By Ally Golden
I was eight years old the first time my mother threatened to kill herself.
Born to loving parents and growing up in an idyllic Maryland suburb outside Washington D.C., I had a solid start in life. But within a few years, my home life began to unravel. In addition to depression, my mother experienced borderline personality disorder (BPD)—a disease marked by emotional instability and dysfunctional relationships—and prescription drug addiction.
My mother experienced abuse as a child, which increased the likelihood that she would develop BPD. Living with a psychiatric illness that’s notoriously difficult to treat, my mother’s condition declined despite being in therapy over the whole of my childhood.
Since we didn’t have many friends or family members around, I had no choice but to rely on my mother’s contradictory parenting. People who experience BPD are known for “splitting,” or seeing things and people in black and white terms—I was either all good or all bad. My mother did this to me all my life, and when compared with my brother she was more likely to split me as “bad,” but I lived for the “good” moments.
She alternated between worshipping and loathing me, fiercely protecting me in public and then verbally abusing me in private, holding onto me tightly and then pushing me away. My adolescence was punctuated by endless groundings for infractions real and imagined, humiliating scenes at the doctor’s and the grocery store, and the repeated mantra that I was “rude and abusive.”
Despite all this, my mother was everything to me, and I panicked at the thought of losing or disappointing her. My life was a game of control, and as long as my mother was alive, I was winning.
My mother’s illness had turned me into an adult well before my time; by the time I graduated college, I felt like I was 100 years old. The year my grandmother (her mother) died, and she finally divorced my father, my mother began a backward slide from which she would never recover. Every time I would return to my childhood home, which had been meticulously clean when I was young, I found it cluttered beyond recognition—evidence of my mother’s deterioration. Her crying episodes and suicide threats increased in frequency and intensity and caused me unbelievable pain and anxiety.
Some of the incidents from my twenties are burned in my brain: the time I left a dozen panicked messages on her machine convinced she was dead, only to find out later that she was sitting next to the phone, reveling in the reaction she'd caused by disappearing; the time I made a list of her insults from one conversation that spanned two typed pages; the time I came home from work and found 20 moving boxes filled with her belongings on my front lawn; the time she called to tell me she had “accidentally” overdosed on pills.
After I got married, I stepped up my endeavors to secure help for her. I packed up her house and moved her to Providence, RI, where there was a world-class treatment program for BPD. Unfortunately, she didn’t complete the program and moved back to Maryland against medical advice.
There, I continued to fight with social services caseworkers, group therapy programs and Social Security resources to get my mother the help she needed. But one day, I realized that my efforts would never be effective because my mother was not—and would never be—motivated to get better. One day, all my hope that she could be a real mother to me again, someday, was gone.
And while I considered this truth, something monumental happened: I got pregnant. And it just solidified the fact that I had sacrificed my own emotional well-being for years, but I couldn’t do that to my baby. I told her that I didn’t want to speak to her until she re-enrolled in therapy and a counselor could confirm that she was making progress. After 30 years of fearing my mother would leave me, I left her.
A tremendous sense of guilt and accountability for my mother’s life had kept me from making such a decision earlier, and it wasn’t easy. I worried about her every day. We did exchange a few cards and letters. But then one crisp, fall morning, my mother went out into the woods near her apartment complex and ended her life.
Through all the hospitalizations, all the times my family and I sent the police to her house in the middle of the night, all the times she did or said something that I'd add to the collection of wounds from my childhood, all I ever wanted was for my mother to be out of pain.
I hope that wherever she is, she has finally found some peace. I hope that some part of her knew that I would have done anything to help her, and how hurt and sad and frustrated I was when I couldn’t help her turn things around.
When a loved one struggles with mental illness, it isn’t black and white, and there isn’t one way to think or feel about it. The only thing we survivors can do is make an effort to conduct our lives in a healthy way, and share our experiences so others know they’re not alone.
Ally Golden is the author of the new survivor memoir, A Good Soldier. A passionate advocate for those coping with the mental illness or suicide of a loved one, Golden lives in Chicago with her husband and two children.
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