By Stephen Trumper
Whenever I hear a news story about police and a distressed person with a mental health concern, I think of my Mom. Whenever I go by a homeless person passed out on the street, I think of my Mom. Whenever I learn about institutional mistreatment of people with mental illness, I think of my Mom.
Schizophrenia (plus other medical issues) took my Mom away 41 years ago this autumn. I know for sure that she never had a major confrontation with the cops. Nor was she ever homeless, though several times she did live away from home— in mental health hospitals and, in her final few years, at a rural group home where she, and her meds, were closely monitored. But knowing how far and fast people with major mental health concerns can plummet, the two human catastrophes described above could have easily happened to her.
As for institutional mistreatment, I’m not sure. My Dad, who passed away in 1987, never suggested that there had been any serious incidents of physical harm. He was remarkably candid with me throughout childhood and adolescence about Mom’s sudden descents into rage, paranoia, and irrationality. Still, I wonder. Back in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, periods in which Mom had been sent away to psychiatric hospitals, there was little to no transparency about what was really going on behind closed doors. I’ve since read enough to know that physical abuse of patients in these places was not uncommon.
Was she ever hurt? I just don’t know, and the thought she might have been continues to haunt me. So does my imagined image of the fear on her face as she was escorted inside the kind of facility few entered of their own accord.
There were times when my Mom, in full schizophrenic fury, terrified the boyhood me. I have witnessed her physically attack my Dad, drawing blood on a few occasions. I have watched as she frequently phoned her Mom and screamed at her at length, then, a few minutes later, picked up the phone again and screamed at my Dad’s mother.
There were also times when my Mom, in schizophrenic fantasy, unnerved me. I have observed her sitting for hours, laughing hysterically at I know not what.
I was frequently jolted awake in the middle of the night by Mom playing, at maximum volume, a recording of Handel’s Messiah. Why did it speak so strongly to her and why, at that time of night, at that volume?
Perhaps not surprisingly, I came to form an intense dislike of the Messiah, which I came to associate with all my bad memories of Mom. I vowed never to listen to it again. Then, one day, a few years after Mom’s passing, it came on the radio, at a regular volume. I paused. Listened for a bit, then listened more intently. Pure musical beauty.
That moment helped speed up a process that had already begun, initiated, in part, by my wife, Judy. She wanted to know more about Mom, who she didn’t ever get a chance to meet. Before Judy, I didn’t talk much to anybody, except my Dad, about Mom. Who else could even comprehend what young, disabled me was going through? But what Judy, and Handel, released in me was a much more positive perspective of my Mom.
In the past I had mostly dwelled on the darker memories and the sadness that schizophrenia brings to people diagnosed with it and their families, too. But, slowly, Judy drew out of me happy memories, reminding me not just of the depth of her mother-love but the vibrant, smart, witty, creative woman she often could be.
For far too long, due to the lingering trauma of what I had heard and seen of schizophrenic Mom, I had pushed away wonderful memories of lovely Mom,
my go-to gal whenever childhood disability overwhelmed, the caring woman who once made me a birthday cake of a train with five separate cake-cars and, later, sewed me a new shirt with carefully stitched Velcro strips instead of hard–to–manipulate buttons.
For the past several years, when I am alone in the house late at night and thinking deeply about Mom and all the complexity she faced, I often put on my own copy of Messiah and, without hesitation, turn the volume up real loud.
Mom was right. It’s much better this way.
Stephen Trumper serves on the board of the Canadian Abilities Foundation. He is an independent writer and editor. He is also a journalism instructor at Ryerson University.