My story started in the Bronx. Northeast not the South of urban fairy tale. My mother had me her senior year in high school. Instead of going away to college as she dreamed, she went to local college(oddly next door to her high school). I have very few memories of those years obviously as it was almost 34 years ago. The earliest memory important to this story from my life is the day in second grade I was pulled from class and told my mother had just had a car accident. The year after that was the first major turnaround I experienced with my mother.
As the year wore on, my mother lost her job as an accountant and would spend her days and nights alone furiously writing and smoking cigarettes( she was and presently not a smoker she later said that her company would give the employees samples). By the third grade, I was being sent to my Catholic school with my uniform incomplete more often and my mother stopped paying tuition.
I had contracted the measles by the winter and my mother yanked me out of Catholic school and sent me to the nearby public school. My grandparents lived upstairs and were also the landlords, as my mother had stopped paying rent. I found out later my grandmother paid the electric for a few months but eventually my mother and I lived in a dark apartment until we took off to Chicago.
My mother had stopped talking around this time and got very angry when I would speak as well. She would scowl and violently point at the wall and when I would ask why, she would erupt in laughter and start speaking to herself in a hushed excited tone. We had tried to go to Washington D.C. At first but would end up sleeping in an office lobby and taking the train back.
On the trip back not a fare or a ticket was paid for as I followed the adult I had leaned on through the first eight years of my life through scheme after scheme on each mode of transportation. It was like being the actor in a play without a script. By the time we got home, she had fleeced the cab driver by saying she was going into the apartment for the money, grabbing me as she ran inside.
In my usual manner those days I tried to ask my mother what was going on, only to get the same scowl and violent pointing at our front door. The cab driver had gotten into the front door of our three apartment house and starting banging on our door. As I looked at the door and my mother clasping her hands begging me not to open the door, I realized I trusted the cab driver more and I raced to the door to open it, only to be dragged back by my hair. My legs turned to jelly and I went into a dream-like state, having one of my first experiences with dissociation. She threw me by my hair into the next room and ran to the door to talk to cab driver.
Everything became blurry from the shock and I was finally frightened by my mother. When she came back to the living room, she was holding a bottle of pills and a glass of water. She got my eye level pleading with me with clasped hands. She explained that I just needed to sleep as she opened the bottle and poured out a few pills. She was begging and pleading with me to take them and I took one. She kept insisting that I take more and I knew that was a bad idea. As an eight year old, I still knew that taking the dose she wanted would harm me.
The mental health professional that had me recount this story promised me my mother would never know. But my mother knew and would look at me with distrust in anger as she told me I betrayed her. Most of my hospital visits involved talks about trust. And betrayal.This was a year later and she would be in mental ward after mental ward with long disappearances. I would get to visit my mother when she would resurface every six months. My grandparents hoped the arrangement wouldn’t last long but it did.
I would live between my aunt and my grandmother for the rest of my childhood. Neither had an ideal living arrangement and I was often the scapegoat for a lot of anger. By the age of eleven life was sad and unbearable to me, but I had started to have suicidal thoughts when I was nine. My uncle got upset with me and reminded me that my presence was meant to be temporary. His exact words were”you’re like a dog you can be given away”. It’s when I realized that I was only a burden.
My grandmother’s favorite complaint was that I probably made my mother sick. If not by being a terrible child but by being the teenage pregnancy that ruined her life. My mother made an attempt to stabilize when I was nine. She watched the home shopping network all day and filmed herself with a large camera she bought with a credit card in a small room in my other aunts’s apartment.
My mother wanted me back and my grandmother couldn’t wait to get rid of me. My mother’s journey round this time centered around declaring possessions. Me, all the purses my aunts took when they had to pack all of our things, and government checks to re-start her life. I had to withstand about six months of this before I went back to my grandparents.
By eleven, I felt like unwanted furniture. My first suicide attempt was the the most frightening as I didn’t know what was going to happen. The next three became ways I could get anything sympathetic in my life. We can’t watch all families all the time, but at some point, my mother’s mental problems became mine to my family members.
Not only was I blamed for my mother’s illness, it started to become certain that schizophrenia would be my fate too. I was given a lot inaccurate information by an angry confused family and I had no safe place. So I created them with psych wards. I wonder if an outpatient program for children of mental illness would have prevented that?
The mental health system is in a conscious infancy, with half of it’s history detailing abuses such as lobotomies and electro shock therapy of sad reminders of times past. My family had prepared me for the certainty that I would be a victim of the same fate as my mother. But I wasn’t. I am now 34 years old and was never diagnosed.
Sasha Whyte is a 34 year old writer currently living in the Bay Area. She has written for Newsweek, the Red Umbrella Project, and Adanai.