What Health Class Didn’t Teach Me About Living With My Mom’s Mental Illness

What Health Class Didn’t Teach Me About Living With My Mom’s Mental Illness

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By Juliette Virzi

When I was a freshman in high school I took a mandatory health class. Like a lot of people reflecting on their high school health education, most of what I remember was the constant snickering from the 14-year-old boys in the back of the classroom looking at the textbook’s diagrams of male and female genitalia. Our class sex talks were made worse for me due to the fact I sat next to my best friend who had just professed his love to me on MySpace for everyone in my grade to see. I don’t miss high school. Despite the discomfort, I successfully graduated high school knowing the general mechanics of baby-making.

While my ninth grade health class prepared me for avoiding teenage pregnancy, it did not prepare me for inheriting motherhood to my 13-year-old sister when my mother’s mental health took a turn for the worse a few years later. I was 16.

I didn’t know how to address the hickeys on my sister’s neck given to her by boys who didn’t care about her. I didn’t know how to broach the subject of the empty cigarette packs I found in her trashcan. I wasn’t prepared to walk this new line between understanding big sister and responsible parent. I feared if I expressed concern or anger at her choices she would retreat further away from me and I would lose all ability to get through to her at all. For the first time in my life I was failing to protect her.

But more than this, I wasn’t prepared for my mom’s mental illness. To grieve “losing her” while still dealing with the consequences left in the wake of the person who now inhabited her body. For the emotional meaning of the word “mom” to fade, becoming just a term assigned to the woman who birthed me.

I wished my health class in ninth grade had taught me about paranoia. It might have made more sense to me when my mother forced me to get ready for prom behind a curtain she hung because she feared the “cameras” planted in our apartment would photograph and plaster images of my body across the internet. I might have understood why she didn’t let us talk in the car, fearing it was bugged with “microphones” being used to monitor us. I might have been less afraid if I knew from the start the things my mother told me were delusions and not reality.

I wished I had learned about how people cope. I might not have been as shocked to come home from college to my cross-faded mother who was more “turnt” than I had ever been in my life. I might have known why my sister and I coped in such different ways, her with boys and drugs and me with perfect grades and an increasingly morbid sense of humor that hinted to others I was struggling more than I let on. I would later move on to self-harm and suicidal ideation, things I also had no knowledge about until they happened to me.

I wished I had learned what delusions of grandeur were. It might have been easier to understand why my mom had no job because she was “running for president.” I might have comprehended what could lead her to take our family car for a few months, crash it, then steal a rental car to complete her U.S. campaign tour. I didn’t know I would need to know how to file a Missing Persons Report until this happened.

I wished I had learned hypersexuality was a symptom of bipolar disorder (one of the diagnoses she had received when she was still interested in going to a doctor). Maybe then I might not have gotten angry when she referred to herself a “sex symbol” or gotten embarrassed when friends saw her scantily-clad Instagram posts. “That’s your mom?” they said.

I wished I had learned about childhood sexual trauma and mental illness. It might have been easier to understand why my mom called me a “fucking whore” on my 19th birthday and accused me of sleeping with my stepfather. Her own stepfather had molested her, but I bet while he was doing it he didn’t think her daughter would be paying for his sins many years later.

But all I learned about “mental illness” in my ninth grade health class was that addiction destroyed lives and weed was the gateway drug to it all. Some kids in my class even did a presentation on the dangers of marijuana, laughing amongst themselves because they were inhaling the stuff every day on the sketchy trail behind the school.

If I knew what was happening to her wasn’t her fault, I wouldn’t have been angry at her for “dropping the ball” on parenting us when she knew my dad was practically a faceless child support check. If I knew this wasn’t her choice, I wouldn’t have called her insane when she told me about how license plates revealed coded messages to her. If I knew mental illness was real I wouldn’t have tried to push her out of my life because I couldn’t handle the emotional whiplash of not knowing whether she was going to hug me or hit me.

But even knowing what I know now, I’m not entirely convinced reading “paranoia” as a bulleted symptom under a chapter called “schizophrenia” would have bore any resemblance to the reality my mother experienced on a daily basis. I’ll never know definitively if knowing these things earlier would have truly saved my relationship with my mom.

I saw my mother a few months ago and the visit was awkward, but pleasant. We talked relatively normally, considering our past. She’s still running for president, but she’s more lucid than I’ve seen her in a long time.

“You aren’t looking at me like a leper anymore,” she said to me, tears in her eyes with genuine gratitude.

My heart broke. I think it was the worst thing she’s ever said to me.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

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