When you think about mental illness, what words come to mind? Crazy, insane, dysfunctional? What images come to mind? A homeless person pushing a shopping cart, mass shootings at a college or high school? Movies such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Sybil, or Mommy Dearest? Or perhaps one of the newer movies such as A Beautiful Mind, Fisher King, or As Good As It Gets. Whatever one’s images and perceptions of mental illness may be, they often rely on stereotypes.
If someone with a mental illness were one-dimensional, it would be easy to sustain certain opinions, but as I have learned from my own experiences, there are as many dimensions to someone who has a mental illness as any other human being. Just as those who have an illness such as diabetes, cancer, or rheumatoid arthritis are not completely defined by their illness; ultimately it is just one aspect of their life. If left untreated and as any illness progresses, it may come to consume more of that person’s existence, but never does it completely consume every aspect of their being.
Granted, an illness that affects one’s brain can be more challenging because it becomes a filter through which one views the world. Yet, as I learned from living with my mom, who had schizophrenia, there are good days and bad, and one cannot discount all of the good because of the trying moments.
I’d like to first share a few of my favorite memories of my mom. When I was little she had a few songs she liked to sing to me….”You Are My Sunshine”and “Hush Little Baby” She loved being outdoors, and grew the biggest pumpkins I’ve ever seen, along with berries, herbs, and a variety of exotic flowers. She loved taking drives in the country, and whenever we passed a barn with Mail Pouch Tobacco written across it, she would start singing “Chew Mail Pouch Tobaccy” and we would join in loudly.
I’ll never forget when my mom found out she was pregnant with each of my sisters and danced around the kitchen with excitement until the floor was dotted with scuff marks. When we went camping at Houston Woods and she was pregnant, her cravings for peach ice cream led her to buy a huge tub of it which we all devoured at the park, sitting on a soft bed of pine needles under a canopy of trees.
She was one of the first people to see my daughters after they were born, and she loved showing them her favorite rock collections when they got older. She loved spending time with them and sharing her interests in gardening and nature.
I think I inherited my love of birds from my mom, as she often had pet parakeets. She also loved turtles, and it wasn’t uncommon to see one bathing in our bathroom sink at some point during the day, or eating a dish of scrambled eggs she made specially for it.
When I was away at summer camp, I looked forward to receiving my mom’s cards and a few trinkets thrown in with them, including my favorite lady bug necklace. One Easter, she went to great lengths to hide clues around the house, leading to small treats and ultimately the beautiful Easter Basket she had prepared the night before.
Her favorite Christmas album was by Andy Williams, and I remember sitting up with her late at night during one Christmas season in the glow of the Christmas lights, listening to that album and having a heart to heart talk. She loved reading and learning, and there was always a copy of the Reader’s Digest sitting out with the word of the day highlighted or underlined. She loved eating nuts and hot, spicy foods, and our favorite quote of hers was “it’s super good with hot sauce”. She loved riding her bike, and could outride me and my sisters any time, with her hands held high above her head as she cruised along.
I’m grateful for all of the ways my mom managed to enjoy life, despite her illness. It taught me how important it is to savor the good times.