My brother came for a visit last month. He came to the boys’ midweek soccer game. We’re getting to the age where you can’t really tell how far apart we are in age (it’s 6 years). He has had a hard life and it shows and I still look a little younger than I am. While we were watching the game, I chatted with other parents. One was bemoaning having all teenagers now that her youngest son had turned 12.
As I was commiserating, my brother piped up, “You put up with a lot more from them than you did me at that age!” The other parent raised her eyebrows and my brother said, “My sister brought me up, and let me tell you, she did not take any shit from me.” I felt bad. So I said, “Well, I’m not a 12 year old raising a 6 year old, or a 19 year old raising a 13 year old this time around.” And I also wanted to say, but didn’t, “and I don’t have our mom driving me crazy.”
I often wonder what image comes to mind when I say, “my mother is mentally ill.” What do they see? Do they think of a white middle aged suburban woman losing her mind while the kids are at school and her husband at work? Do they think she stayed sane long enough to have children, raise them and then she lost her mind? Do they assume it was hidden from us and I’m dealing with it for the first time as an adult? I wonder wether their view is limited by ignorance or widened by experience.
I don’t see my story being told very often. My mother has had the same mental illness since she was an adolescent. She was insane when my father met her, insane when he married her and insane when he left her. She was maybe a little more insane after she remarried and had my brother. She hit her rock bottom the summer I turned 12 and she divorced my alcoholic step father. It took her years to recover from that. In the meantime, I raised me and my brother, all while having the specter of a mother haunting the living room couch. She was more poltergeist than parent.
Now that we’re getting older, which feels like an enormous accomplishment by the way, I value my brother so much for being the person who knows what the foundation of my life was built on: insanity. He has the same intimate knowledge of our mother’s particular strain of crazy. In the last few months it hit me how important it is to have someone who understands where I’ve come from and what I’m always responding to. Yes, I raised my brother. But who raised me? Mostly myself, but before that, I was raised by an insane person. I have to deal with that shit every fucking day.
Every day I process the world in two frames: the first frame is the insanity which feels normal but is in fact bad for me, and then a half second later the second frame of sane which feels abnormal but is in fact good for me. The older I get the easier it is to blink past the first frame. I’m to the age where I’ve lived on my own longer than I lived with her, but it wasn’t until I had my own kids that I really really had to do the work to choose sanity. Because, for me, since I don’t have a mental illness, it’s a choice.
However, when I get tired and feel unloved and unsupported, the timing between the two frames start to slip. The film goes off the reel. And I have to focus extra hard on knowing the difference between the two. I have to ask for help. In order to be close to me, for me to feel loved, people have to understand that daily struggle, respect it, and forgive me for it. That struggle is a big part of who I am. And my brother knows; he witnessed my personality develop under her storm cloud and I know how much he appreciates my trying to be his umbrella. Even if I was strict with him.
My point is that I’m amazed at how relationships change over time. How the ways we show up for each other shifts as we learn to communicate. I used to not want to see to my brother because the memories were too painful. I couldn’t separate him from the past. Today I’m really really grateful that I can.