“She’s afraid to tell me anything important, knowing I’ll only turn around and write about it. In my mind, I’m like a friendly junkman, building things from the little pieces of scrap I find here and there but my family’s started to see things differently Their personal lives are the so-called pieces of scrap I so casually pick up, and they’re sick of it.”—David Sedaris “Repeat After Me”
It started with a kick. My neighbor was trying to start a fight. He called me names and pushed me hard enough for me to stumble over my feet. We climbed the hill to get to our houses; I ignored him, all I wanted was to go home. “You know your mom’s crazy right? The whole neighborhood knows it. She’s having a breakdown because she’s nuts.” His voice was still whiny—it hadn’t dropped yet.
I whirled around so fast he didn’t have time to react. I don’t remember what I was thinking. Panic, probably. I was told to keep Mom’s secret, though I wasn’t sure what that was. I had to do something. It couldn’t spread.
My foot connected with his crotch and he fell hard. In the middle of our street, I stood over his curled-up body. His eyes were wide and wet. “My mom isn’t crazy.” We stared at each other; my voice didn’t sound like it belonged to me. It sounded somehow older, heavy. I threatened to tell his mom if he said it again and more bodily harm if anything was said to my mom.
I remember he called me crazy too. I don’t remember if I denied it or not.
We never talked about mental illness in my family; at least, no one talked to me about it. It seemed like for a long time, there was an image of the perfect American family that my parents were striving for. I wasn’t good at keeping my mouth shut so there were a lot of discussions happening when I wasn’t in the room. I caught bits when they thought I wasn’t paying attention. I heard things pressed up against the wall in our hallway, in the shadows, hoping not to be seen. What do you mean she has to see another therapist? She can’t stay in her room all day, it isn’t good for her. You need to get your rage taken care of, it’s getting worse. Erynn is asking questions I don’t know how to answer.
I didn’t realize the power behind these words until others pointed them out. I never caught how tense Mom’s smile was when she took me on surprise trips to Pizza Hut. I always thought we went because we both loved the personal pan pizzas, not to get me out of the house while Dad screamed and threw things. I didn’t realize why my sister preferred to be in her room all the time and why she didn’t want to be around me. I figured she thought she was too cool for me—she was a teenager. I didn’t bother with thinking about why all my family members acted skittish around their “special” doctor appointments. I didn’t even think to think about it.
I kicked my neighbor when we were in middle school. That’s when everything was coming together while at the same time falling apart. I had never seen Mom so sad, so broken. She was a new person, a person who never went out, who cried a lot, and who stared at walls. I thought parents were supposed to be invincible. As I held Mom in my arms while she sobbed, I knew that wasn’t true. I thought she was dying.
I didn’t tell her or Dad what happened. I was trying to be the good kid, trying to help in the only way I could. Trying desperately to stop the overwhelming helplessness I felt. I was terrified Mom was never going to come out of the darkness that surrounded her. It seemed to cover the house, growing stronger everyday, sticky and suffocating. Sometimes it felt like I had to put my hands out in front of me to stop its crushing force. Only as soon my hand made contact, it would get sucked in.
When I finally managed to pry out what was happening to Mom from Dad, his words surprised me: I didn’t want you to be afraid. I remember saying, Should I be? What’s a mental illness?
I didn’t spend too much time thinking about it, too worried about myself. Worried whether the misery I felt was teenage angst or something more sinister. I wondered if my neighbor was right. Was I crazy? Was that sticky darkness in my DNA?
Looking back, I think my family was trying to protect me, but I wish I had known something. Instead of bliss, ignorance became damaging—a catalyst for self-loathing. I am ashamed to admit this, but I was afraid of my family. My sister was sad and angry and scary to seven-year-old me. Mom was broken in ways that I didn’t know or believe a human could be at thirteen. Then there was my father with his rages, which just felt normal by the time I was fifteen. I couldn’t say a thing about it to anyone. No one was allowed to know what went on inside the walls of our house. I felt like I had to hide them, to protect them.
But also to protect myself. I was embarrassed. Middle school was hard enough—anything odd or strange is a beacon for bullies. How could I explain the situation to a bunch of teenagers when I didn’t even understand what was happening myself? How could I stop them from calling my family crazy? How I could protect them while still distancing myself?
Since I couldn’t talk about it, I wrote. I would write questions that no one would answer. I would try to come up with ways to explain the situation. I would write shameful complainants that I would later tear up with my bare hands. The only consistent thing was fear. A lot of which came from the darkness. It made me look at Mom like she was a dangerous creature that would attack me. Shoot me with something poisonous that would attach itself to me. I often wondered why I was so afraid. It was my mom—she loved me. It was only after I got older that I started to understand.
It has taken me a decade to put the apprehension I felt into words. It was seeing the people I was closest to get sucked into tarry quicksand. They’d try to pull themselves out, only to be coated in that sticky residue. Eventually they would grow tired, give up, and disappear. It was painful to watch in slow motion, unable to offer something for them to pull themselves up with.
The fear turned inward as I got older, closer to the age my sister was when she first developed her Bipolar symptoms. I constantly wondered when I was going to be diagnosed. It felt inevitable, like I could feel it under my skin—a buzzing in my blood. I often diagnosed myself: depressed, overly anxious and panicky, possibly having PTSD, and just waiting to be Bipolar. I never said a word to my family. Terrified to let them know how deeply I didn’t want to be like them. I wanted to be able to be far from them without isolating them even more than they were.
I would shove, stomp, force down feelings until they made me physically sick, because if I didn’t feel them, I wouldn’t sink in the quicksand. Of course they bubbled up and exploded in frantic bursts. Every time I had a panic attack, hyperventilating, I thought: it has begun. I pictured my DNA turning black and gummy. My parents didn’t understand what was happening. Now I was the one hiding, trying to make life easier after Mom emerged from her quicksand.
Then the phrase popped out of me without my permission. Mom had cried for some very normal reason and I, unreasonably, panicked to the point of passing out. It was a side effect of those dark years. She kept pushing me to tell her what’s wrong. She gave me a look that said she already knew what I was thinking. It was sad moment when she smiled understandingly when I said I don’t want to be like you.
I have lost count of how many times I have repeated that phrase. Mom never got angry, never showed hurt, and never shamed me for feeling that. It was never mentioned, never pointed out that I wasn’t supporting them. Instead she had many long talks with me. Talks that made us both uncomfortable. Long silences with words stuck in our teeth. I learned a lot from talking with her and I’d like to think I helped her as well. It seemed that she was slowly uncovering herself as she was explaining. She seemed to stop caring about that perfect family façade. Instead, it seemed like she wanted me to know the real her. She wanted me to stop being afraid so she stopped her own fear.
When I mentioned to Mom that I was writing this essay, she was quiet. She wouldn’t look me in the eye. I called her name softly, wondering if I’d said something wrong by letting her know that I was writing about her. Maybe I should have let her be the blissfully ignorant one this time. I just wanted to talk about experiences that shaped my life. I wanted our worlds to connect. I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t afraid anymore. When she finally looked up, our eyes still didn’t meet. She stared at my eyebrows and my name cracked as it came out her mouth.
My heart broke. She spoke often of how mentally ill people were paraded around like freaks, then killers; now suddenly they seem to be on trend. She thought it was great that awareness was spreading but what happened to the people when the fad faded? Her eyes appeared to be looking past me, to remnants of the black paste still dripping in the house. Looking in her eyes, I saw my own remembrances of what happened. Everything seemed fresh and vivid. A wound that never healed.
My mom was afraid I would exploit her illness, afraid what I would write would lead to fear and judgment. That people would look at her as if she is only her mental illness. See her as a stereotype: unstable, out of control, weak. Crazy.
She was afraid of me, of the consequences of worlds intersecting. I wish I could reassure her that people wouldn’t look at her like that. That I could stop them, protect her. I wish I could tell her that I wouldn’t write about her, but she’s too big a part in of my life. I don’t want to avoid this side of her, because it is a part of her but not who she is. I don’t want to shy away from this side of her or have her be afraid of herself. Maybe I’m still that kid that hates when helplessness overwhelms me and this is all I can do. Maybe selfishly, I’m hoping my writing can be a stick or a vine to help my family out of their quicksand.
Erynn Porter is currently Assistant Editor for Quail Bell Magazine and Editorial Intern at Ravishly. Her work has appeared has appeared in Brooklyn Mag, Ravishly, Extract(s), The Mighty, and Quail Bell Magazine.