Grappling with my mother's universe

Kavya Murthy

Thinking back to a time before my mother returned from wherever her illness took her is a strange thing, and not very easy. It is important to forget a lot of it, but it’s also good to remember, because there is so much I have learned living through it all. One of the more important things I acknowledge each day is that wellbeing and mental health are so little understood, and that I myself understand so little of it.

In early 2014, I returned home after a few months away to find that my mother had a faraway look in her eyes, as if she was out of sync with reality. She had been out of reach for some time by then, but I had treated that with something akin to benign neglect because I didn’t really know what to do, and wasn’t prepared to believe it was any more than her being down and out. But this time, it looked serious. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia soon after.

Today she is back from wherever it was her illness took her. She has responded well to treatment, and is well and functional. But I know that even just a year ago, this was something I had feared would never happen. I remember the bewilderment of living with a human being who was in another reality and universe.

For all of my twenties, and I am now 29, I carried a strong sense of helplessness within me whenever I considered my mother. My mother had been living with me since I was 24. Before this, she had lived through not one, but two abusive marriages. During that time, her spirit had taken a beating. As an only child and without a network of family support, I had decided to have her live with me in the hope that she would feel better. But living with me did not improve her condition very much.  

I could never get a grip on what had happened to her, or why. The violence in our family had definitely contributed to her fading agency. But still, I could never explain satisfactorily why she behaved as she did.

From being a gentle and caring person, my mother had become gruff, rude and indifferent to the world around her. She was always at odds with her surroundings. As my job supported the two of us, there were always enough practicalities to worry about that let me shelve my deeper confusion. If she did not look after things in our home, I reasoned with myself that mothers don’t always have to mother, and let her be. If I found bills unpaid, or food left out too long, I would use the word depression, pay the bills and put the food away. The list of things she did not participate in grew by the day. I lived with the vague unease that here was a person who was a spectral presence, and I could not just urge her to be alive to her surroundings. She was in a kind of auto-pilot mode, and kept drifting out of reach.

But as the years dragged on, I felt choked with a kind of ambiguous grief. I tried to adjust to the idea that I had lost my mother as I had known her. We were now completely out of sync. This in itself was unusual, as my mother and I had had the closest of relationships. I did what I could to make sure we had a home, but in those years found myself tiring. I began to feel that nothing I did was enough, and lived with a constant sense of inadequacy. Grief would become anger; anger, bitterness; I lived with a frigid rage inside me that wore me out. I would look for distractions, and began to lose a grip on my own desires and aspirations. I could not imagine a life where I could carry her with me, but neither could I live this way where she was by my side but absent.

Eventually I left the city I loved and had made my life in, and took her to the city she knew—my home town, where I hoped she’d feel better. I hoped the familiarity of her city would help her come back to life.

This shift did not change things. It corroded the situation further. I was breaking down, and I decided one day that since I was so ineffective in this situation, I needed to take a break from it. I had money to earn and things to do, so I went away, making sure my mother was looked after. I stole a few months in which to be away from her without my every day dictated by her.

I returned home a couple of months later to find most things in alarming disarray. The house had a dusty sort of quality. My mother and I had not spoken for most of that time. I did not know what she had done with her time, and she would not tell me. When I came home, my mother looked at me and softened her gaze for a brief moment before she said, her daughter had gone away.

I had spoken to many of my friends of the strange sensation of being referred to in the third person. I am your daughter, Amma, I would say to her, but she would look at me in contempt. Nobody really had an explanation for it, and I had gone quiet, uncomfortable and unwilling to probe deeper. I did not know how to speak of her suspicion of me. How could she think I was not her daughter? I could not imagine a single reason why she would not.

Soon after, one night, I watched my mother grow physically violent. Something was at work that she could not control. It amazes me now that I didn’t know what this could possibly be, or what was happening to her. I came up with all sorts of explanations. What could I do, and what was it that was happening to my mother?

Perhaps it took that violence for me to realize that this was something she needed help with; that I needed help with. It made me account for the number of times when I would ignore or disregard her actions and utterances out of discomfort. And finally, perhaps too late, I made the decision to look for medical attention.

The first of a two-part series by a daughter on her first brush with mental illness when her mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Read the second part here.