So Judge Me: Lessons From My Mother’s Mental Health Disorder

mental health disorder

I leaned over and cheerfully kissed my terminally ill mother,
then went off on a week long holiday.

I never heard her voice again, as she had a catastrophic stroke while I was gone.
I opted not to cut short my trip, and she died a week after my return. 

So judge me.

They say you can’t judge someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes, but can that ever be more than just a cliché, since the most damning “jury” is often internal?

If we’re lucky, life experience tells us there are mitigating circumstances in pretty much every situation. But when it gets right down to it, we still take a view. Personally, I’m comfortable with that, as I feel equally justified in “judging” anyone who reaches a conclusion about me without appropriate evidence. I will also work hard to forgive them for it.

Let me tell you about my mother.

Maimie was a lovely lady; pretty and kind and although 83 when she died, had retained pretty much all of her faculties and good physical health. She had had a husband who loved her unconditionally for almost fifty years; a healthy and independent son and daughter, and several grandchildren whom she adored, especially when they were young and fun.

She also suffered occasionally severe, mental problems, starting with the birth of her first child. But, in truth, she’d probably had a mental health disorder that was present and undiagnosed even in childhood.

As a teenager, she read the obituary columns in the local newspaper and said she liked the feeling of sadness – even over people she didn’t know. In a way, I always felt mum saw some form of glamour in tragedy. Not that she ever reveled in other people’s misfortunes; she just had a lifelong fascination with death, doom and disaster.

We joked towards the end that if ever anyone could enjoy a terminal diagnosis, it was Maimie. I knew she had planned her own funeral – right down to the Minister’s eulogy. A “Maimie was and Maimie did…” kind of thing.

However, after she died, I over-ruled her on her choice of photograph for the funeral. She had picked one where her eyes were glittering with mental illness. I chose one in which she was merely smiling. The flawed and human mum is the one I choose to celebrate and remember, not the one who tried to mask the bedlam within her mind.

I could never convince her that almost anyone is frail of mind at times; tortured by cruel thoughts manufactured within our own brains and subject to a raft of insecurities that could sink the boat if not managed by whatever means available.

I can wake up through the night and be terrified to put my foot over the edge of the bed, so sure am I that something terrible will happen if I do. In the cold light of day, I can reject this as downright silly, but it’s an overwhelming feeling at the time. No healthy mind is completely free of self-doubt, and no one with imagination can control the occasional flights of fancy that can range from ridiculous to panic inducing.

The tragedy is feeling unique in this, and feeling ashamed or unworthy as a result. My mother ultimately died of cancer but in many ways it was shame and lack of peace of mind that killed her. If I am honest, I’m sometimes terrified about going the same way. So far I’ve been lucky. Always finding ways to cope, even on dark days when I don’t like who I am or the hand I have been dealt.

Over the past four years, Maimie was beset by jealousy and discontent. No matter what she did, she was determined not to enjoy it. If she found enjoyment despite her efforts, she would then find a way to deny herself that outlet in future.

She was one hard nut to crack.

Maimie was regularly hospitalised toward the end. She hated it, of course, but all around her recognised she felt “safe” in an environment where she could surrender all sense of responsibility, yet still moan about every blessed thing.

Her Minister seriously struggled with her negativity. Her friends couldn’t cope with the attention seeking demands she made on them. She would set her chin at a defiant angle, even while crying out for the help she would not let in.

And she took overdoses. Apparently taking enough medication to fell a camel, mum would always ensure that she would be found, or sometimes called the ambulance herself. Medical staff implied that only a portion of the empty pill boxes was in her gut, suggesting that some had gone down the toilet un-ingested. I’ll never know.

The Other Diagnosis

Then she was diagnosed with cancer. Pretty much out of the blue and, by the time it was discovered, imminently debilitating and untreatable. Mum wasn’t remotely interested. Cancer was an unwanted distraction from her mental health disorder obsessions.

She was eloquent and lucid until the stroke removed her voice and ability to move; thankfully only a week before the end. Throughout, she’d insisted that she didn’t really have cancer – she was just pretending because she was a bad person.

It was through the support and encouragement of some marvelous friends that I was able, despite a heavy heart, to take the cruise I had planned with my partner. A much needed week abroad to celebrate a milestone in his life. He deserved that too.

I came back and was able to spend the last week with mum, and was right beside her as she slid quietly into the end of her life.

Two weeks before, however, when I reminded her that I was indeed taking the holiday and would not see her for a week, the look on her face was unmistakable. There was true surprise that I would actually go, mixed with a small measure of indignation, and an unmissable look of admiration, even pride. I left that ward smiling and resolute with mum – and was in howling bits by the hospital door. But, it was the right decision.

My mother’s last words to me were that of the old mum. The one who gave me the strength and confidence to be the woman I became, and so at odds with her own insurmountable negativity.

“Whatever you do, be happy.”

If you find yourself in the position of caring for an aging parent, you may find helpful advice here.


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