Sanity Sold Separately

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This is my mom.

She is 54 years young. She likes gardening and talking to strangers. She’s a mother of four with an iron will and a tender heart. Her kiss has a sound and if you are lucky enough to have one placed upon your temple, her lips will echo in the background of every beautiful melody you hear forever after.

But she doesn’t know who she is right now.
My experience with mental illness began long before mine ever surfaced, though I would not understand what that meant for quite some time. My first clear memory is from when I was about six:
My mom was seated on the front steps smoking a cigarette. I was watching her from around the corner, noticing that she was crying. I thought she looked beautiful when she cried, and I found it strange even then.
I asked her what was wrong, asked her if she had ‘owies.’ She smiled through her tears and tried to explain that sometimes people just get sad for no real reason at all.
I asked for a Fruit by the Foot and she hummed “Band on the Run” while she fumbled with the packaging.

It always went like that.

As I grew up, I knew that she was struggling, even if I couldn’t pinpoint where it came from. Sometimes I asked her, but she just brushed it off and continued to put scrunchies in my hair and coming to school to help me clean out my desk, which was always as messy and colourful as my imagination.

She finally sought help in 2001, where she was met with a diagnoses that indicated her thyroid was not functioning properly. She was also given some antidepressants. She became softer somehow, like falling off of a pair of skis into powder.
She was tired a lot, and because I was so young, I didn’t stop demanding her time and her energy. I didn’t stop shouting “Mom! Mom! Hey, MOM!”
Sometimes I wasn’t sure that she could hear me, even when she was staring right at me.
I heard the term ‘Schizoaffective Disorder’ in the winter of 2009, the first time I watched her stumble across the line between reality and her thoughts; the first time the ambulance came to collect her.
It was difficult not to fear what I had seen, but when I finally got to visit her a couple of days later, she had her hair slicked back in a bandana, she smelled like coconut body butter and waved hello to every person she passed.
That’s the kind of woman she is.

You could be the meanest of mugs, and you still couldn’t intimidate my mother. You could throw boards over every window in the room, but she would learn to make her way in the dark. You could hurl insults left and right, but you would always miss, because she would tune out every word.
My mom is a rare and beautiful creature who meets fire not with aggression, but with the knowledge that fire will eventually burn itself out.
Argue, scream until you are blue in the face, but know that when she says she doesn’t care, she actually MEANS it.

This time when she had to go, we were on vacation, and I was ready.
I saw her off with the understanding that nothing lasts- that life has its own seasons; that we are never any one thing at a time.
When I got to see her the next day, she was as tender as ever, laughing at jokes that didn’t make any real amount of sense, brushing hair from my eyes and simply saying “Well, I don’t like it in here, but it’s okay. Do you think you could bring me a Big Mac tomorrow?”

In the hours that most people would spend in agony, she thought about me, about all of us, because she doesn’t know how not to.

In the days that followed, she took me through the facility and showed me what it had to offer. I was delighted to see that she had the option to bake, play basketball, meditate, and participate in activities like yoga and tai chi.
She showed me all of the art supplies and lit up when she pulled out the pictures she planned to colour for her grand babies.
After a game of twenty one, I cuddled up next to her on her tiny hospital bed; her little spoon. I felt the pressure in my chest release when she said “I feel safe here. I feel like I can heal.”
As she stroked my hair, my mother asked if I was angry with her. She tearfully told me that she was sorry that she gave me this illness; that this was not how she wanted to be remembered.

I turned to face her and told her that I remember her skin being soft like the velvet skirts of the dresses I wore on Christmas eve. I told her I know that if she were stranded on a desert island and had the option to play any album for the last time, it would be The Eagles’ Greatest Hits, but that she would be okay with Cat Stevens and that Van Morrison makes her snap her fingers while she dances.
I reminded her that she could moonwalk across the entire kitchen floor; that I only recall her loving me more than she loved herself.

She gave me far more than an illness. She gave me the ‘oomph’ to work my way through one. She gave me the sense of humour to laugh when my eyes burned too much to continue crying. She gave me the imagination to carry me away from despair and the gratitude to understand that the fact that I’m still here means that I am lucky.
She smiled and asked “Would you write about me?”

Here’s to you, my beautiful-eyed, iridescent soul. Here’s to scrunchies and Barney and Gushers and old English lullabies. We’ll take care of you now.

What To Expect

I keep getting the same question when I run into acquaintances:

“When are you going to start making babies?”

My reaction is always the same. A quick “ha!” and a change of subject. Look, I get it. It’s a question that’s been asked for ages and it’s not intended to make me feel inadequate, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. I don’t want to come across as if these words have never fallen from my own lips, because they certainly have, but I’ve learned a thing or two about myself and the world since then.

It’s difficult for me to explain why, but the short answer is that I’m not ready. I would gladly let it go and ignore that it was ever said, except for the fact that I am almost always met with a response such as:

Nobody is ever REALLY ready to have a child!”

I agree. It’s hard to prepare yourself to push a human out of a hole in your vagina, and it’s even harder to prepare yourself to be sleepless for the next however many years in which that human decides that it is afraid of the dark or their bladder is too small to carry you through an 8 hour slumber. There is no real study guide for the first conversation about mortality, or for the first time your child points at someone with a huge nose and asks them about their beak. That shit is not lost on me. But while you’re busy describing the trials and tribulations that come with motherhood, I’m busy with all of the thoughts that I do not feel prepared to share with you.

I want to tell you that I’m not worried about any of that. I want to tell you that this isn’t the first time I’ve mulled it over. I want to tell you that it’s not about “me time,” or having 7 more years before that dreaded biological clock that you speak of starts to tick. It’s not about body image or focusing on my career (though, if you ask me, these are all valid reasons to remain child free.)

I want to ask you if you’ve ever been so distracted by a noise that you’ve walked away, forgetting your newborn and leaving them to roll off of a changing table. I want to ask you if you’ve ever been so sleep deprived that you’ve walked out of your house ass naked, babbling about paint. I want to ask if you’ve ever had such an out-of-body tantrum that you glanced at your child in the aftermath and noticed their terrified expression as they backed away from you slowly. I wonder if you’ve ever cried because your toddler asked “Mommy, who do you keep talking to? Is it a ghost?”

I wonder, but say nothing, because this is not on your radar. I say nothing because I don’t want you to feel like the one who is unprepared. I say nothing because I don’t want to see your smile of encouragement stretch into a straight line. I don’t want to see your eyebrows lift in shock. I don’t want to hear your voice shake when you say:

“Well, you’ll adapt. A lot of good moms face these challenges.”

Indeed, they do, and more power to them. I applaud the brave mother who puts aside her own monsters to chase the monsters that really matter out from behind a little girl’s dresser. I am so proud of the women who lose count of the cracks in the sidewalks and the number of red things in the room to answer the question “What is 5 more than 9?” But I am not those people.

I am me, and I’m still learning that this is okay. I’m still learning to walk atop this rough new territory. I’m still telling myself that if I get out of bed today, and if that’s all I can muster, it’s alright. I’m still adjusting to small victories like hitting every green light in town or concentrating hard enough to read 3 pages of The Wind in the Willows. I know you care, and I know that you think these things are just fine, too. So when you argue about my ability to procreate, I am sent into a tailspin. Instead of being enough, my thoughts get darker, angrier. They turn into thoughts of being more, and so begins the burning frustration when I don’t know how to achieve that.

I love children. I love their minds, and watching them put together the puzzle of everyday life. I love witnessing their transition and the growth in their perspective as time passes. I love to colour and play Twister and to see how many marshmallows I can fit into my mouth. I love to sing and skip and count and ask questions.

But this is not enough.

I need to know that I am in a position to provide the safety, discipline and time that is necessary in rearing a child. I need to know that they will not run to their father 5 days a week and say “Mom’s in the basement screaming at the walls.” Most of all, I need to become comfortable enough in managing my illness so that if I have a child who struggles like me, I won’t be shamed into running from them. I need to know how to reason with myself before I can offer that kind of support to a tiny, needy being.

If that day never comes, I need you to understand that I’m okay with it. I’m okay with it because I have everything that I need to be content. I have 2 dogs, and though they are not comparable to two toddlers, I still get the chance to nurture, love, and train them. And just because I do not actively plan on having children of my own does not mean that I cannot care for the children of others, because I do. I love my nieces and nephews. I love pushing them on swings and giving them shit when they’re talking back to their mamas. I love seeing the kids in my morning exercise classes running wild and attempting to hug the other women while they do push-ups.

I will take your advice. I will be open to whatever comes next. Now, take some of mine, and stop asking that fucking question, okay?