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Authors: Kate Axelrod

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BOOK: The Law of Loving Others
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I waited there for what seemed like forever, while my parents met with a team of doctors, and I made a tally of all the bad things I'd ever done: in seventh grade I stole two cigarettes from Annie's father, on my fifteenth birthday I made out with Evan Berger even though my friend Rachel had given him a blow job the week before, and I'd cheated on my algebra final in ninth grade.

I thought about these things over and over again. I couldn't stop running down the list even though I understood, on some basic level, that none of this was related to what was happening to my mother, that none of it made any difference at all. Eventually a nurse came out to report that my mother was in the day room, and that I could follow her there. I looked up and saw my mother through the Plexiglas square in the middle of the doors—just the top of her head, her eyebrows, the wisps of her brown hair. I felt something sickening in the back of my throat, hot and sweet and burning, and just like that I threw up all over the floor, the lime-colored linoleum tiles suddenly splattered with puke.

AFTER having waited so many hours in the hospital, the visit with my mother was only a few minutes long, cut short because an obese man who looked like he was in his thirties had begun screaming, shrieking, really, and two guards rushed over to restrain him. They ended up having to lock down the unit and all the visitors were forced to leave. But for those few minutes, my mother and I sat in some sort of day room, which was lit up in an oddly hostile, aggressive way. There were no windows, only bright yellow beams of light that lined the ceiling. A few plastic tables and a dozen or so plastic chairs, a stack of board games piled up in a corner—other than that, the room was empty.

My mother and I barely spoke. She looked like she was going to cry—her jaw tense, her eyes wet—but she never did. She said hello, in a soft, tender voice; she said it twice, three times, maybe, but other than that she was silent. She was looking at something, but I didn't know what. I stared at my mother's feet, which rested in thin, turquoise paper sandals. I was thinking about a time in the late nineties: it was Passover, my family was having a seder at my grandmother's house in Queens. I remember wanting something, but I don't know what. Matzo ball soup? More orange juice? Maybe just some water. My mother had been talking to someone, engaged in conversation, but I had been impatient and really wanted her attention. I pulled at her hand, tugged at her thin, unpolished fingertips. And then I looked up and saw that it wasn't my mother I'd been pulling at, but her sister, my aunt Elaine. I thought of that momentary feeling of horror, the hot slap of embarrassment and shame, when I looked up and saw only the absence of my mother. Never mind that it was my mother's younger sister, someone who so closely resembled her, who had the same fine, permed brown hair, who wore the same simple diamond ring on her finger—but none of it mattered. All I could think was,
This is not my mother

WE'D driven to the hospital separately, but instinctively I followed my father out into the parking lot, opened the passenger door, and sat down beside him. He stuck the key in the ignition and flipped it forward just an inch, and then a handful of red dots glowed from the dashboard, and the radio emitted a soft, blurry static.

“Look,” he said, “she's going to be okay, I promise. She'll stay here for a little while until she gets stabilized, but then she'll come home and things will be all right.”

“Okay.” I sat with my tote bag on my lap, the cotton handles twisted snugly around my fingers.

“I know this must be really hard and really confusing.”

It occurred to me then, in that moment, that there was something about my father's calm, the ease with which he was talking to me, that suggested this wasn't new to him. I wondered, suddenly, if my mother had been psychotic like this before. But when? It didn't seem likely. I wasn't an idiot; wouldn't I have known if my mother were crazy? If she'd always been this way?

“Yeah. I
feeling a little confused, I guess,” I said.

“Okay, well, do you have any questions?”

“Can you turn off the radio? Or change the station or something? What
that?” There was a hostility in my voice that I hadn't shown to my father in years, since middle school, maybe.

“Sorry, sweetie.” He pushed in the dial. “So, what do you want to know exactly?”

“I don't know! I don't even understand how we're having this conversation. I mean, everything was totally normal until three days ago, and now you're acting like I've been living on another planet this whole time. I just really don't understand what's going on.”

“Look, Mom's had some mental health issues. She'd been fine for so long. You know she's been in therapy.”

“Everyone is in therapy! That's not a thing.” I felt like a child, here with him in the car, as if my year and a half away at school had meant nothing, the independence and sophistication that I imagined I'd been nurturing were meaningless, gone. But I couldn't help it, didn't want to help it.

“I know, just listen to me.” My father pressed the tips of his fingers against the steering wheel, leaving momentary indentations in the leather. “She's been in therapy and on medication for many years. And every so often this happens, every so often there's a little break. She just needs to get stabilized again and maybe change her medication a bit and find a good . . . a good combination.”

“How is it possible that I've
known about any of this? That just seems crazy.” Was this part of the reason why my parents had been so invested in me going to boarding school? Had my mother been steadily losing her mind for the past couple of years and they'd wanted me out? To protect me from witnessing exactly what was happening right now?

“Look, there hasn't been anything that you've needed to know. She hasn't been hospitalized since you were really little. Everything has been fine for many, many years. She's been stable for over a decade!” My father's voice cracked. There it was—the tiniest bit of grief. Sorrow. I had been pressing him but I'd pressed too hard.

“And what was it before that? Before she was stable, what was wrong with her?”


It had begun to snow. I felt grateful for the easy distraction—and so I just stared ahead, focused my eyes on the flakes as they landed on the windshield and dripped down the glass.

“She was first diagnosed when the two of us were seniors at Tufts,” my father said. “We'd already been together for two years . . . She was struggling a lot, but she was somehow able to keep things together, and then she went to the hospital right after graduation. She was there for a long time. A month or so. It was a hard time, but slowly things got better, you know? The drugs weren't as good then, but they worked with some heavy side effects. This was when we were living in Boston. She got a job with a small newspaper in Brookline and after a couple of years things seemed totally back to normal. We knew it was there, this thing lurking behind both of us, but we were happy. She was healthy. And we got married in the fall, and then we waited another few years to make sure that things were fine, and really they were. And we consulted with lots of doctors to make sure that it would be okay to have you. All of them said the same thing: that if she was closely monitored and went off her medication for a little bit, but stayed in therapy, in a supportive environment, low stress, things would be okay. And they were!”

“And then?”

“This is a lot to take in and a lot to talk about,” my father said. “Maybe we should just go home and keep talking in the morning?” He scratched gently at his beard.

“Just get to the bad part, okay?”

“This is it, this is all of it.”

“Yeah, but you said she was hospitalized when I was a kid.”

“Right, when you were about four. She needed to get things readjusted, find some sort of equilibrium again.”

“How long was she there for?”

“About ten days.”

“Did I freak out?”

“You were okay. You were a tough little girl. And you went and stayed with Grandma for a little while.”

“And things have been okay since then?”

“Yes, they really have.” He paused. “Let's go home, Emma. Do you want to leave your car here and we can just drive back tomorrow and get it?”

I nodded my head yes. I worried that if I started to speak again, I would begin to weep. I hadn't been so openly upset in front of my father in years. I pressed a knuckle against the radio dial and then with another couple of taps, the CD player lit up. Bob Dylan's voice, raw and scratchy, filled the car.

WHEN we got home, I lay in bed and tried to gauge exactly how dumb and naive this new information made me. Was I like one of those sixteen-year-old girls who went into labor without even knowing that she'd been pregnant? It seemed impossible to not feel something growing inside of your body all those months, to willfully ignore all those hormones shifting. Would people look at me and wonder the same thing?

That night, I couldn't sleep. I started by just typing “schizophrenia” into Google, and hours later I was still awake—lost inside the endless maze of mental health sites, message boards, virtual support groups. The information was abundant and terrifying. I typed in, “My mother has schizophrenia” and the searches that automatically filled the search bar were “My mother has schizophrenia, will I get it?” “My mother has schizophrenia, do I?”

I looked up the symptoms: delusions, hallucinations, disorganized behavior, thought disorders. I wasn't sure if I knew what it all meant. What was disorganized behavior, exactly? Did the fact that I was messy and often careless—that every winter I lost two pairs of gloves, left a scarf wherever I went—count as disorganized? I didn't think I had hallucinations—that didn't worry me much—but then I read further:
auditory hallucinations
, hearing voices. This left me slightly confused, a little on edge. I didn't hear other people talking to me when they weren't, but wasn't there always a voice in my head? Narrating my every move? Was that normal? Did everyone have that?

I typed in, “famous people with schizophrenia.” I wanted to see public figures who had suffered in this way. The list was shockingly small. I was hoping it would be the kind of thing where half of the artists and writers I admired were actually plagued with the illness, but probably, I'd been thinking of bipolar disorder. After an hour of googling, all I could come up with were Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys, Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd, Jack Kerouac, and Ezra Pound.

I went back and reread the symptoms. I started to feel panicky as I read. Whatever slight curiosity or uncertainty I'd started out with earlier in the night had been replaced by a persistent, definitive terror. I was crazy too, or if I wasn't now, then I would be soon. I tried to calm down. I reminded myself of the time sophomore year when I convinced myself that I had herpes. I'd spent an hour in the girl's bathroom on my hall, staring at myself in the mirror as I'd been taught to do by the sex ed teacher. I didn't know if what I was looking at had always been there, was my normal skin, or if I had recently contracted some disease. I'd gone to student health later in the day, after I just couldn't take it anymore, and the nurse practitioner looked at me like I was an idiot.
Dear, you're totally healthy. There's nothing wrong; it's completely normal down there.
I closed my legs and hopped off the table.
Great, thanks.

BOOK: The Law of Loving Others
13.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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