When children are born, they love their mother unconditionally. As they grow, she is the one who makes them feel safe, loved, and secure. In their eyes she is perfect. For a few lucky moms, they continue to be amazing in their children’s eyes even after their children become adults. As a manager for a large company, I often interview new employees. One of the interview questions is “Who is your role model?” About eight times out of 10, people say it’s their mom. Every time I would hear that response, I would feel a pain in my chest because I knew my boys would never tell anyone I was their role model. By the time they were adults they would know I was damaged and broken. How could anyone say that someone with paranoid schizophrenia was their role model?
I always knew that eventually I would have to tell them. When the day finally came to tell my oldest I spent the entire day feeling sick to my stomach. He was a teenager now and my symptoms developed when I was a teenager. I knew that people who have a family member with mental illness were twice as likely to get it. I couldn’t put it off any longer. He had to be able to identify the signs. I had to tell him.
I picked him up from basketball practice and we sat in the car. I tried to steady my shaking hands on the steering wheel. I told him that I had to tell him something. I was surprised by how weak and fragile my voice sounded. I started to sob uncontrollably. He looked at me with concern in his beautiful green eyes and I could tell that I was scaring him. I forced myself to get my crap together. I told him that there was something he needed to know and then looked off into the darkness and braced for his reaction as I told him that I had schizophrenia. I couldn’t look at him because I knew there was going to be disappointment and maybe even disgust in his eyes. I had already seen it so many times when I told other people. His response shocked me.
“Mom, I already know that. Geez, I thought you were going to tell me something bad like the dog died.”
I was confused and inquired how he knew.
“When Tyler’s mom got cancer she had to take a bunch of pills every day. You have to take a bunch of pills every day so I was worried that you had cancer. I Googled the names of your pills and they were all medications for schizophrenia. So I knew that you either had schizophrenia or you were some kind of pill junky that liked to get high on schizophrenia medicine, but since that doesn’t seem to be a thing I leaned towards you having schizophrenia.”
Here I was telling him my deepest darkest secret and my kid was somehow still finding a way to be a smart aleck. I asked him if he thought I was selfish for having him knowing that I could pass on my illness. He looked at me like I had asked the most ignorant question in the world.
“Do I wish that I had never been born because I have a chance of inheriting a mental illness?” He rolled his eyes at me. “That’s a stupid question. I bet Tyler’s mom never asked him if he wished he hadn’t been born because he has a chance of inheriting cancer. I’ll be fine whatever happens, Mom.”
I told him I didn’t think he understood just what this illness could do to his life.
“I’ve looked up the symptoms, Mom!” Another eye roll followed by a big sigh.
“I know I would be OK because I would have you to show me how to control it. Tyler’s mom went into remission after a year of treatment and he was so excited that she could stop taking all her meds and their life would go back to being normal. I realized that you would never get to stop taking your pills. I thought about how the town rallied around her when she got sick, but you have to fight your illness alone in the dark and keep it hidden away like it’s some kind of dirty secret. That’s when I realized that my mom is kind of a bad ass and I knew if I got it I would be OK, because you always fight harder for me than you do for yourself.”
I sat there stunned. I could still feel the tears streaming down my face.
“Mom, Can we stop by McDonald’s on the way home? I want a sundae and some fries.” Than he pulled out his phone and started responding to the Snapchat messages or whatever they are called that he got during practice.
Just like that the moment I had feared his entire life was over. The next time I asked someone who their role model was during an interview and they said their mom, I smiled. Because now I know that my kid doesn’t think I am damaged and broken. He thinks I’m a bad ass and one day when someone asks him who his role model is there is still a small chance that he might just say, “My mom.”
Author’s note: I’ve chosen to remain anonymous due to the negative personal repercussions that “coming out” with a severe mental illness can cause. I want you to know that I could be your neighbor, your co-worker, or your friend. Anyone in your life could be hiding a mental illness from you because they are afraid of being labeled with one of the many derogatory names given to people who suffer from mental illness. They just have an illness that needs treatment, they are not a lesser person because of it. Mental illness can affect anyone regardless of your race, gender, religion, or socioeconomic status.