For About and By Caregivers
Schizophrenia: My Other Mother
By Mark Ellerby


As far back as I can remember, there was always something a little “left-of-center” about my mother’s behavior. She was a highly intelligent woman who had worked in medicine during the ‘50s, prior to my birth in the early ‘60s. My father was completely devoted to her in every way, and seemed almost protective of her. They had a great, solid marriage, but little did I know that there was something seriously wrong, brewing just underneath the surface, and that both of my parents were working very hard to try and hide it.

When my mom would get angry towards me, it was over things that had no rational basis to them, seemingly created in her own mind. As a small child, I never knew what would set her off, because the rules seemed to change everyday, sometimes every hour. What had made her angry yesterday, was what made her laugh today. What made her laugh an hour ago sent her into a verbal and physical rage towards me in the next hour. When my father wasn’t around, her delusions and paranoid behavior became more apparent. If someone rang our doorbell or knocked on our door, a flood of quick, precise, and silent hand signals would come from my mother, instructing me to quietly crawl (not walk, because the person on the porch may “sense” sudden movement) from where I was towards a room in the back of the house, where I was to sit very still until the “danger” had passed. The reasoning for my exit to the back-of-the-house, according to her, was so that the people standing on the front porch wouldn’t hear us breathing behind the front door, or spy any possible movement from within the house.

During these bizarre hide-and-go-seek rituals, my mother was usually selecting which blind was best for her to begin her surveillance upon the unsuspecting intruder. Even if it was a family member, anyone who was unannounced and standing on our front porch became the “enemy.” After several unsuccessful tries of trying to rouse some life from within our house, these poor would-be visitors would look at our car in the driveway, look up at my mother’s bedroom window, and scratch their heads as they were leaving. Once they were gone, I was not immediately allowed out of my exile, because, as my mother would say, “They may come back because they think we’re really home, so give it a few more minutes, just to make sure the coast is clear.” Once this “coast” of hers was clear, I would be allowed to move freely about the house, however, not before I was “briefed” on what my mother saw while she was peaking out of the blinds. She would tell me who it was, what they were wearing, what type of vehicle they were driving, and then she would begin the “pondering.” This would take her the majority of the day, where she would ponder upon why so-and-so would come to our house, and what were they “really” up to. As a small child, I would keep my mouth shut and let her conduct both sides of this conversation, but, she did like to bait me. She would begin simply enough by asking me, “Why do you think so-and-so came here, without even calling ahead?” I would then offer something neutral like, “I don’t know.” However, this was usually not an acceptable answer, so she would repeat the question in a less-than-friendly tone this time. Her tone and a particular look that she would get in her eyes were my clues to how crucial it was that my next answer be the one she wanted to hear.

Already as a young child, I knew I had to “play” my mother like a chess game, carefully placing each piece on the board, for I was fearful of what would happen to me if I was incorrect. On rare occasions I felt brazen enough to tell my mother the truth as to “why” a particular individual had tried to call upon us. I would usually say something logical, like “They stopped by because they’re family or because they are a dear friend.” This was not the correct answer, according to my mother’s paranoid rational. It would be at this point when she would realize that I was really on the “other” side, the side that was against her, the side on which the visitor belonged, and we were all really up to something. We were all conspiring against her, and for the next couple of hours, I was treated like a prisoner of war, being interrogated as to what I “really” knew about the visitor and why they had really come to our house. After many tears and cowering in the corner, I was allowed to go to my room, and she would go to bed because my “antagonism” had exhausted her. This was one of many different, strange customs I was put through while growing up, and these incidents worsened after the death of my father. I was scared to death to be left all alone with only my mother as my parent. I was able to confide in my father, some of the strange things that went on while he was away at work all day. He would simply offer a big hug, and make me feel validated by taking me out for ice cream or to an amusement park; some place far away from her, so that I could forget for a while.

 Almost 30 years later, some things haven’t changed. After years and years of trying to get my mother medical and psychological help, to no avail, mentally and emotionally exhausted, I finally moved 3,000 miles away so that I could tend to the needs of my own family. My mother lives in California, where people with mental illness are not allowed to be kept by a facility for more than 72 hours, even if something is found to be wrong with them, and medication can not be forced upon them, only merely suggested. In physically distancing myself, I was hoping to emotionally disconnect a bit, and also to make sure that my own children weren’t exposed to their grandmother’s mental illness as I had been at such an early age. Sure enough, 3,000 miles wasn’t far enough away. She’s always on my mind, and I always worry about whether she’s eating or if she’s physically okay. You see, my mother owns a lot of property, and has made some savvy real-estate investments over the years because of her extreme intelligence, however, the shame of it is that she is unable to enjoy any of her small fortune, because she lives like a street person. My last “major” incident with my mother and her mental illness came to me via a phone call that woke me up at 3 am. I was half asleep when I answered, but once I heard the hysterical voice of my mother on the other end, I was bolted into a waking terror of reality and trauma. She could barely breath, and she was whispering at points, and then shouting for her very life at other points, all the while, talking so fast that I couldn’t piece anything together.

At first I thought that she was being attacked during a home invasion, because she kept referring to “them” and “they.” She screamed into the phone, “Wake up, because I don’t know how long I have, and there’s a good chance that I will be killed tonight! They’re here. They’ve been here for a long time, and I was afraid to let anyone know, because no one would understand! Here are the names of the banks that I have accounts in; are you getting a piece of paper to write this down on?!? Hurry, hurry! They’re coming for me! I’m afraid I won’t make it to the morning if they have they’re way.” My blood ran cold, and it was everything I could do to keep myself calm, trying to figure out what I could do to get my mother immediate help from authorities even though I was 3,000 miles away. My family was awake, and everyone was hovering around me. The kids wanted to know what was wrong with grandma, and my husband wondered if he should try to call authorities from his cell phone, while I was still on the line with her. We decided that this would be the best action to take, and as I was telling my mother that my husband was calling authorities to her house, she pleaded with me for him not to do that, because “they” would definitely kill her if “they” knew the authorities were on there way.

After hours of being on an emotional roller coaster ride entirely over the phone, it was almost time for me to get ready for work. Naturally, I was going to call in and say that I had a family emergency, but then my mother became oddly calm. She began to tell me that the intruders weren’t home invaders, but that they were beings from outer space or from the devil, and they had entered her body and were beginning to “morph” her into their shape. She said that the calm she was experiencing was because the worst part was over, or seemed to be over, with “them” having taken her body over. At this point, I knew I was dealing with the disease, and not with my mother or some dangerous home invader. It had been a long, exhausting night, and it was the beginning of over a year of such nights. At one point, I had to fly back home because my mother was “missing.” The police finally found her living in her car behind a convenience store. She said that the “aliens” hadn’t found her there yet, and because of that fact, she was able to finally sleep. She refused to be taken to a facility for observation, so there was nothing further the authorities could do, except tell her that she couldn’t live in her car behind the store.

 That was over seven years ago, and my mother still has yet to receive proper medical help. Partly because the laws protect her right to refuse medical help, and partly because the medical professionals that I’ve taken her to see aren’t interested in her case. Luckily, the “aliens” have been bothering my mother less and less, and where they were once the main topic of highly energetic phone calls on her part, they no longer are mentioned when we talk. That’s not to say that they aren’t still there, or that they won’t reappear when she comes under some sort of stress. When I was an angry teenager, I hated her, and not the disease. I now love her, and hate her disease, knowing that she has done the best she could with what she had to work with; the biggest shame being that her extreme intelligence could have taken her any where, but it instead helped to contribute towards her illness. Don’t get me wrong. There were moments, as there are still moments, when I get my mother “tuned” in, like with a radio station and a receiver. She is lucid, articulate, charming, enchanting, brilliant, and actually makes a lot of sense. During these episodes, when I’ve had her frequency free of mental static and demons, I’ve had the best of moms. She introduced me to culture, to art, to opera, to classical music, to literature, to cinema, and to life in its greatest sense, and with such verve! She could be a June Cleaver and a Martha Stewart all rolled into one, but the disease could make her more like a Joan Crawford or Frances Farmer. Either way, I am grateful for my experiences with her. As a child, I was hurt and frightened by what I didn’t understand, and as a young adult, I was full of hate and anger over something I didn’t understand. As an adult who is approaching her 40’s, I find that I am full of love, compassion, sympathy, and most of all, forgiveness towards my mother, but it will always remain as something that neither she nor I will ever fully understand.

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