My mom used to take me to her psychiatrist appointments. I’d bring Pogs. I was nine. She’d leave me in the waiting room by a wooden bench and a table covered in back issues of The New Yorker. I was always alone in the waiting room. Sometimes I’d lie on the bench. Sometimes I’d lie under the bench. Sometimes I’d lie half on the bench and half off. Sometimes I’d cover half the fifty-square-foot waiting room in cardboard circles.
I’ve read a lot of articles about this, probably fifty over the past month. I’ve learned that depressed mothers are less responsive to their infant’s signals. “Their facial expressions and displays of emotion [are] more muted or flat, and their voices [are] monotone.” Depressed parents “can alter their children’s patterns of genetic activity,” too. Twenty-three percent of people have “Major Depressive Disorder” or “Major Depression,” as WebMD calls it. It’s increasing with every generation. One in nine Americans over age twelve currently takes antidepressants.
She talked about running away a lot. Whenever my dad or I would joke about the application of nutmeg on a helping of sweet potatoes, she would say, all of a sudden, “I’m running away.” She would shake her head. And then she would elaborate: “I’m going to pack my things.” But she wouldn’t go anywhere. She would just stand there, bottom lip vibrating, holding one of those large sharp spoons made to cut casseroles. And we’d sit there, laughing, while her face got red and she turned around and started to wash the spoon.
Do you remember when I dialed 911? When you lie awake at night, flipping through your memories, how do you rationalize my dialing 911? I mean, it was kind of funny, right? I think you laughed about it — I think we both laughed about it a few weeks ago! It was June, and I was in ninth grade, and you were throwing yourself a pity party in the kitchen, and I was trying to tell you that no, people DO care about you, and no, I WOULD miss you if you ran away, and then you said “that’s it” and opened the knife drawer and picked up a carving knife, so. What else was I supposed to do? In Kindergarten we practiced dialing 911. It was a reflex, I think.
They knocked on the door — two of them. “Is there an issue?” they said.
Mental illness is a lot like Maria in The Sound of Music. How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand? Well, you can’t. You can’t really hold chemicals in your hands, either. You can’t really trade chemicals. You can’t be a dopamine philanthropist. You can’t give a handful of dopamine to a kid and tell them to save it for later. You can’t take serotonin and inject it straight into someone’s head and watch their face light up. Or maybe you can. I know nothing about the brain.
Remember when we’d go to Florida and run through the rain back to our hotel? You’d hold my hand — I was probably six or seven — and run with me under the palm trees. It was like we were running from a stampede of serial killers but it was just rain! Happy liquid hammers hitting us on the head and neck and shoulders and legs. I wish it could rain every day. I wish you could hold my hand and run me through it, past piers and wet sand, the two of us running faster than all the slowpokes and umbrellas.
Here are some things I’d like to ask my mother: If you had to compare yourself to a fruit, which would you compare yourself to, and why? How “thick” would you say your “skin” is? What did you hope I’d do that I have not done? How often do you Google me? What is the one thing you’ve never told anyone? What are you most afraid of? When you’re feeling sad, what really makes you feel better? Is this why you eat yogurt so much? Are there certain triggers that you know will make you depressed — like, certain smells or colors or flavors? How many analogies do you have for your illness? Can we set up time for me to ask you all of these things in a row? And for me to write down the answers?
My mom weighed nearly 150 pounds when I was in tenth grade. Last year, she weighed almost 90 pounds. Taking psychotropic medication means giving up control over your mind and body, handing the keys to a psychiatrist who reads The New Yorker as you stay up at 2 a.m., sweating and shaking. I know it’s not like this for everyone, but it really makes you wonder. What’s harder?
There’s this psych study I think about a lot: depressed and non-depressed people were asked to play a video game where they had to kill tiny computer-generated monsters. The game lasted an hour. At the end, they were asked how many tiny monsters they’d killed. The depressed people’s responses were roughly accurate. The non-depressed people reported killing ten to fifteen times the number of monsters they’d actually killed.
When you call me in a #dark mood, have you noticed that I only ask questions?
You: You’d be fine if I weren’t here.
Me: What makes you think that?
You: Don’t worry about me.
Me: How could I not worry about you? Don’t you remember I just said “I love you”?
You: Just don’t bother.
Me: Where is this coming from? Is there a better way for you to respond to this feeling?
You: It’s just not worth it.
Me: What did you say? I couldn’t hear you? Is this a bad connection? Is AT&T being weird today? Are you hearing static or is it just me?
Persistence is severely underrated. The ability to try again even when it seems silly, even when you’re running yourself straight into a brick wall, even when you know you’ll fall down again, when you’re genetically predisposed to fall down again, and again, and again.
When I think of how many times you’ve gone to bed upset, how many times you’ve come close to ending everything, how many times you’ve yelled at people you love, how many times you’ve cried at people you respect, how many legs of how many childhood road trips you’ve ruined with an expletive from the passenger’s seat — “HONEY YOU ARE GOING TO FUCKING KILL ALL OF US IN TWO SECONDS!” — I don’t know how you do it.
I don’t tell you this enough, but you set a very good example. I watched you wake up and peel an orange. I watched you plant a garden in our backyard. I watched all the tomatoes die. I watched you plant the tomatoes again. I watched you cry at the kitchen table and get up to wash a casserole dish. I watched you drop the dish in the sink. I watched you pick it up. I watched you keep washing it. If I’m ever successful, it’s because of this. It’s because of you. How can someone keep going after falling down so many times?
The car. There were too many stoplights. There were around ten stoplights for every pole. It was like there were Christmas ornaments of stoplights, red strings of stoplights, an Armageddon of stoplights.
You were driving, taking me to the train station. It was dark. Probably 8 p.m. on a Friday. Thanksgiving. The moon was almost-full. The kind of almost-full where you wonder if it’s really full or not, and you want to Google it, but we were at a stoplight and my phone was dead. We’d had a good weekend! I’d shown you how to put your phone on “Do Not Disturb.” You’d shown me how to baste a turkey. We’d watched Mrs. Doubtfire.
You started to cry. You started to cry and hit your head against the steering wheel. You started to cry and hit your head against the steering wheel and say, “I am a bad mother I am a bad mother I am a bad mother I am a bad mother I am a bad mother I am a bad mother I am a bad mother I am a bad mother I am a bad mother I am a bad mother” and someone beeped and I had to catch my train and I think I said “no” in the voice people use when they talk to plants or babies. Tried to hug you. The light turned green. My train was in five minutes. I got out and left you in the car.
Here are some things I’ve learned from my mom: People hurt each other. They don’t want to. They don’t know why. When people are close enough, they’re like layers of sedimentary rock. Bear with me on this — they’re like layers of sedimentary rock that press down on each other so hard you can’t tell they’re two people at all. If you had to count the layers of sedimentary rock at the Virgin Formation in Utah, for example, you wouldn’t be able to. It would look like a hundred just as easily as a thousand. So many layers, it’s hard to count! This isn’t the best metaphor, I know. I’m sorry. The point is that no one knows how many layers of sedimentary rock there are, that’s all.
My mother is clinically depressed. She will call me sometimes, like on a recent Friday night, to tell me that I am “irresponsible” and “a disappointment.” Comes out of nowhere. There are articles on WikiHow that tell me how I should react to this, but I still don’t know how.
Dilemma. I know that (1) it’s not her fault, and I should respect her, because she wiped my butt when I was a baby and paid for me to learn how to read, but I also (2) do not always have the strength to stay on the phone as she pours hot water into my ear, especially when I only just reached the age where I can legally rent a car, and I can’t afford to sacrifice any grains of hard-won self-esteem right now. But then I wonder: Is she right?
The next time my mom pours hot water in my ear, I will turn myself into a love grenade. I love you, I will say. I have always loved you. I love you more than you will ever know. I love you until the sun sets and the table falls and the tomatoes die and the soil dries and the garden grows and grows and grows and dies.
I love you with the force of a million Pogs. I love you like four thousand brisket dinners on brown tablecloths with embroidered tulips. I love you like cottage cheese snowmen! I love you like, that wasn’t even funny, was it? I love you like monsoons in Florida. I love you like running away. I love you like fifteen malls where everyone is too tired to buy anything so all they do is sit on backless benches and talk. I love you like bad writing. I love you like contrasting colors. I love you like rain pounding wet sand at sundown.