The year- 2005.
The location- Food court at Yorkdale Mall in Toronto. It’s lunch time on a summer day, nearing the start of school, which means hundreds, or over a thousand people are at the mall.
Let that sit for a moment.
So, here I am, a mom of a beautiful little 2.5 year old girl. A tiny little being, so curious about the world around her. The ever-present question for her about everything at that stage, is Why? Why this, Why that, why everything it seems. My Mom and Dad lived in Whitby at the time and would periodically have her for visits, which was wonderful for so many reasons.
Being that they lived in a more multi-cultural urban area than I did, it exposed her to so much diversity and my Mom had always normalized that for us growing up. She had always taught us to see people’s differences but not treat them based on difference. She had brought us up to see the world through a non-judgmental lens and to honour where each individual has come from and what their unique story is. She taught us to act with respect and integrity and to never judge anyone by anything other than who they were and what their impact on this world was. I loved that I was so fortunate that my daughter was getting very regular contact with her grandparents, and this strong sense of moral fabric that was being instilled in her.
So, it’s nearing the end of summer and off goes my daughter for another fun weekend in the city with my parents. I get some much needed down time after finding myself in the unanticipated situation of being a single parent just a couple months off from giving birth to my second child. I rest, I relax, I breathe. Because I know my daughter is in good hands for the weekend. Sunday at lunch I head to the predetermined meeting spot to pick her up. Enter Yorkdale mall.
I ride the escalator to the top of the foodcourt and look about the crowds to them. Scanning so many people, my eyes come to rest upon my daughter sitting at a table eating treats from one of the vendors. As quickly as my eyes see my daughter happily enjoying her meal, they move to my mother who has yet to see me. She is focused on my daughter and they are thoroughly enjoying their time together, as evidenced by the smiles and giggles they are sharing during this picnic of sorts.
My mom doesn’t look her normal self though. She is wearing a surgical mask and disposable latex gloves. (Fast forward to the pandemic of 2020 and this registers as normal, commonplace even.) But remember, it’s 2005. It’s the middle of a mall. There is no pandemic, no coronavirus. There’s no global normalization of the use of PPE. None of the sort. But there’s my Mom, seemingly oblivious to the many looks and stares from people around her. I take pause, thankful that she seems oblivious to other’s reactions to her, thankful that she and my daughter are so wrapped up in their own little world that they don’t see the judgement from the world around them. I can feel myself deflate, like a balloon quickly losing air.
For months, I knew Mom had been focusing much more on cleanliness and germs. Her fixation with keeping her apartment almost sterile was becoming more and more apparent in our phone conversations. I lived two hours away, so I could only glean this during our conversations and the periodic times I would visit at her apartment. She had begun to talk more and more about what she was seeing in the news about bacteria and viruses spreading and how people should protect themselves etc. It seemed meaningless during individual conversations but now in a split-second standing there in the food court, all of those conversations layered on top of each other and I had an ‘aha’ moment. One of those moments where everything around you goes silent and ceases to matter and the world seemingly grinds to a halt. Not for long, but long enough for you to exhale and think….well, now what do I do?
I approached the table with hesitancy, not sure what kind of state of mind she would be in. Inside, I was reeling. I tried to be calm as I greeted them, but my sidebar to my mom was a harsh whisper “what is happening- why are wearing this stuff?” I was harsh, admittedly. She quoted stats, news articles, and her belief that these items were keeping her safe. She showed me wipes she had purchased for cleaning surfaces like that table we were sitting at, and a blanket of sorts designed to cover the infant seat area of her shopping cart so my daughter wouldn’t be touching any surfaces with germs or bacteria.
I was speechless and in awe. I had no idea the fixation had become this big in her world. I had just dropped my daughter off on Friday and everything had seemed fine. I had no understanding that this incessant narrative of the need for cleanliness was deafening in my Mom’s head and I had no idea the scope of what this meant for her.
I don’t think I handled myself the best that day. I ended the picnic pretty quickly and we parted ways. Admittedly, I was embarrassed, concerned, confused and overwhelmed. I remember calling my sisters and sharing what had just happened. I felt like they were the only ones who would understand that this was kind of a big deal, right? Not only for us, but indicative of how much help Mom really needed. For years we had wanted her to get support for what we felt were undiagnosed mental health issues, but this put it into a new realm for me.
What I didn’t know that day in the food court was that in a few short months, she would finally seek out a proper assessment by a qualified Psychiatrist for the first time in her life, resulting in the multiple diagnoses of Bipolar Type 2 Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and not surprisingly, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. She had always demonstrated an addictive personality, and we just knew from an early age that she tended to perseverate on certain things. We called them ‘phases.’ We did a lot of smiling and nodding when she focused so diligently on one topic or the next, because what else do you do as a child?
So often, the symptoms of someone struggling with mental health can be quiet, subtle, simmering and not always obvious to the general public. For those of us who are living with a loved one who is struggling, it can feel a pretty lonely and isolating place since it seems like no-one else is experiencing what you are, or what your loved one is.
And that’s where this website comes in.
My hope for the website is a collection of experiences and stories that can help even one person feel a bit less isolation in the journey of having a cherished friend or family member navigate the highs and lows of mental health.
My mom’s journey to diagnosis and treatment was a grueling and uphill battle, but she climbed the hill fiercely and I am so damn proud that she did. Her spirit once she embraced a treatment plan was more weightless and free-spirited than I had ever known my Mom to be. She weathered the storms with such a brave face, and we can all help others do the same by talking about mental health and addictions, accepting that these are diseases and not choices and treating others with understanding and compassion no matter what stage they are at in their journey.