime, Punch & Judy in the park, the zoo. There’d be homemade Playdoh and paper mâché. Paint and paper were always at the ready.
She, patiently, taught me to read.
I know she was scandalized that I write genre novels (she was an intellectual elitist!) but she’s the reason why I put fingers to keyboard every morning and bang out my stories. And of that she was proud.
It is crucial, beyond crucial, that we advocate for mental wellness. Advances in science and medicine bring revelations daily about trauma — and inherited trauma — and its impact on mental health, depression, PTSD, even psychosis. But the study of the brain continues to be the final frontier in medicine.
Mental wellness and physical wellness go hand-in-hand. Our deplorable health system leaves mental health out of the equation. My insurance covers eight (eight!) outpatient therapy sessions a year, and we have what is considered “blue ribbon” coverage.
This is shameful. It’s been proven time and again that talk therapy in conjunction with pharmaceuticals offers the best outcomes in people struggling with their mental health.
We must do better. As a society it is up to us to lift people up, to help ease their suffering, to give them a safe space to process their trauma and life as close to normal life as possible. My mom is proof: people with mental illness can live pretty damn normal lives. But they need tools to help them get there.
I love and miss you, Mom. I hope you found heaven and are nattering on about the Bible to a rapt Jesus. (And maybe, one day, I will write plays again. Just for you.)