I’ve often been asked about when my mom became sick. For many years, I believed that her illness emerged when she was 32, and that was the magic age I thought that I too would inherit her illness. Once I crossed over that age, I thought I would feel like I was out of the woods but I soon discovered that my worries went much deeper than that. It wasn’t about an age or even an illness. It was about an ongoing desire to meet certain standards that I deemed to be “normal” so that people wouldn’t think I was “crazy”. It has taken a long time to figure this out and let go of those ideas, and I finally feel free enough to examine my perceptions more closely.
It is only recently that I have allowed myself to contemplate my beliefs about when my mom’s illness emerged and have discovered the inaccuracy of my assumptions. My dad confirms that she had many symptoms even before she married him at age 21, and I now realize that 32 was actually my mom’s age when I became aware of her illness. Prior to that, I had no way of understanding or comprehending her behaviors, since that is all I had ever known. When my mom told me at age 3 or 4 that our neighbors wanted to take me into the woods and lose me, I believed her. When she woke me up late at night to rant about things I didn’t understand until my father would come in and tell her to leave me alone, it was just part of a routine to which I’d become accustomed.
During those early years, I clung to my dad and brother, never straying far from either of them. In retrospect, I recall feeling calm and safe when I was around them, and insecure most of the time when I was around my mom. Recent conversations with my dad confirm that I went through a lot with my mom, because I was the focus of much of her paranoia, but faded memories have spared me many of the details of those earliest years at this point.
Since I started this blog, I have been pleasantly surprised at my recent memories of the early days with my dad. I fondly recall sitting by his side drawing while he watched the Daytona 500, the whoosh of the cars on the track providing a soothing background. He would occasionally reach over and help me to analyze the proportions of my drawings or provide suggestions on shading. These were the best afternoons. Sunday mornings were my favorite, as my mom would sleep in, and my dad would make home-made donuts while we read the comics and prepared our next project for the Cappy Dick contests.
I couldn’t wait for my dad to get home from work, as he often had special paper or pencils for me and would tell me stories about the people in the office. Then we would go out to the backyard and he would teach me how to twirl a baton or toss baseball with my brother and me. Whenever he worked on a project in the garage, office, or family room, the sound of his classical music would wind its way up to my room, letting me know he was near-by. Whenever I was sick, it was my dad who took me to the doctor, tucked me into a freshly made bed, and brought me little treats each day. He was the one who taught me to ride a bike, do a back flip off the diving board, throw a football, and shoot a bow and arrow.
Thinking back on that time, I realize how much my dad sheltered me from my mom’s illness, providing a protective barrier between us whenever possible. When things got bad, I would retreat to my bedroom, but I came to expect my dad’s visits to my room to talk, and I always felt comforted afterwards. He was trying to explain something he still didn’t understand, while providing reassurance that everything would be okay, and I quietly soaked in every word.
The early years were easy compared to what was in store for us, as my mom’s illness progressed and my two sisters were born. These changes coupled with my dad’s job loss and financial pressures related to poor insurance coverage presented new challenges for our family. By the age of 11, my cocoon of denial was stripped away, and I was left to spend many of the years ahead figuring out how to cope.