Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mother's Overdose

Mental Illness is not fun to deal with, when it strikes a family member.  When you are just a kid, it is even worse.

My Mother was not a happy person.  She tried to commit suicide many times in her life, and she also suffered from bi-polar disorder, alcoholism, and probably a few other things.  She was a closeted Lesbian for most of her life, in an era when being Gay was not only frowned upon, but ostracized.  I am not sure if that is what made her crazy or not, or maybe it just made it worse.

She and my Father argued often, and loudly, nearly from the time I was born.  It was very typical that they would come home from a cocktail party screaming at each other.  Or some argument would start once they had gone to bed.  And with each passing year, it got worse and worse.

I had largely forgotten, or tried to forget, the episode I will relate now.  I only recalled it recently, after several bottles of champagne with friends down in Florida.

I was about 13 years old at the time, as I recall.  I am not sure how the whole thing started - perhaps an argument she was having with my Father, perhaps something else.  I was home with my Father and my Brother.  My older Brother and Sister had graduated from college and were out on their own and no longer lived at home.

For whatever reason, my Mother decided to "end it all" and down a bottle of her tranquilizers, Librium.  I am not sure if you can O.D. on Librium or whether she was making a grand gesture (she was quite fond of the latter).  All I do recall is that my Dad decided "I'm out of here!" and he left. 

My Brother shortly followed suit, taking his clapped out muffler-less Chevy with him, to go visit his girlfriend.  And yea, he took his pot with him.

So, here I am, home alone, 13 years old, with a Mother who may or may not be dying in bed, with an empty pill bottle of Librium on the nightstand.  And of course, I am freaking out a bit and don't know what to do.

So I pick up the pill bottle and dial (yes, we had dial phones back then) the number of her doctor, using the red kitchen wall phone.  After talking to the receptionist, I am finally put through to the doctor and I am crying.  He sounds slightly annoyed by the whole thing.  It reminds me of when my dog died, and I tried to call someone about it, watching her convulse on the front porch - people being mildly annoyed by the whole thing, wondering what all the fuss was all about.  Maybe we should have had them both put down long ago.

He writes a prescription for syrup of ipecac, which was what killed Karen Carpenter and has since been outlawed.  Today, making people puke is not seen as the proper response in such situations.  Ipecac causes heart problems, which was what would eventually kill my Mother 25 years later.

I get my bicycle out of the garage and pedal off to the pharmacy, about 3 miles into town.  I pick up the Ipecac, which the pharmacist hands me with a grim look, and pay for it with my paper route money.  I wonder what he is thinking, this kid trying to get his Mom to puke after she OD's.  It is all a bit surreal.  And maybe he has seen this before.

So I pedal back home and give the medicine to Mother.  She is remarkably pliant for someone overdosing.  Perhaps she didn't take that many pills, perhaps she is enjoying playing out this little scene.  I am not sure which.  All I do know is, that someone is suppose to do something, that is, other than to go off and see their girlfriends.  And I am the only one left.  Perhaps they were hoping she would die?

She takes the medicine and a few minutes later heads off to the bathroom to vomit.  I ask her if she needs anything and she says no.  "I'm so sorry..." she says, and I tuck her in.  Before long, she is sleeping.  I call the doctor to see what to do, and he says to let her sleep.  So I go off to the living room and sit and wait.  There is damn little else to do.  No booze in the house, and my brother took all the pot.  So I read a National Geographic while sitting in the easy chair, and before long, I too, am asleep.  I dreamed.
Mental illness is an odd thing - and can be quite annoying to the people that have to deal with the mentally ill.  Throughout my life, I have known a number of people with fairly serious mental illnesses - they seem to be attracted to me like flies.  Roommates, Girlfriends, Boyfriends, acquaintances, coworkers - you name it.  Or perhaps mental illness is more common than we think, and having even a tenuous grasp on reality is something to be thankful for.

My Mother's case was pretty sad.  She attempted suicide a number of times in her life.  She went to the St. Catherine's School for Girls, and from what I understand, had to leave due to some sort of incident, which was either a suicide attempt or was followed by one.  A similar thing happened in college, where she was forced to drop out and continue her degree elsewhere.  Oddly enough, she would browbeat me later in life for dropping out of both prep school and college, although in my case, it was just a matter of too much partying, not dramatic suicide attempts.

Although, in prep school, my roommate, who was a little unbalanced, did try to do himself in, and I think one reason they tossed me out was to try to find someone to "blame" for this.

I never figured out why my Father married her.  After all, a psychotic, alcoholic bi-polar closeted Lesbian is not the first choice for most Men.  Perhaps she hid these tendencies very well.  Or perhaps my Father thought he was marrying into money.  Or perhaps he was a fool.  I sometimes wonder about this, trying to fit different pieces into the puzzle, before putting it aside like a half-finished Sudoku.  It was either a 3 or a 9, or possibly a 7.  I'll get back to it later.  But we never do.

Of course, her suicide attempt would not be the last, nor the last in a long string of craziness that I would have to endure, often alone at home.  I learned how to quickly and discreetly disable the car by removing the ignition coil wire, to prevent her from driving drunk.  How to water down the booze to prevent her from getting too drunk too fast.  How to disconnect the phone so she wouldn't call all her friends at all hours of the night.  But of course, none of these worked very well.  And eventually, I just let her go, perhaps secretly hoping she'd drive the Vega into a tree and save everyone a lot of trouble.

The incidents usually were the same.  My Father would call around 5 or 6 in the evening.  If I answered the phone, he would say "Just tell your Mother that I'm working late" or perhaps that he was "playing tennis".  When I offered to put Mom on the phone, he declined.  I quickly learned that it didn't pay to be the bearer of bad tidings.  And often this was enough to set of a drunken tirade, a fugue state that could go on until all hours of the morning.

"He's seeing that woman!" she would cry out, and then things in the house would start to get smashed.  My Mother had a large collection of faux Egyptian ceramics and other artifacts, as well as other tchotchke, such as ceramic birds - which would often take flight.  I became very adept at gluing things back together, after a time, and her collection of faux ceramics started to look like actual reconstructions from an archeological dig.  Paintings and wall hangings suffered a similar fate.  I ended up inheriting many of these, with dented and scratch frames and missing glass, which I have since had re-framed.

In her fugue state she would go off on several sorts of crying jags - "No one loves me" or that sort of thing.  At first, I would try to console her, "Well, of course we love you" - but that never worked.  No matter what you said, it just triggered another tirade.  As an experiment once, I tried agreeing with her.  "Yes, you are right, no one loves you!" I would reply, but the net effect was the same.  She just needed an emotional punching bag to beat on, and since I was the only one in the house without a driver's license, I could not escape.

Her violence would escalate over time, and she eventually developed a taste for knife play.  I recall one incident, as an adult, when I had returned home to go water skiing, got a little too tipsy to ride my motorcycle home, and decided to spend the night in my childhood bedroom, which of course, was a very bad idea.  Before long, the shouting began, and I heard my Father run up the stairs and barricade himself in my Sister's bedroom.

Suddenly, my bedroom door burst open, and in the thin moonlight, I could see my Mother in her nightgown, holding a kitchen knife in one hand, and a martini-on-the-rocks in the other, along with a lit True cigarette.  The moonlight glinted off the knife.  I could hear her congested breathing, "snuck, snuck" as she inhaled her own snot.  The ice in the glass tinkled as she swayed back and forth.  Amazingly, she spilled not a drop of her drink, nor dropped a single ash from the cigarette.  Priorities.

She peered at me in her alcoholic haze.  She was looking for a man to kill.  But I was not that man.  Not now, not tonight, at least.  I could almost see the mental process going on in her brain.  She wheezed and spun around and ran down the hall.  I could hear pounding.  I got up, closed the door, and locked it - and went back to sleep.  In my family, this was not a very remarkable event.

The next day, I woke up late and went down the hall.  The door to my Sister's bedroom was gouged with a series of scars - as if some animal was trying to claw its way in.  The kitchen knife was embedded squarely in the middle.  Both of my parents were nowhere to be found.  I quietly got dressed and started my motorcycle and left.

I grew up and left home.  My parents sold the house, needing the money for an unplanned early retirement.  They built a new, less expensive house in Maryland and retired there.  And on at least on occasion, she acted out her knife attack yet again, resulting the replacement of a bathroom door.
My Father endured my Mother's tirades for nearly 15 more years - which was poetic justice.  I really didn't feel sorry for him at all.  I wondered, sometimes, why he stuck it out.  For a while, they had talked seriously about divorce, when I was in my teens, but nothing ever came of it.  And perhaps they could not really afford it.  Mother did come into a small inheritance, and perhaps that is what kept them together in the end.
Over the years, her personality sort of eroded - washed away, leaving in its wake something that was an image of my Mother, but only a shadow of what was there before.  The Mother who made my school lunches and taught me how to tie my shoelaces was long gone, replaced with something far different and far less.

By the time she died - of congestive heart failure, after living two decades on a diet of cheap white wine and ice cream, and no exercise - I had already grieved for her loss.  The actual death was little more than a relief.

I  dreamt.

I awoke with a start.  It was dark out now, as the sun had just set.  There was still reflected light coming off the lake, which seemed to almost glow in the early evening dusk.  I went back to my parent's bedroom and hear my Mother snoring - making that 'snuck snuck' sound she would make for much the rest of her life as she suffered from constant post-nasal drip.  Still no sign of Dad or Brother.

I went back to the kitchen and made something to eat and then headed off to bed.  Tomorrow there would be school, and a book report due.  I would try to write it during early Study Hall.  Perhaps I could ask the teacher for an extension.  Although I wonder if using the excuse "My Mom tried to kill herself" was really wise - or whether she would believe it any more than "my dog ate my homework".  I decided not to say anything at all.

My Mother and Late Sister, in happier times...


  1. Having (mostly) survived a childhood with a similar level of dysfunction, I can deeply relate to this memoir. It sounds like you were the one sane, responsible person in the house and I know it is so tough to be that person, especially as a child. Namaste.

    I must admit that the warped environment of my formative years left me with a bit of mental illness of my own, though I prefer to call it mental injury. For the record, I wear it remarkably well. There are many of us with mental injury who do not lash out at others. In fact, the hard work of exploring and learning to control the rich labyrinth of my psyche has made me better than most at understanding how to recognize, traverse and even utilize my moods. I like to call it riding my own wave.

    A couple of assumptions I'd like to share:
    1) The role of adult child is a heavy one, but one that can greatly strengthen our very souls. That strength often takes a long time to develop, with all manner of broken relationships, confused interactions and inappropriate feelings of guilt in between, but it still comes to us, nonetheless.

    2)It sounds like your father had a significant hand in your mother's illness. People who love as deeply as a bipolar can be broken by emotional abandonment and abuse.

    However, that doesn't lesson your mother's guilt in hurting you, because at my lowest times, I have always loved my children gently and safely. There are even times when I'm so deeply distressed that I claim a headache or other physical (read: acceptable) ailment so that I can hide in the room until it passes to keep them from witnessing my emotional duress.

    I hope that there are some memories of your mom that are filled with love. I've learned to love the broken people in my life - I just have to keep adjusting the distance in order to keep my own sanity, but I no longer allow the bad memories to block out the loving ones. The good ones are still valid. In my world, if you drop your ice-cream cone, you can scrape off most of it, but still enjoy the sweet center.

  2. Some times the best thing to do is to cut your losses and move on.

    It is irrational to believe that your life should be viewed through the prism of your childhood or family years.


    Yet, many people do just that, wasting 50 years of their lives trying to "figure out" the first 20...

    There ain't a lot to "figure out" about bat-shit crazy people. Just walk away from them!

    They dead now, anyway.