Knowledge and experiences have molded who I am today. Right, wrong, or indifferent, I am who I am because of my past and experiences in both my personal and professional life. My journey has a variety of twists and turns and with every twist and turn a learning opportunity was available and at my fingertips. Dysfunctional is the new functional, me, my family and my friends are no exception. The journey from childhood to an adult with a big girl job happened for a reason. I didn’t understand at the time, but as time has passed the reasons and purpose seems more clear.
I was born in a small town called Penetanguishene Ontario in a crazy car pushing snowstorm. As I was approaching my high school graduation, I met my husband who is the nicely oiled engine that keeps us going and whom I love to the pit of my soul. We shared six years together that allowed us to indulge in travel, education, wining, and dining. It was after this time when we decided to have a family and were blessed with a daughter, now 21 and a son, now 19. My family is my life and they inspire me each day.
During my toddler and young teenage years, we were the family everyone looked up to. My father was our family rock and provided nicely for us. We helped family and friends emotionally and financially, went to church, could afford nice things, had a stay at home mom that baked and prepared homemade meals daily. Until one day…one devastating day…our perfect, normal life came to a screaming halt…my grandmother had a massive stroke and died. This was my mother’s mom, best friend and confidant; little did we know our lives were going to change forever. This loss had a terrible impact on my mother, and she was never the same. Our life became one of confusion and dysfunction. The death of my grandmother caused my mother something more than grief; she visited the doctor’s office often, requiring her to start taking medication and being silently labeled as depressed, having “depression”. She continued to frequent the doctor’s office switching from medication to medication and was never able to find herself. Our family didn’t speak of this “depression” as it was considered something that crazy people had, and not what our “perfect” family could possibly deal with. This stigma was primarily established because of the “mental hospital” located only 10 minutes away, known as the Mental Health Centre. The Mental Health Centre, now called Waypoint Centre for Mental Health, had such a stigma within our family and the community. If we were to reach out for help this would change our silently now imperfect family. Spending spree’s, suicide threats, days in her bedroom alone and sleeping, no meals, no support, no mom as I knew her, this was my new life, my family’s new life.
I wanted desperately to go to university but how could I possibly ask or expect my father to manage it all while I was hours away. I had a lot to think about which is why I worked for a bit to figure out life’s next steps. I applied to the Mental Health Centre in the kitchen with a very good hourly wage. My father thought I hit the jackpot, a “government job for life”. This was my father’s dream, not mine, which made the decision to quit after six months very difficult to share with him. It took time for me to build confidence and share what I thought to be an exciting decision, not so exciting to my father. It wasn’t university but it was advancing my education in a way that would support my family and me. Sure enough, my father was less than impressed and I had to listen to him tell me what a mistake I would be making by quitting this “job for life” to go to college during the economic times of “depression”. This was the compromise for me, a college that was close enough to home but far enough to gain an education, versus university that was hours away, the dream that could lead to success.
I decided to live in the Barrie area and start my new college life, with the ability to return home quickly. My first six months were great, I was focused and prepared. I was able to focus primarily on school and opportunities! One visit home changed all that. One step in the house and I knew how much my father and family were struggling with my mom’s condition. Mental health is a stressful burden that no one person should have to handle by themselves. How could I be so selfish? What was I thinking? Why did nobody call me and tell me they were in trouble? After six months of being on my own and living free of mental and physical family burden I knew I needed to be home. I bought a car and traveled back and forth to assist my dad and sisters with day to day responsibilities of living with a mother suffering from a mental health condition and threatening suicide.
Over the next two years, I managed college, help my father with two younger sisters, communicated with my third sister that went to college 3 hours away in North Bay. My dad and I managed suicide watch and/or spending sprees from my mother, depending on the month. My father and I often asked our physician for help, ideas, and support and found we were left with our hands in the air, unsure of how to handle my mother’s behaviors. We were too proud to ask family and/or friends for any support; depression came with stigma and we found ourselves embellished in this stigma. As time passed our family life became regular stress to my father and me. I believe, as a result of the added stress to my father, in April 1992 he suffered an aneurism. Three weeks passed and my father suffered another aneurism, this time taking him from us.
My father’s death was devastating to me, my sisters, and my now-husband. I managed to support my mother for another six months, sorting out her financials, grocery shopping, cooking, supporting my sisters and life went from suicide watch to a manic state at which time she kicked me out of our home, no longer needing or wanting my support. With my bags packed and no place to live, and school still going strong, I needed to obtain employment and find a place to stay. Fortunately, I was able to maintain two jobs and continue my schooling. The goal of graduating with honors transitioned to a goal of simply graduating. Life as I knew it changed forever!
Over the next few years I watched my mother do drugs, drink obsessively, pop pills, drive under the influence, local police called me at all hours of the night with concerns, my mom called me with threats, kicked my younger sister’s out of the house, slept with men, lots of men, and spent every last bit of money my father ever worked for and saved. I received frequent calls from my mother telling me I was a terrible daughter, I was no longer in her will and she hated me, I received many violent and disturbing letters from her that shared her thoughts of me and my sisters. The stories are endless. Sure, I rebelled and responded in the most inappropriate ways…but I also cried…a lot…lots of crying and I often wished my daddy was with me, not in spirit, but here on earth. I had many questions and felt NOBODY understood. How is it possible that our roles had reversed? How am I going to support my sisters, emotionally, financially, and physically? They had been exposed to a lifestyle none of us would even dream of. We were judged by family, we were victimized when my father died (by family), we were ostracized and little to no support or guidance. Only a couple of family members stepped up and held out their hands, understanding there was no money, no help, just some kids and their belongings. All at the ages of 20, 19, 15 & 14…we found ourselves isolated, confused, scared, and deeply sad and hurt.
Over the next 20+ years, our mother went from having a completely paid-for-house to living with boyfriends, renting, in and out of hospitals (including the mental health centre), living in a housing support home, long term care home and now in a one-bedroom apartment. The journey was long, tiresome, and sometimes ugly. Looking back, I can’t believe what we endured. How we were judged, what family said about us, and the feeling of isolation. Despite my mother still here with us, most feel we lost her many years ago…so we grieve over the loss of our father and we grieve over the loss of our mother. Some still hurt, some can put the hurt aside, some are angry, and some aren’t. We are all human and deal with healing much differently. I love them, despite where they are in their healing. They are my family and will always be my family. We can laugh, cry, argue…but at the end of the day, we have each other and on some very strange level, we have something in common, the loss of our family, and how our “perfect” life was stolen from us in a matter of seconds.
Part of my journey included working at the Mental Health Centre, which complicated things for me. You see, my mother was in and out of the Mental Health Centre, a few times, and never gave up an opportunity to engage with me, trying to embarrass me, giving me dirty looks or even yelling at me. I remember standing alone, in the parking lot, watching her walk to admissions and yelling at me…and all I could do is just stare…I remember thinking, who is this woman, this is NOT my mom. Mental Health is a disease, it’s not the person…it took me a long time to realize that.
Now at the young ages of 47, 46, 42, & 41, our mother is much more stable, however, we do recognize behaviors that have us on edge now and again. Setting boundaries, not answering the phone or texts, avoiding the repeated requests for things, borrowing money, or asking us to call somewhere for her (when she is quite capable herself). After everything we have been through it’s hard to know if this is normal or are we irritated because of our past? My sisters and I are all moms now; we understand what being a mom is all about and how we dealt with having no mom for most of our lives.
How does one recover from this? How do you move forward?
Growth, patience, love, kindness, hope, laughter…lots of laughter…choosing to live our life instead of dwelling on all the questions, hurt, blame, and disappointment. Do I wish my life was different? …interestingly enough, no…I am who I am because of my experience. Do I continue to have to set boundaries and recognize behaviors because of my experience…yes…do I continue to learn from that, absolutely. Our story is meant for us…it’s what shapes us…At the end of the day, I choose kindness, love, patience, hope, and LOTS of laughter…we will die one day…but we have a chance to live EVERYDAY…life is our journey, not our destination.