Resume Usual Activity

Parenting through the fog of mental illness

Angie Wang

In a notebook, I find a series of notes I made to myself during a rough patch. Call it an inventory of unwell. Some are lists of times I heard sirens, like this one from March 18, 2013:

8:35 a.m.
2:00 p.m.
3:38 p.m.
3:40 p.m.
3:51 p.m.
4:10 p.m.
5:00 p.m.
6:56 p.m.

Or a list of things I am good at:

silent reading,
food storage.

A quiz to rate self-compassion:

Rate 1–5, 1 being almost never, 5 being almost always: “I'm disapproving and judgmental about my own flaws and inadequacies.” My answer: 5.

A note to my husband explaining why I have driven with our daughters to California:

We'll come back when someone tells us what's been going on.

A conversation from the psych ward:

Marti: Do you know the one about the asshole?
Juan: No.
Marti: Me neither. I never remember jokes.

Another conversation:

Me: Good morning.
Marti: Good morning.
Me: How are you?
Marti: I'm well. But I'm not wearing any underwear.

Discharge instructions:

While in the hospital you were treated for Psychotic Disorder NOS [not otherwise specified]. During your hospital stay you were treated for either emotional or behavioral needs. If you are in crisis, call . . . . Your home diet is: You may resume your usual diet. Your activity recommendations are: Resume usual activity.

A conversation with one of my daughters:

Child: Where were you?
Me: The hospital.
Child: What were you doing?
Me: Resting.
Child: But what else were you doing?
Me: Playing foosball.

In the notebook I've folded in an old Seattle Post-Intelligencer feature story from August 2, 1983. There's a big above-the-fold photo of Mom and me with our arms around each other. I have the same bobbed hair I had through most of my childhood, bucky front teeth, OshKosh overalls. Mom has a sweet smile, her hair curled around her face, a blouse with a Peter Pan collar. It's six months or so after she'd traveled to Boston for an experimental and controversial brain surgery in which they used lasers to kill the part of her brain they thought was making her sick. The story says the surgery was successful and uses a kind of hyperbole and arc (from “a cruel sentence that drove her to the edge of madness” to “freed from the prison of her own mind”) that makes me wonder how much of the story is true. To punctuate the arc, the story says that six months after her surgery, my parents took me to Disneyland for my birthday. This was true, except it was for spring break, not my birthday.

The article describes how Mom and I spent my second birthday in a psychiatric ward, being observed. The doctors put us in a pen together to see how we interacted. There was cake, which is sad to think about—some nurse running out to the bakery of a grocery store on her lunch break to pick one up, my name in pink icing. And then it says Mom spent the next six years in and out of hospitals. I've always said it was two years, but I don't really remember.

What began, or is said to have begun, with postpartum depression after my birth in 1974 grew into an even darker depression as Mom became suicidal and agoraphobic, the agoraphobia because she was afraid of the panic attacks she would suffer when she went to the grocery store or the post office. So she didn't go out. She wore a velvet bathrobe and chain-smoked. I remember her lying on her stomach on the floor in front of the stereo speakers and listening to Barbra Streisand or Karen Carpenter or Carly Simon. I would lie on her back and sing along.

In the newspaper article, Mom says, “‘I was helpless and hopeless. I couldn't do anything. I couldn't talk. I couldn't relate to anything. I'd lie on the couch with a blanket over me, watching Jamie play. I couldn't be anything but a lump.'” This is around the time she lived in a nursing home in Sequim, Washington. An hour and a half away from our isolated town, it was the closest thing to a psychiatric ward Dad could find for her.

On a tape-recording I have of a conversation I had with my grandfather, Mom's dad, while she was away, he asks: “Where's Mommy?” testing to see if I know. “She's resting,” I say in my two-year-old voice, “at the rest home.”

Mom says something to the newspaper reporter I've never heard anyone else describe: “‘There was a constant weight on my chest and the feeling of a crushing band around my head. If it hadn't been for Jamie, I wouldn't—couldn't—have gotten up.'”

The band. I've felt that band around my head—though not crushing for me—more like a sweatband, but always there. Reading about this sensation was the first time I acknowledged that I could have any of what she had, that it's remotely similar. I wouldn't say that my life has been defined by depression as much as Mom's was, if depression is even the right label for her suffering or whatever it is when I get the sweatband. It seems like too tidy a description.

The best way I've ever heard anyone describe depression is that it's like a deep homesickness. The sense of unease becomes so pervasive that it grips your brain and renders you useless for all but the easiest, most rote activities. I remember sitting in our living room with Olive, my older daughter, when she was about four. It's February and I'm wearing three layers in our 69-degree house and still my nose and hands and feet are cold. My daughter and I are trying to put together a three-story Victorian Playmobil house. I can't figure out how to make one piece fit into another, how to make the structure rise up. I keep moving on to different parts of the house like a carpenter with ADHD. Nothing makes any sense. The instructions might as well be in Sanskrit. I look at them and look at them and look at them and Olive busies herself with putting plastic flowers in plastic planter boxes. I'm trying to channel a spirit of can-do. I'm thinking, “We will do this ourselves and it will be all put together by the time Daddy gets home,” but I'm blanketed in a fog of dumb.

Instead, I say, “I'm going to make us some blueberry muffins,” covering my ineptness with some very important Mom business. I am remembering that a mom I admire gave Olive and Vivie, my younger daughter, homemade blueberry muffins the previous week. So this is what normal moms do. Only I slosh in too much milk to compensate for the whole-wheat flour I've substituted for white flour, and I substitute honey for the sugar, so my muffins are too wet. They don't firm up, even after the tops are near-burned. By the time the white-blue-browned blobs come out of the oven, Bob gets home and saves the day with the Playmobil house, constructing all three stories, plus the widow's walk, in the time it takes me to cook a pot of brown rice for dinner.

When I'm in this state, I try to keep busy, offer tight smiles to the girls, fight the urge to lie on the couch, though at the same time I question even that, wondering if it would be healthier to model being one with my emotions, empty as they are. When I'm in this state, I question everything; I stare at an email for hours, unsure of how to sign off. The paralysis over one thing or another is near constant, and the couch, or bed, can seem like the more honest way to go, though I'm stubborn and proud and determined not to let my daughters see me like that.

That time with the Playmobil house, some things had upset me a few weeks earlier, and I turned them over and over in the little wheels in my brain on too many nights. Food became lumpy and unappealing—and then the sweatband, a rush of psychiatric appointments, a prescription. It's almost always the same pattern for me, though never as debilitating as what Mom went through for much of her adult life.

I was only in the psych ward for a few days that time. I wasn't getting better there—maybe I was getting more depressed, alone with my increasingly paranoid thoughts in that scary beige place with all the locks, the staff's keys jangling against each other as the staff members unlocked the doors. (Did they really need to make so much noise with their keys or was that some part of the treatment plan, some hint about the keys to wellness?) Over the phone, my daughters' little girl voices didn't sound the same. They sounded like other people's children, and I had this sneaking suspicion they were someone else's children—that mine had been taken away because I was a bad mother. I wanted to feel their soft hands in mine, to snuggle with them and sing my girls to sleep.

When I'm feeling better, I order a book called Daughters of Madness: Growing Up and Older with a Mentally Ill Mother. It's more useful, more relatable to me, more attentive to the gray areas of mental disorders than some of the memoirs I've read. I star some passages. One is about how “young children of mothers with psychotic disorders are more likely to have insecure attachments by the time they're two” and “more than half of the children of a mentally ill parent have either a mood disorder or a substance abuse problem.” Another one says, “Adult children from dysfunctional families frequently talk about not knowing ordinary things other people seem to know, and being embarrassed by those holes in their awareness.” Also: “I am my mother's daughter. That is the single most important and most devastating fact of my life.”

I tell my psychiatrist that I have a genetic predisposition to an inability to cope. My psychiatrist says I can call it whatever I want, and I find this statement as freeing as it is flip. I don't have to call it bipolar, my official diagnosis, a label like a doctor's stamp on a set of inherited and learned behaviors. Isn't it more complicated than that? I'm supposed to stay on the meds but I don't. A part of me thinks that I can break the pattern; I can think my way out of it. And a part of me remembers all those meds Mom took every day, brightly colored tablets and fluorescent capsules I used to break open at the sink to see what was inside. There's a believable line of reasoning that says those pills kept her functioning over the years. But I wonder how they changed her—her personality, her habits, her hair, her smile.

Growing up, I would not have told you that my mother was mentally ill. She managed my dad's electrical contracting business and ran first an appliance store and then an arts and crafts gallery in the storefront space connected to Dad's shop. She was president of the local chamber of commerce for a time and was active in the Soroptimists. She loved shopping and romantic comedies and lattes and walking around the track at the high school with her friends.

She went to see her psychiatrist in Seattle a few times a month when she was depressed, or sick—that's what we always called it, sick being a catch-all for a traveling band of symptoms that came and went for most of her adult life: panic attacks, agoraphobia, depression, headaches, insomnia, light sensitivity, canker sores so plentiful they impaired her speech. When I got older, sometimes I, her only child, would drive her; other times it would be Dad, if he wasn't too busy with his business. Sometimes it would be someone from our town who needed extra cash. Two of those drivers were mothers of kids at my school, and when Mom came home from being driven by them, I'd pump her for any bits of gossip they'd shared during the five-hour drive. I remember waiting, not for what the doctor said, but what I might learn about who'd gotten a DUI—one of the women's husbands was a state patrolman—or if there was any insider information from one of the daughters, who was a year ahead of me in school. This was my experience of Mom's illness. Because we were in it, because it was our normal, because it wasn't as dramatic as the memoir I would read later of the woman whose schizophrenic mom would show up at her grade school barefoot, with cigarette holes in her nightgown. Later, I would fill in gaps and realize how not normal we were. Later, I would remember the waiting room of Mom's psychiatrist more clearly than the bedrooms of any of my childhood friends.

Mom has been gone for five years. The sympathy cards are piled up and mixed with the congratulations cards for the birth of my second daughter. The cards are all stacked together now, a lot of sentiment in serif-y fonts. I don't like to look through them, but I can't throw them away, either. I have trouble thinking about Mom in any singular way that makes sense, and I think the jumble of cards symbolizes that—grief, sadness, happiness, love, hope—while at the same time neglecting to mention the darker stuff—regret, guilt, anger, and Jesus, what can I do to pass down just the good stuff?


“Mama, make your mouth like a smile,” Olive tells me. I'm a worrier, a brow furrower, a hurry-up-so-we're-not-late kind of person. Another time I laugh a big, hearty, genuine laugh—the kind that doesn't come easy. Olive says, “Mama, I like it when you laugh like that.” That she would even notice such a thing, to be known that way, makes me want to laugh more.

I am trying to be a good mother, and I think I am. But most days I still feel like the girl I was in my twenties when I wrote, in an essay about being uncertain about having kids, that I was held together by “bobbie pins and compliments.”

My girls eat fistfuls of almonds, scattering them everywhere. They leave the house strewn with tiny beads that hurt when you step on them, naked dolls bearing Sharpie tattoos, dried-up bits of clay, pen caps, a dreidel, a hockey puck—though we are neither Jewish nor do we play hockey. There's a tambourine in our bed shake-shake-shaking whenever Bob or I move in our sleep. “Honey,” I say to my husband, “there's a tambourine in here somewhere.” We both fall back asleep. Vivie jumps into my arms from a stool in the kitchen. I back up as far as I can, and she flies for three feet or so, grinning, then cackling. Back up farther, she says. Every day after preschool, she asks, “How was your day? How was your work?”

Olive writes, “We are fun!” in white crayon on the interior of the window of our beat-up old minivan. She says going to the post office is as “boring as boring on toast.” She tells me she loves me “like a big goat.” She cups my face in her hands, tells me she wants to take me to the copy shop and make copies of me so I will be with her all the time. All this normal, mundane, joyful, I want to hoard it, scrapbook it, bottle it, save it for later when I might need it.


The time I took the girls to California, I was deeply paranoid. (If I told you that every time I heard sirens or saw a red car drive by my house I thought it was related to something I'd done wrong, would you think I was crazy? If I told you it was spring break, would you think it was closer to all right?) I wanted to get away from all of the noises I was hearing, and I thought that if we left, someone would admit that they'd been messing with me, that it wasn't all in my head like everyone said. I thought we might go to Disneyland or at least to San Francisco for some dim sum. The girls were six and almost four and they were game.

Heading south on I-5, I spotted a gold Lexus like the kind Mom used to drive and I took it as a sign that she was with me in spirit. We made it as far as Arcata, where we jumped in the waves at Moonstone Beach. On the road from the beach, I parked the van and talked to my husband on my cell phone. We were at a Y in the road. If I turned the car left, we would head north. If I went straight, we would head south. Bob convinced me to drive north and met us in Brookings. Three days later, Bob and my father and stepmother had a kind of intervention, one in which my options were few.

The second time in the psych ward, things did not get better. My every word and action were focused on leaving that place, getting home to my sweet girls and husband. I said what I needed to say and apologized for the impromptu road trip, took the pills they said I needed to take. When I got out, nothing had changed, and nothing did change for at least a year. I went off of the meds as soon as I could, and life was much the same. Red car. Green car. Blue car. Gold car. Ambulance. Trainsong. I learned not to talk about the crazy thoughts.

I wish I could say I read everything there is to read about bipolar or actually use the bipolar disorder symptoms checklist that a therapist friend gave me. Or that I learned meditation or took the vitamins people are always telling me to take or had deep, cleansing conversations with all of my friends and loved ones. The truth is I just slowly got better. The truth is, my psychiatrist says, that the chances of another episode are pretty great.

One night after I put the girls to bed, I stepped out to our back porch to smoke a cigarette. I have a nonsmoker's guilt about my occasional habit, and as soon as I opened the back door I heard sirens. There was a time that I would have believed those sirens had something to do with me. This time, I knew they didn't, and I knew that meant I was okay for now.


Family, Health, Identity, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Home


2 comments have been posted.

How brave and lovely this essay is, Jamie. I love that you open with snippets from your journal and all the way through give us beautiful details and your mother, your daughters, yourself. And I love that you also share the details that must be so hard to share. They make this piece powerful, authentic. Well done. Peace to you and your family.

Ali McCart | April 2015 | California

Bipolars could do with a smartwatch with the bipolar ap -- a needle swinging from manic red to depressed purple, centering on sunny yellow when things are 'normal'. But the rub is that 'normal' is an unhelpful term for a bi-polar. The 'bi' in 'bi-polar' confuses more than it helps. It really isn't a 2-state concept and the term 'bi-polar' oversimplifies it tremendously. We try to reduce the chaos of our minds by simplifying difficult psychologies ad absurdum. You are 'gay' or you are 'straight' and if you are neither then you must be 'bi'. This hardly stretches to cover male sexuality. You are 'smart' or you are 'dull' and, if neither, you may simply be 'average', a stretch to cover learning capacity that is simply not helpful in teaching or in learning. We have a long row to hoe before we arrive at a real understanding of mental conditions that lead us to make unconventional choices, have uncomfortable feelings, or experience unexplainable impulses.

JES Mason | April 2015 | Bend

Also in this Issue

Beyond Repair

Full Circle

The Problem with the Immigration Problem

The River Fix

Perhaps, Perhaps

Kansas in Technicolor

Resume Usual Activity