Living With My Mother's Mental Illness

Updated: Aug 27, 2020

When my husband and I first started dating he was very eager to know more about my relationship with my mother. So, I said, give me something you do on a regular basis and I’ll tell you how my experience was different. He said, “Okay, going to the grocery.” I smiled, “Yes, the grocery. Oh, the grocery. I haven’t been there with my mother in years.” “Why?” he asked curiously. And thus, the story began of the last time I went to the grocery with my mother.

My Last Grocery Trip With Mom

I was 24-years-old the last time I went to the grocery with my mom.

It was a hot, summer day in the middle of July when mom and I hopped in her silver Toyota Corolla and headed to Kroger to grab some things for dinner. After mom parked her car in the furthest spot from the entrance because this was how she attained her “daily exercise” we headed toward the automatic double doors. When we walked through them, a nice breeze from a built-in fan above the door washed over us. “That was nice,” my mom said. I nodded. Little did I know, it would be the only nice thing about this trip.

The double doors of this particular Kroger had popped us right out into the produce section. Rows of bright, shiny apples smiled at us, and I headed toward them. “Don’t you dare get any apples,” my mother growled behind me. “But mom we need some fruit,” I replied. My mother’s tiny hands, warm and soft from the globs of Bath & Body Works Cucumber lotion she slathered on them, gripped firmly around my forearm. She gritted her teeth and seethed into my ear, “I said don’t get near those damn apples.” I looked back at her and felt annoyed, alarmed, and embarrassed all in one swoop. I pulled my arm away and huffed, “Fine, mom.” But I knew it was game over from here.

Whenever my mother says a curse word in public, it means they have won.

The voices have won.

My mother has a multitude of triggers that spark the voices inside of her. I know what many of them are, and some days I don’t any of them at all. This was one of those occasions when I didn't know. How could I? We're talking about an innocent piece of fruit. I could have never guessed in a million years that apples would trigger my mother. I cringe when my mother is triggered. When it happens, it's like a button has turned ON in her mind that instantly makes everything and everyone around her bad, wrong, and dangerous. I turned away from those glorious Pink Galas I wanted so badly and watched as mom's trigger spiraled her to start talking, but not to me or an employee. She was talking to herself. “I said I don’t want those damn apples. I’ve been eaten apples all my life, and I’m sick of them. I’m sick of all your talk about apples. Do you hear me? Do you HEAR ME?” mom scoffed at the nothingness around her. As my mother proceeded to have a full-blown conversation with herself in the produce section, I caught the eyes of a bald man staring in our direction.

He had warm hazel eyes, soft pink cheeks, and appeared to be in his early 40s. Sitting in his shopping cart was a young toddler with golden ringlets and bright green eyes cooing at the colorful fruit around her. I watched as the man’s eyes drifted to my mom who was still conversing to herself, quietly, but not quietly enough to go unnoticed as her hands fluttered around to accompany her words. Then, he shot his eyes in my direction. As I locked eyes with this man standing on the other side of the delightful assortment of apples, I smiled. It was a friendly, good ole’ Southern smile. The kind Southerners do to fellow shoppers at the grocery story. I waited for the man to smile back, but he didn’t.

He looked at me sternly like I had done something wrong. Then, he turned his shopping cart in the opposite direction as if mom and I were both villains who might run across the room at any moment and snatch his daughter from him. Of course, I was embarrassed.

I was always mortified when mom decided to converse with her

invisible people in public.

More than that I felt a riptide of anger encompass my heart. How dare this man look at me like that. Like I had done this to her. Like this was my fault? Had he even stopped to think how her alarming behavior made me feel, her kid. Did he really think I was enjoying any part of this? It was my mom, not his, after all, talking to herself in the produce section. I wanted to cry. I wanted to crawl in a hole and never face humanity again, but I had to press on. I had to be there for mom.

I waited for a moment to see where mom’s internal conversation would go. It would either a) continue a little longer then come to a close OR b) it would become louder and more intense until I had to step in and stop it. On this particular day, it was option B. Whatever memory those darn apples reminded my mother of it was a catastrophic one. I watched mom’s body grow tense upon every mention of the word “apple.” Her shoulders hunched over. Her jaw tightened. Her brow furrowed down madly across her forehead. When her brow went down, this was the universal sign I had to step in ASAP.

“Mom,” I said firmly. She didn’t respond. “Mom!” I said more sternly. Still no answer. “MOM!” I fumed, turning her body toward me with my calloused hands from all the times when I gripped my bicycle gears too hard. My hands were weathered, dry, and tough from all the outdoor activities I did. My hands were very different from my mother’s soft ones with bright red polish coated on her nails. “WHAT SARAH?” She spat back sharply. “STOP,” I said firmly, and just like that she was back. She looked at my wide-eyed and afraid like she didn’t know where she was, but I was there which meant she was somewhere familiar. She scanned the location around her as her mind registered “grocery.” I hated watching her crawl out from one of her conversations to her invisible people. It always frightened me to see her so invested in something nobody could see then abruptly pop back to reality like what had just happened never happened at all.

Moments like these made me want to run away. It was so hard,

so frightening, but I couldn’t run. I had to be there for mom.

After mom realized where she was it was like the apple stint had never even happened. Suddenly, she was all smiles ready to continue this maddening adventure together. I followed mom to the bakery, which I hoped was going to be through the bakery, but I knew better. Mom never left the grocery without purchasing something from the baked goods section. She guided our shopping cart over to the cake display and stopped in front of them. “Don’t these look wonderful, Sarah?” she said. “Ohhh bunnies!” she squealed. Like a child at a candy shop, she bent over and picked up a gigantic carrot cake lined with playful icing-made bunnies on top. She put the cake in the shopping cart where I noticed a price tag read, 23-dollars. “Mom, that cake is too expensive,” I said. Mom turned to me with a satisfied smile, “No, it’s not. It’s our dinner.” I scoffed. She had to be joking. “Mom, cake is not a dinner,” I said back. “Sure, it is! We can have cake tonight with milk, and tomorrow morning, and then for lunch the next day. This cake will last us all week.” My body went limp, exhausted from having to be a kid parent for so many years. “Moooom,” I moaned. “Please, let us get real food to eat.” Then, it happened. The wrath, buried in the layers of her untreated schizophrenia, was back. Mom whisked her body toward me. Her eyes glowing with a maddening rage in them that made me want to burst into tears, but I couldn’t.

Tears were my mother’s biggest trigger of all, and if my brother or I ever shed them around her she grew meaner than the meanest mean one can be.

“I’m the mother and I say we’re getting this cake. So, stop being a damn brat and telling me ‘cake isn’t dinner. It’s dinner, Sarah. Do you hear me? It’s dinner!” I stood there, limp and defeated. I could feel the eyes of the employees in the bakery and the big-boned men in the meat department across the way staring at me, again, like I was the enemy. Like I was the prissy daughter who was trying to take away my mother’s rights by stopping her from buying a cake. I wanted to turn to all those judgmental eyes and shout, “My mother has 30 dollars to her name. She’s addicted to sugar and if she eats this cake it will make her mind sicker. It’s not good for her. She needs real food! I’m trying to help her. Can’t you see? I’m trying to help my mom!” Of course, I didn’t say any of that. I didn’t say anything. I rubbed my swollen eyes, always puffy from having to hold back so many tears, and turned away from my mother. I wanted this nightmare all to be over. I wanted her to stop doing these things in public, but, at the core, I knew it was her illness not her. So, I couldn’t leave. I had to be there for mom.

I remained quiet until, alas, mom was ready to go. As we made our way to the checkout counter with a shopping cart filled with nothing but that gigantic, knock off carrot cake, a pack of Oreos, half a gallon of milk, and some string cheese, I moaned. “Mom, you know this can’t be our dinner,” I said. “Sure, it is. Plus you need more Oreos in your life,” my mother said. I knew I wouldn’t eat anything in that basket, but there was no use arguing with mom now. We were so close to escaping this land mine when all of a sudden, another common trait of people with schizophrenia, decided to strike: The belief that everyone is out to get you. As we made our way to an open checkout lane, we passed an innocent looking old man dressed in a blue sweater hobbling with cane in hand. “Don’t make eye contact,” my mother spat. “Why?” I asked. “He’s dangerous.” I glanced over at the old man as we passed him. How dangerous could a man be if he could hardly walk? Then we came upon a young woman with chic black glasses on and a perfect bob haircut debating between what paper towels to buy. “Looney,” mom said. The woman glanced over at us with a peculiar look that read: surely, this woman wasn’t calling me a looney. When we passed the business, savvy dressed woman I turned to my mother and asked, “Why did you say that?” My mom shrugged casually, “She was a looney.” “What does that even mean?” I sighed. “It means she was dangerous, Sarah.” Another dangerous bystander, great.

When we finally reached the checkout line, it felt like we had just come out of a dangerous war zone. The employees were the enemy. The other shoppers were nothing but wicked men and women trying to capture mom and lock her up forever, but (alas) the exit was only a few steps away! I thought we were done here until I observed the checkout lady in front of us. She was dramatically overweight with a double chin and droopy boobs. Oh no. I cringed. Plus-sized women had always been a trigger for mom which was a result of all the years my mother's father ridiculed his daughters, including mom, for not being pencil thin. I knew she was going to say something. She always said something about plus-sized women. Then she said it. “Look away from her, Sarah,” mom said loud enough to ensure the poor woman heard her. The woman looked at my mother as pain and shame leaked from her pupils, but she didn't say anything back. In that moment, I wanted to teleport to anywhere in the world, but here. I knew my mother’s words had hurt the woman. I wanted to hug her and tell her it wasn’t about her at all but hugging anybody labeled as “the enemy” was the quickest way to spiral my mother fast. So, I sucked up all my feelings because I had to be there for mom.

And this was the last time I went to the grocery with my mother.

After I told my husband this story, his gave me his signature soft, warm smile and said, “I’m sorry you had to go through that.” I shrugged back. “It's okay.” After this conversation, I thought about those words I had said back to my husband. “It’s okay.” My entire life I had been engrained to say, “It’s okay” anytime my mother’s outlandish behavior affected my feelings. But the thing is it wasn’t okay. It’s still not okay, and it will never be okay to be a child of a mentally ill parent and not seek treatment to heal your own wounds.

So How Do Kids Of Mentally Ill Parents Heal?

1) Therapy- I didn’t get therapy until I was 27-years-old living on my own California. It changed my life.

2) Support Groups– I didn’t know support groups for children of parents with mental illness even exited until a woman in LA told me about this amazing organization called NAMI. In fact, NMAI (National Alliance of Mental Illness) is the biggest grass roots mental health non-profit in the world. It changed my life.

3) Yoga - I didn’t discover the healing powers of yoga and the incredible wonders it does for our mind until I lived on the west coast. It changed my life.

4) Pray - I never encountered so many women willing to lay their hands over me and pray in Jesus’s name that my pain be gone. It changed my life.

There will always be a deep hole in my heart for all the pain and suffering I have witnessed my mother enduring, but these days I am able to recognize there is a hole in my own heart too. I have suffered too. This story is here to give you an honest account of what it’s like to be the child of a mother with mental illness, but it is also here to remind you that your needs matter too. I can fully attest that this combo: therapy, a support group, yoga, and prayer can heal any open, blistering wound.

Are you a child of a parent with a mental health condition? What tools have you used to help heal? I would be delighted to hear about them in the comments below!