Stigma Fighters: Lori Schafer

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Stigma Fighters: Lori Schafer

You don’t have to be mentally ill to suffer the stigma associated with mental illness.

I know all about it. My mother became psychotic when I was a teenager. She may never have known how the world saw her – or me – after that. But I did.

You can imagine what it was like, living in a small town with a parent with a severe mental illness. There probably wasn’t anyone who didn’t know. My mother’s delusions didn’t permit her to sit quietly at home where no one would notice her illness. She believed that someone was waiting to attack me at my school, and at length she somehow persuaded the school board to allow her to attend classes with me.

You can’t fault her motives. Besides, at the time, I considered it an improvement. Prior to that, she had removed me from school altogether.

It sounds almost funny now. In reality, of course, nothing could have been more humiliating than being “that girl with the crazy mother.” There was something very strange about meeting someone after class – every class – and having it be my mother. There was something even more bizarre about being confronted by snickering strangers in those rare moments when I found myself alone.

“Hey, aren’t you that girl whose mother has green hair and comes to school with her?”

“It isn’t really green,” I would argue. “It’s supposed to be blonde; something just went wrong during the coloring.”

Yet this was how I would forever after be known. Until the day I ran away from home, that’s who I was: Judy Green-Hair’s daughter. To certain people, I probably always will be.

That was the flip side of it. Even people who cared about me began to treat me differently because of what had happened to my mother. Some of my friends became cautious in dealing with me; many of their parents, much more so. Their attitude wasn’t unreasonable. My mother was dangerous and unpredictable; it was only natural for people to want to avoid her.

It is also true that some mental illnesses are hereditary, and can be passed down through the generations. Therefore it also wasn’t completely unreasonable for them to wonder whether I, too, might one day succumb to my mother’s affliction.

I understood this. Still, I very quickly tired of having my every move, my every action evaluated and reevaluated, as if everything I did might serve as confirmation that I, too, was insane.

My experience of adolescence was anything but ordinary. But in many ways, I was still an average teenager who did average – and stupid – teenage things. When my mother had operations on her feet in my senior year, she was housebound for several months. It was the first taste of freedom I’d experienced in some time, and I acted accordingly. I snuck out at night. I skipped classes to hang out with my friends. I drank and made an ass out of myself. I did dumb things that I regretted. Who doesn’t?

In any other teenager, these types of behaviors would have been considered normal acts of rebellion. But not for me. No, when I did it, it was evidence. Was I sane, or insane?

For example, when I finally got to college, I experimented with drugs. Nothing hard-core; nothing out of the ordinary for a kid who’s on her own for the first time. I happened to mention this to a friend of mine from back home in a letter. Someone who, incidentally, had already done far more experimenting then I had ever done, or ever would do.

I could not have been more stunned by his response. He inscribed to me a lengthy lecture regarding my behavior in recent years, and cautioned me strongly against using any more recreational substances.

“How could you be so stupid? What if that was what drove your mother insane?”

I was so angry that I responded with a letter containing the return address of an insane asylum and a detailed description of how my basket-weaving courses were going.

The last laugh was on me, though. Seems people were so ready to believe that I had gone off my rocker that they entirely missed the sarcasm of my missive. In return, I received delicately worded responses from other friends wishing me a speedy recovery.

My mother’s condition is not something I’ve advertised over the years. It’s hard to explain something like that. And it’s better not to try.

Because people do think of you differently, when they know. Consider my circumstances. My mother was violent and irrational. I lived in a state of constant fear, and after I left home, I lived in my car. It would have been crazy to expect me to be happy and well-adjusted. Yet no one ever looked at me and said, “All things considered, she’s doing pretty well.”

All things considered, I was doing pretty well. I made my own way in the world without any help from anyone – which is an achievement of which none of my “saner” friends can ever boast.

Yet there were still those who breathed a sigh of relief when I got to be old enough where it was unlikely that I would turn out to be schizophrenic. All those years of watching, waiting, and evaluating had finally drawn to an end.

I can’t guess what it’s like to be truly mentally ill. But I do know how the world treats those that are, and it isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s precisely why people like my mother never get treatment. Who would ever want to admit that they had a problem if they knew how harshly they were going to be judged for it?

My mother died in 2007. I no longer have to equivocate when people ask me about her.

“She’s dead,” I say simply.

People are sorry. I suppose that’s nice, that they’re sorry that my mother is gone.

But why wasn’t anyone ever sorry when I said she was ill?


Lori Schafer is a writer of serious prose and humorous erotica and romance. Her flash fiction, short stories, and essays have appeared in numerous print and online publications, and she is currently at work on her third novel. Her memoir, On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened: A Daughter’s Memoir of Mental Illness, is being released in November 2014; it is now available for Kindle pre-order. You can find out more about Lori by visiting her website at

By | 2015-02-17T11:47:31+00:00 August 31st, 2014|Categories: Brave People, Uncategorized|13 Comments


  1. Annecdotist September 1, 2014 at 3:24 pm - Reply

    Such a shame no-one saw what you were having to cope with and offered a helping hand. Not even at school where it was played out in front of them? All too often, children are left to parent both themselves and their parents.
    Hope your story of survival helps others.

    • Lori Schafer September 2, 2014 at 2:32 am - Reply

      I didn’t think much of it at the time, but looking back on the situation as an adult, it is rather stunning how little was done for me. The school board essentially forced my mother to allow me to come back to school by threatening to have me removed from the home – but it should have been patently obvious that no child had any business being in that house under any circumstances.

  2. Guest September 2, 2014 at 2:30 am - Reply

    I didn’t think much of it at the time, but looking back on the situation as an adult, it is rather stunning how little was done for me. The school board basically forced my mother to allow me to come back to school by threatening to have me removed from the home – but it should have been patently obvious that no child had any business being in that house under any circumstances.

  3. Charli Mills September 2, 2014 at 5:04 am - Reply

    Your last line really packs a punch. A different type of insanity permeated my growing up and while different, I can relate to many things you have endured. It’s frustrating to look back and realize that those who could have helped or should have intervened did not. Turning a blind eye is not compassion nor is it dealing with the issue that really impacts an entire community, yet left you burdened and alone. But you have created a foundation for yourself that many of your friends from those days or that town probably do not have. And that’s important to recognize as much as breaking down the stigmas. Thank you for sharing your story.

    • Lori Schafer September 2, 2014 at 1:47 pm - Reply

      I sometimes wonder what I would do if I encountered a child who was in a bad situation, like yours or mine. How far would it have to go, how much evidence would have to accumulate before I felt compelled to intervene? I’m definitely a big believer in minding one’s own business, but there doesn’t seem to be much excuse for overlooking what is obviously a very serious – and very public – problem. This was back in the days before school shootings were – I hate to say it – commonplace, but the idea that a woman like my mother, who was psychotic and dangerous, could have been allowed into a high school with all those students gives me the heebie-jeebies. At the very least, it seems as though there ought to be a societal mechanism for ensuring that a parent who is dysfunctional in a major way can receive treatment if they don’t seek it on their own.

      • Charli Mills September 2, 2014 at 2:27 pm - Reply

        I doubt you’d look the other way, but probably how you’d handle it would be based on the situation. It’s a tough call, what one might do. I once turned in a parent to authorities and another time took in a friend of my kids. When his mother sent the police to my house, I simply told them he was there and he was safe. They verified it was him. They asked him if he wanted to go home and he said no. Eventually he was removed and got to live with his grandmother. Then, my middle daughter took a knife away from a boy cutting himself and in his eyes she became “savior.” That led to an awful situation of him stalking her, obsessed with her. But the school protected him because he had a known (to them, not us) mental illness and had a “right to privacy.” Yes, I agree, but my daughter also had the right to feel safe. So I think it’s still a messed up system at our schools and the tragic school shootings that beset us nationwide are indicative of us not knowing how to handle mental illness and understanding who really needs protecting. Whew, heavy stuff, but important to talk about.

        • Lori Schafer September 2, 2014 at 3:59 pm - Reply

          Ugh, yes, even when these situations go well, they’re still pretty awful. You as a parent take a pretty big risk when you offer aid to a troubled child – just as your daughter did – which I think is why a lot of people would prefer to sit by and do nothing. I agree that we as a society are kind of clueless when it comes to handling mental illness. Perhaps mental health should be on the list of things that get evaluated at an annual physical. Instead, it tends to be treated the way many of us approach our health problems, by waiting until a situation is out of control before we consider doing anything about it.

          • Charli Mills September 2, 2014 at 7:56 pm

            I was scared when the police showed up, but firm in stating he was safe. But you know what? There was no conversation. And that’s what is problematic–we’re scared and not talking about the issues openly, trying to gauge what is in our best interest. Tougher laws or lapsed laws (like at school) still ignore the conversation. My daughter’s stalker was in high school, my daughter in middle school. He ran away from his school (where they kept trying to protect his privacy because mom was a local politician), ran 4 miles (!) to my daughter’s school, got inside, to her classroom and collapsed at her feet in class. This, after numerous incidents where he broke into our house, tried to commit suicide in front of my kids and ran away. He was committed for two days (during which the nurse let him call my house and he got my eldest on the phone telling her what he was going to do to our family because he was “crazy”). He also had several incidents at his school (running naked down the hall, trying to throw himself out of the window of the library) and we were told to shut up and “understand.” Fine, I felt for the family, I really did, but I had a daughter to protect and I wanted someone to help him not hide him. But here’s the question–who is that someone? My daughter’s school responded by going into lock-down (as if he were a shooter) and that scared me even more because I couldn’t get to her and she was being held inside with him! The high school never informed the middle school of what was happening again because of privacy issues. I’m going on…trying to figure out in my own mind…how do we really break down the stigmas that cause the fears and silence? Who helps and how? What do we do as individuals confronted with situations we don’t know how to handle?

          • Lori Schafer September 6, 2014 at 12:40 am

            I’ve been mulling over your comment for a couple of days, Charli, and you know what? I have no answer for you. I don’t know that there is an answer. The situation that you’re describing is almost incomprehensible. I mean, talk about terror! I do know one thing – privacy issues become moot when someone is a danger to himself or others, don’t they? Even psychiatrists get a confidentiality “out” when there’s real risk of physical harm, which it sounds like there was. I think the problem here is one of delicacy and understanding gone awry. This is clearly not a case of “walking” depression or anxiety; this kid obviously has some very serious problems requiring major intervention. It almost sounds as if the persons in charge simply wanted to pretend that there was no issue. Perhaps in that way, they could avoid having to do anything about it. Or what’s even scarier, perhaps they didn’t know what to do about it, either. Does anyone?

          • Charli Mills September 6, 2014 at 5:40 pm

            Thank you, Lori, for even trying to mull this over. I don’t think there are simple answers. I don’t think our schools know how to deal with these issues. “Wear orange” to stop bullying or “wear white” to show support of mental illness only shows how inept we really are at this. I am so sorry you had to go through what you did. I would have been that person who said this is BS and you are welcome in my home. My daughter still deals with the trauma of her situation, and all I can say is what she feels–what you feel from yours–is real. Validation. But what next? You’ve made a brave life for yourself, writing, traveling, speaking out on other causes as well as this. Those are all things others can learn from you and do.

  4. Norah Colvin September 2, 2014 at 11:25 am - Reply

    Great post, Lori. How I feel for you and the suffering you went through. It was not easy. And now you can simply say your Mum is dead, but the hurt still lingers I’m sure. Part of the fear I think is of the unknown. Not knowing how to respond. Not knowing what the person might do. Not knowing how to help, or if it’s contagious, or . . . so many irrational fears. I watched my sister suffer, and there was nothing nice about it. The fear of the stigma of association and the possibility of it being hereditary still haunts me and makes me reluctant to share. You have been very courageous in sharing your story. And I agree – why wasn’t anyone sorry when she was ill? You can be so abandoned when you are most in need!
    Look after yourself and stay strong! 🙂

    • Lori Schafer September 2, 2014 at 1:32 pm - Reply

      You’re absolutely right, Norah, there is a real sense of helplessness, I think, when it comes to being the loved one of someone who’s mentally ill. You don’t know what to do, and you can’t guess how the sick person is going to react to what you do choose to do. And the heredity issue is a big one. Every family has its black sheep, but if your grandmother is an alcoholic or your brother’s in jail, that at least doesn’t reflect personally on you. But if there’s a chance that you might one day suffer from the same affliction, that’s a different story, one that can be very scary to other people. I really can’t blame anyone for keeping quiet in that situation.

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