Thanks to What I Had Really Meant to Say for this opportunity to visit with hope today as part of the Hope 2012 blog relay.
The summer my mom snapped, I didn’t understand “hope.”
What I understood that summer was that I might never talk to my mom again. That the resources available to assist the mentally ill and their loved ones were woefully inadequate. That a woman could struggle through hardship after hardship only to find new hardships where at least one iota of peace ought have been.
I pieced hope together slowly over the years that followed. Shopping for hardware with my boyfriend one Mother’s Day, I found a colorful card that reminded me of my mom. I wrote on it that she’d always been a little colorful, but that her colors made the world brighter and richer. I delivered the card to her house only to have her scream and wave a shovel at me.
My boyfriend held one of my hands in both of his own as I cried in the front seat of his car. But I, like my siblings, kept at it. I believed something might happen to change the game tomorrow, or the day after it.
I passed by my mom on a run a couple of years later. Instead of screaming at me, she told me about all the neighborhood squirrels she was caring for. I slowed my run so I could accompany her all the way to the town’s bus station. I didn’t know if I’d ever have another moment like that, so I wanted to prolong and savor it.
Hope came a little easier after that.
Conversations were a little stilted when they happened, and my mom still occasionally accused her neighbors–and her children–of bizarre crimes, but conversations did happen. It seemed, after years of struggling, we might be getting somewhere.
Then, in the middle of 2009, my sister Rache called to tell me Mom’s doctor was concerned our mom might have “the C word.” My sister couldn’t even say it the first couple of times we spoke about Mom’s early appointments, so that I misunderstood what “C word” we were talking about. It hit me like a train to the stomach when Rache finally said the word: “cancer.”
That evening, I wrote my dearest friend:
I feel like I lost my mom several years ago, so I didn’t think it was possible to feel greater sorrow on that front. But hearing that physical death may also be imminent, it’s clear there are degrees of loss. Intellectually, I understand that there’s very little hope my mom as she existed while I grew up could be regained. Apparently, though, my heart has been holding onto hope that there might be some movement that direction. With physical death, what once was and what is now are all wrapped up neatly and concluded, with no chance of semi-happy endings.
When my mom’s diagnosis was confirmed, I was devastated. For years, I had hoped, and that hope had been destroyed by a single word spoken in a single second.
I thought and thought, and I fought with myself over what was and wasn’t reasonable in light of my mom’s diagnosis.
I’d trained myself to hope. I couldn’t not hope. So what, then, could I hope for?
I hoped that my mom would live long enough to meet her first grandchild, with whom I was seven months pregnant. It was a hope replete with moments of agony and frustration that I should be limited to such a small and fleeting hope, but I clung to it. I needed it to sustain me.
My son was born. Tickets home were purchased. My mom held her grandson.
She hated how she looked, but I saw only the love.
After my mom met my son, I invested my hope in the possibility of my mom’s recovery. And yet, there came a time where it was clear that hope would not be translated to truth.
I hoped my mom would get to see my son again, but I was struggling. It was easier to tell myself to hope than to actually tend to its tiny embers and set them full aflame again.
My mom did see my son again. He brought her great joy through suffering written so clearly on her face that I couldn’t help but feel its echoes, and despair.
He brought her so much joy that, occasionally, she’d grit her teeth and try climbing unsteadily from her bed, saying, “I will survive. I will live and see him grow up. I will meet my other grandkids.”
I would smile at her and try to calm her enough to get her back in bed, and then retreat to the cold bedroom down the hall and cry, and cry, and cry.
I didn’t know what to hope, but I knew better than to share that fleeting, wild hope of hers.
A week after the last time she told me this, I wrote my friends a letter that began:
At 2:35pm yesterday, my mother breathed her last breath in the loving arms of my sisters.
The letter described many things that brought me joy, and great love for those who’d helped me through the last months of my mom’s life. What it didn’t describe was hope, for I felt hopeless, even as I wrapped up that letter thusly:
Next October 30, I will celebrate alone the birthday I shared with my mother. But she’ll be in my heart, and the gifts she bestowed upon me will carry her spirit forward in my every action, every day.
At my mom’s memorial, I caught sight of my son sleeping and felt the slightest stirrings of hope.
My mom’s final chapter had been written, but my tiny man’s life had so many chapters remaining. Imagining those chapters filled me with joy that couldn’t be touched by words, and kindled those stirrings so they began to take on their own vibrance.
As I worked with my siblings to clean out my mom’s house, I thought about all the chapters remaining my son. I saw that I, too, had many chapters left in my own life.
I chose hope. Even as I bawled, and cursed, and listened to music I hated to know my mom would never hear again, I chose to believe that there was good ahead.
I would edit one of my books. I would nurture my son’s passions. I would lend a hand to others as often as I could. I would focus not on what had been taken away from me, and the inevitability that still more would be taken away from me with time, but on all the possibilities left open to me, my son, and my loved ones. They were so, so many.
In August 2009, I believed hope was lost. In August 2012, I see that hope was simply hiding then. She was clenched tightly to herself, nestled deep within me, keeping herself safe until once again free to expand to fill me.
Hope has since unfurled and stretched herself into every piece of my life. Sometimes she retreats, but I know she will find her way back to me, and I to her. She needs me to give her my voice in this world; I need her to remember why I have a voice, and how to use it.
Hope was never lost to me. She just needed to be freed from the constraint of being tied to one place, to one situation, or to one person; for, indeed, she thrives best of all when her feet are untethered and she is allowed to wander as free and far as the human imagination extends.
Instructions for Hope 2012: A blog relay
Step 1: Write a blog post about hope & publish it on your blog.
Step 2: Invite one (or more!) bloggers to do the same.
Step 3: Link to the person who recruited you at the top of the post, and the people you’re recruiting at the bottom of the post.
Melanie Crutchfield will be holding “Closing Ceremonies” around August 10 and will gather up little snippets from people that wrote about hope, so make sure you link back to her as the originator of the relay
I call on:
Kathy (reinventing the event horizon) drew me to her blog with her clear, evocative descriptions of life with mental illness. A few of the very first entries I read were difficult for me to finish, but the illumination provided by her words made continuing onward so much more than worthwhile.
I’m constantly amazed by the richness of Kathy’s life. Through her descriptions of her beginnings as part of an organized crime family, her knack for creating beauty from bric-a-brac, and her descriptions of traveling for humanitarian efforts, she paints a picture of a life both well and adventurously lived.
Her painting isn’t only metaphorical. About her art she writes that it “is mixed media and reflective of my creative efforts to transform potential trash into art–how I’ve long felt about my past–that my life trashed by mental illness could, indeed, be recreated into something lovely and meaningful.”
Indeed. Reading Kathy’s blog, it’s easy to believe that anything and everything is possible with arms opened wide to embrace possibility.
Recommended post: Canines in Conical Hats: Lucy Does Vietnam
The Far Side of Sanity and Back Again: An Evolution in Thank You
Sometimes gratitude takes time to develop. Sometimes it’s a process.
For me, being thankful is something I’ve matured into. In me, the feeling has aged, like cheese, fine wine, a decent sourdough—pungent, rich and layered with flavor.
In fact, I fought mental illness for years before I felt anything remotely resembling gratitude—for either the illness itself or my eventual recovery. Mostly I hated it.
Actually, I lost my mind gradually, but by my late twenties, I was caught up completely in the throes of it—hospitalized twice in as many months. And as my 28th birthday approached, I gave up all pretense of sanity and simply let go. I’d white-knuckled reality for a number of months if not years, until finally my fingers slipped, and I was lost to free fall.
At first I merely brought dead branches into my apartment and decorated the walls with them—not only loving their sculptural quality but also believing I was receiving special messages from them. Twigs wreathed the room in forest, a sacramental fact, reality stripped of ordinary distraction.
However, in addition to this, I felt compelled to tear up the carpet in my rental apartment’s living room, to strip the floor clean and access the concrete beneath—a more solid surface on which to stand.
So in March of 1990, I stayed up one Wednesday night, utility-knifed my carpet into carry-able strips, stood a ladder beside the dumpster in my parking lot, climbed rung upon rung, and deposited my former floor within.
A rug literally ripped out from under me, I was hospitalized the next day at a state psychiatric facility, where I walked the halls and fingered the walls for weeks, as all around me sentences bloomed into branches, a dazzling display of crazy.
Antipsychotic medication made me restless, so during that admission and the many more that followed, I paced almost incessantly. I walked hospital halls endlessly, feeling the walls with my palms, an effort to comfort myself, to calm the cacophony that worsened every evening.
One nurse was kind and would sometimes walk with me, attempting to reassure me and lessen the aloneness, as I tried to quiet the chatter in my head, the echo of children’s voices, reciting senseless, sing-song rhymes.
But mostly I walked alone, alternately fighting and forgetting, as psychosis whiplashed me between extremes of nothingness and nowhere.
This whiplashing made me acutely aware of my own nothingness, the fact that at the center of me, a huge hole swallowed and indeed devoured all I thought I knew about myself and the world around me.
I saw myself stripped of all substance, of all that seemed solid and predictable in the face of free-fall. I was naked and drowning—bare to the glare of what others called crazy.
If I was indeed out of touch with reality, as the doctors told me, what did that mean? And if I couldn’t trust my own mind, what could I trust?
Inevitably, this possibility that I couldn’t or shouldn’t trust myself terrified me. And I displaced this terror in all directions, becoming terrified of everything and at the same time terrified of nothing. I couldn’t articulate exactly what I feared. I was only and always overcome with dread. I knew something was terribly wrong.
So in the end, it was terror that made me walk those hospital halls alone–alone in the most existential sense–exiled not only from the rest of the world by mental illness, but exiled by mental illness from myself.
This is the terror of mental illness—a terror I fought for more than 10 years and 25 psychiatric hospitalizations.
Indeed, I was ill for a very long time, and recovery was slow.
Just like it took time to lose my mind, it took time to find it again, as well. I emerged gradually from the ruin of my psyche. Having forgotten what sanity looked like, I barely recognized its image in the mirror. Backward and upside down at first, it slowly righted itself, turning me around to face the world again.
And it took longer still for gratitude to develop. Who in their right mind would be thankful for an ugly, painful past—and how could I trust the seeming insanity of that—thankful for both the process of unbecoming and the evolution that remade me in the end. How was I to straddle that divide?
Indeed, I am now grateful, not only for the recovery I still struggle to maintain, but for the illness, as well—grateful mostly for the empathy I learned. I finally appreciate the pain I endured, knowing that suffering has taught me sensitivity toward others, a caring I might not have developed otherwise.
So my message then is this.
Gratitude, like mental illness, isn’t easy. It doesn’t happen all at once, at least not for most of us. Gratitude is gradual. It emerges over the course of months and years—and sometimes even lifetimes.
Sure, it’s easy to be thankful for the seeming good that happens—but thankful for the bad is another animal altogether. So be patient. Pace yourself.
And during the month of May, Mental Health Awareness Month, please remember the struggles faced by folks with mental illness. Please, donate to NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. Share stories like mine with those you love, and encourage others to talk, write, and blog about their battles. Let those who live with mental illness (and their families) know they’re not alone.
The world is still a staggeringly beautiful place, and those of us who struggle with psychiatric illness make it a richer place to live and love. We hope big hopes. We dream ever more enduring dreams.
Recovery is possible. And for that, I am exceedingly thankful.
Kathy McCullough is a writer and artist who has lived in places as far away as Vietnam and unlikely as post-earthquake Haiti. Her partner Sara is an international aid worker. Kathy is currently writing a memoir about growing up in an organized crime family. She blogs at www.reinventingtheeventhorizon.wordpress.com.
One month ago today, I posted the hardest thing I’ve yet written: Six hands for lifting: on my mom, mental illness, fear & hope. In the wake of posting about my experiences with my mom’s mental illness, I was stunned by the outpouring of support and like stories. In addition to the peace of having confronted my grief head-on, I was then greeted with thousands of other blessings in the form of your words.
The message in this is simple. I’m not alone. You’re not alone. The more we share our experiences, our hope, and our love, the brighter the world will be for those who continue to suffer the many hardships correlated with mental illness.
“Six hands for lifting” was prompted by the beautiful, heartfelt book Stop Pretending. It’s my wish this book will eventually land on each of your bookshelves, so that you may share it with others who will be touched by its accessible truths . . . and perhaps be compelled to find their way to healing, and help, in other forms.
On July 15, 2011, I’ll give away two paperback books apiece to three winners. The first book of each set will be a copy of Sonya Sones’s Stop Pretending. The second book will be of each winner’s choice, with the caveats that each must be both available on Amazon and cost $20 or less. (I’d love to hook you up with autographed, out-of-print first editions of your favorite book, but I’d also love to help my son with college someday!)
If you live in the United States and would like a shot at winning one of these two-book sets, do at least one of the following prior to 12:00 AM Pacific Time July 15, 2011:
1. Comment on this entry indicating your interest.
2. Email email@example.com with the subject: “Free books FTW!”
3. Tweet about this giveaway, mentioning @deb_bryan, and send me an email with the subject: “I tweeted it!”
4. Share this link on your blog and send me an email with the subject: “I blogged it!”
5. Share this link on Facebook and send me an email with the subject: “I shared it on Facebook!”
If you’d like more than one shot at winning, do more than one of the following! You’ll be entered once for each of the above actions you take.
Winners will be announced by first name on or shortly after July 15, 2011.
* 100% no-nefarious-usage-of-your-private-info guarantee! Your email address–and any other contact info you provide–will be used strictly for purposes of this giveaway. Once winners are announced, I’ll email each winner to coordinate shipment. Afterward, all private info will be deleted and/or otherwise destroyed. As with my first book giveaway, this will not by accomplished by devouring.