In honor of Mental Health Awareness Week (the first week of October) listener Priscilla Dan Courtney shares this personal essay.
The stigma and shame associated with mental illness undercuts our efforts to reach those in need. It is in this vain that I chose to write my story in an effort to encourage families and loved ones to not keep it hidden.
When I was in 4th grade I wore the same aqua pleated skirt, white blouse, dark blue sweater and knee socks everyday in the month of December. And sometimes I would change my underwear. It was because my mother left and went “away” that month. When I missed her, I’d smell her brown corduroy coat in the front closet. She was different than other mothers. She was a journalist so she typed a lot. She didn’t smoke or watch TV, especially never soap operas, she cooked but didn’t like to and sometimes was so sad that she would lie on the floor in the living room. When she wasn’t sad, she taught us to read and write, to bike, to swim, skate, ski, laugh and go to museums. But I was always scared she would kill herself when she was sad, like John G.’s mother who had 7 children and ran out on to the Saw Mill River Parkway after the kids left for school. She might find a way to leave me for good, not just go away to Four Winds, where she couldn’t bring her Listerine because some people drank too much of it.
It was a dark afternoon that December when she started to leave me. This time she wasn’t lying on the floor but in bed – under the covers, lying there talking crazy.
“They may get me if I get up.”
“Maybe Mommy if you just get up and make chicken for dinner, chicken would be good.”
It didn’t help. My mother’s bed was empty in the morning, her bedspread pulled up to cover over the memory of the day before. Christmas came and went and we didn’t hang cookies on the tree for our dog to eat and topple the tree like most years. I went to the neighbor’s house every day after school until my Dad would come home and bring meatballs from the delicatessen for dinner.
“She will come back soon sweetie, she just has to be away for awhile.”
We visited her once in a huge stone house with lots of bedrooms. She stood at the top of too steep stairs and held out her hands. I let her hug me tight and she was no longer talking crazy. My Dad was right; she did come home. I asked her one afternoon as she was looking through mail and buzzing around the kitchen like she did when everything was okay in the world,
“Where did you go Mommy?”
“Please don’t ask that honey. We will never, ever talk about it again.