Growing Up With a Mom Who Has Severe Mental Illness: Andrea's Story

Reviewed Dec 3, 2015

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Summary

Andrea shares the story of her mother who has severe mental illness.

From the time I was a little girl, I always knew my mom was not like other mothers. Kids at school used to tell me my mother looked like a clown. It was true. She wore clothes that were too tight and painted red lipstick on her cheeks instead of using blush. Mom made funny faces and rocked on her heels while waiting in line at the grocery store. Both were side effects of her medication.

Sometimes she stopped taking her medicine and went away for a few weeks. I never told my friends that my mother took these long stays at the local mental hospital. My dad did his best to protect me from my mother’s illness and give me a “normal” life. 

The breakdown

But one day my mother had a breakdown and took me with her. I was 7 years old. She and my father had argued quite a bit and she wanted out of the marriage. We went to live with a woman I had never seen before.

After a few weeks, my dad found out she was not caring for me. I was not being fed healthy meals or taken to school. One day, a policeman and social worker came to the door and took us out of that house. My parents divorced the next year and my dad was given custody of me.

The diagnosis

I still spent every weekend with my mom. She often cried in the dark and said she wished she were dead. There were many days when she stayed in bed or on the couch with the curtains drawn. Then, she stopped taking her meds and changed. She became very alert and talked about many things at once. She was diagnosed with a disorder called manic depression.

It was hard to realize as a child that she was managing her illness the best she could. I was often angry and embarrassed. Why did my mother have to act this way? She was overweight and tired all the time from her medication. She was unable to care for me like I saw other mothers caring for their children. She never wanted to play with me.

Throughout high school and college I kept her illness a secret. I only brought a few people around her. I was afraid that somehow I would become like her and did everything I could to be different.  She had her first breakdown in her mid-20s. It was like a dark cloud over me at all times.

Recovery and understanding

It wasn’t until I was well into my 30s that I finally accepted that it was not my mother’s fault. She didn’t ask to have mental illness. I also realized I wasn’t alone. People with lived experience and family members are more willing to share their stories. Manic depression is now called bipolar disorder, and so much is known about it. This is a time of great clarity in the mental health field.

Many people can, and do, recover from mental illness and are able to lead meaningful lives. It is so important for family members who have a relative with mental illness to talk about it. This brings understanding, and often, healing. Even though my mother never fully recovered, just knowing what bipolar disorder is—and her struggles with it—helped repair our relationship. I know she tried to be the best mother she could throughout an overwhelming illness. 

By Andrea Rizzo, MFA

Summary

Andrea shares the story of her mother who has severe mental illness.

From the time I was a little girl, I always knew my mom was not like other mothers. Kids at school used to tell me my mother looked like a clown. It was true. She wore clothes that were too tight and painted red lipstick on her cheeks instead of using blush. Mom made funny faces and rocked on her heels while waiting in line at the grocery store. Both were side effects of her medication.

Sometimes she stopped taking her medicine and went away for a few weeks. I never told my friends that my mother took these long stays at the local mental hospital. My dad did his best to protect me from my mother’s illness and give me a “normal” life. 

The breakdown

But one day my mother had a breakdown and took me with her. I was 7 years old. She and my father had argued quite a bit and she wanted out of the marriage. We went to live with a woman I had never seen before.

After a few weeks, my dad found out she was not caring for me. I was not being fed healthy meals or taken to school. One day, a policeman and social worker came to the door and took us out of that house. My parents divorced the next year and my dad was given custody of me.

The diagnosis

I still spent every weekend with my mom. She often cried in the dark and said she wished she were dead. There were many days when she stayed in bed or on the couch with the curtains drawn. Then, she stopped taking her meds and changed. She became very alert and talked about many things at once. She was diagnosed with a disorder called manic depression.

It was hard to realize as a child that she was managing her illness the best she could. I was often angry and embarrassed. Why did my mother have to act this way? She was overweight and tired all the time from her medication. She was unable to care for me like I saw other mothers caring for their children. She never wanted to play with me.

Throughout high school and college I kept her illness a secret. I only brought a few people around her. I was afraid that somehow I would become like her and did everything I could to be different.  She had her first breakdown in her mid-20s. It was like a dark cloud over me at all times.

Recovery and understanding

It wasn’t until I was well into my 30s that I finally accepted that it was not my mother’s fault. She didn’t ask to have mental illness. I also realized I wasn’t alone. People with lived experience and family members are more willing to share their stories. Manic depression is now called bipolar disorder, and so much is known about it. This is a time of great clarity in the mental health field.

Many people can, and do, recover from mental illness and are able to lead meaningful lives. It is so important for family members who have a relative with mental illness to talk about it. This brings understanding, and often, healing. Even though my mother never fully recovered, just knowing what bipolar disorder is—and her struggles with it—helped repair our relationship. I know she tried to be the best mother she could throughout an overwhelming illness. 

By Andrea Rizzo, MFA

Summary

Andrea shares the story of her mother who has severe mental illness.

From the time I was a little girl, I always knew my mom was not like other mothers. Kids at school used to tell me my mother looked like a clown. It was true. She wore clothes that were too tight and painted red lipstick on her cheeks instead of using blush. Mom made funny faces and rocked on her heels while waiting in line at the grocery store. Both were side effects of her medication.

Sometimes she stopped taking her medicine and went away for a few weeks. I never told my friends that my mother took these long stays at the local mental hospital. My dad did his best to protect me from my mother’s illness and give me a “normal” life. 

The breakdown

But one day my mother had a breakdown and took me with her. I was 7 years old. She and my father had argued quite a bit and she wanted out of the marriage. We went to live with a woman I had never seen before.

After a few weeks, my dad found out she was not caring for me. I was not being fed healthy meals or taken to school. One day, a policeman and social worker came to the door and took us out of that house. My parents divorced the next year and my dad was given custody of me.

The diagnosis

I still spent every weekend with my mom. She often cried in the dark and said she wished she were dead. There were many days when she stayed in bed or on the couch with the curtains drawn. Then, she stopped taking her meds and changed. She became very alert and talked about many things at once. She was diagnosed with a disorder called manic depression.

It was hard to realize as a child that she was managing her illness the best she could. I was often angry and embarrassed. Why did my mother have to act this way? She was overweight and tired all the time from her medication. She was unable to care for me like I saw other mothers caring for their children. She never wanted to play with me.

Throughout high school and college I kept her illness a secret. I only brought a few people around her. I was afraid that somehow I would become like her and did everything I could to be different.  She had her first breakdown in her mid-20s. It was like a dark cloud over me at all times.

Recovery and understanding

It wasn’t until I was well into my 30s that I finally accepted that it was not my mother’s fault. She didn’t ask to have mental illness. I also realized I wasn’t alone. People with lived experience and family members are more willing to share their stories. Manic depression is now called bipolar disorder, and so much is known about it. This is a time of great clarity in the mental health field.

Many people can, and do, recover from mental illness and are able to lead meaningful lives. It is so important for family members who have a relative with mental illness to talk about it. This brings understanding, and often, healing. Even though my mother never fully recovered, just knowing what bipolar disorder is—and her struggles with it—helped repair our relationship. I know she tried to be the best mother she could throughout an overwhelming illness. 

By Andrea Rizzo, MFA

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