“My mother isn’t crazy. My mother isn’t crazy. My mother isn’t crazy,” I write as my hand starts cramping. I’m not allowed to stop until I’ve copied this another 97 times, as ordered by my mother. I’m around seven or eight years old and this is my punishment for disrespecting her.
Of a traumatic childhood mired in domestic abuse, this is one of the few memories that stick. My parents were still together at the time and the atmosphere in our home was volatile, anywhere between strained and explosive, never placid. While I can’t recall what prompted my unkind remark, there must have been some argument. Back then, my household’s default mode of communication was yelling.
A quiet child, I sought refuge in books and tried not to draw attention to myself lest I should cause my mother to fly off the handle again.
She had a very short fuse and likely felt trapped in a marriage to someone with whom she had nothing in common but me, their only child. To say my parents weren’t suited to each other would be an understatement although this might not always have been the case.
They were married for five years before I came along and upended their life.
Suddenly finding herself with a kid wasn’t a happy experience for my mom. She suffered from crippling postpartum depression, for which she only received minimum — and inadequate — support.
Early 1980s France wasn’t particularly enlightened about mental health and stigma was rampant: Women suffering from depression were often dismissed as hysterical. In a fit of pique, the small monkey that I was didn’t know any better than to parrot this hurtful message I had picked up from a bigger monkey, my father.
Decades later, my face still stings with shame at this recollection. Dad and I weren’t callous by design but by default. He didn’t know what to make of a wife who was so desperately unhappy, and I was too young to understand what was going on.
Although a child can intuit a lot, I couldn’t articulate any of it yet. Out of instinct, I knew to disappear into the background and keep out of my mother’s way so I wouldn’t provoke her.
I spent my childhood and adolescence walking on tiptoes, a solitary kid who never looked forward to going home at the end of the school day.
Even after my parents divorced, my mother’s random outbursts continued. Becoming a single mom was more than she ever bargained for and yet she brilliantly rose to the challenge. But she still wasn’t happy, and neither was I. To live with a parent who feels constantly put upon by life and seems impervious to joy does take its toll.
Under the cover of academia, I left home at 17. Exactly two years later, I married a man nine years older than me, much to the horror of my mother who, on my wedding day, only had one thing to say:
“You don’t give a flower to a pig.”
And three years after that, it was my turn to appear in divorce court. Mom had rightly sensed what I couldn’t see at the time.
If anything, my mother taught me early on that you shouldn’t sacrifice your mental health on the altar of marriage. Then again, I’ll never know whether my parents might have been happy hadn’t I come along. They are so very unlike that I — and those who know both of them — doubt it. For my own sake, their incompatibility is the story I keep telling myself.
Because that your existence could be the source of someone else’s misery is quite the unbearable thought, even if true.
For years, my mother and I drifted apart, and we almost became estranged in 2012 after one very acrimonious outburst prompted by my visit. I was an accidental digital nomad at the time after spending three harrowing years as a journalist in the middle of the Atlantic. My peripatetic life had always been a constant source of stress and worry to my mom. Much as I wanted to reassure her I’d be fine, I couldn’t back this up with any actual evidence.
By then, my mom had all the support she had lacked earlier on — that is to say medication and therapy — but she still felt lonely. My sudden and temporary reappearance in her life made matters worse. She suffered horrible nightmares when I was there and I felt so uncomfortable I couldn’t wait to leave, again.
Only this time the patterns that had ruled out relationship since I was born became clear.
We loved and cared for each other deeply but couldn’t express it, for to do so would mean allowing ourselves to be vulnerable.
And vulnerability had never been part of our love language.
In the last five years, this has changed.
Although more geographically distant than ever — my mother lives in France, I live in the United States — we’ve become closer. This started when I came out as depressed. Much as I dislike appropriating this phrase from the LGBTQ struggle, there’s no better one.
For many of us, opening up about mental health is a leap in the dark.
Especially when those you need to tell are the people who brought you into the world, because your inner child is still looking for approval. Explaining to my mother why my life had stalled shortly after immigrating to America was fraught with guilt. Having internalized early on that depression was dysfunction, it amounted to confessing I had failed at life.
I initially concealed my mental health from her because I was loath to provide her with yet another cause of anxiety. To protect her, I was vague and deflected questions until I couldn’t anymore. When I finally spoke to her, she didn’t judge. Instead, she listened as I explained how I was trying to move forward despite my inability to access therapy.
Since then, we’ve been comparing notes on our respective depressive states. More than likely, living within a dark cloud is a genetic predisposition, although even science doesn’t yet know for sure how much of it is down to nature, and how much to nurture.
I recognize my mother in my unwillingness to impose on anyone, in my determination to go it alone, in my attempts to bootstrap recovery. She has always been fiercely independent and instilled in me the necessity for a woman to be self-sufficient in every possible way.
That I should end up depending on my husband — because ill health and the absence of universal health care in America made it inevitable — horrifies us both. However, it is something I’ve been trying to remedy since July, one word at a time.
Depression may have stolen five years of my life but it finally gave me the mom I never had. We had never been close but our common illness gifted us with the mutually supportive relationship we always longed for. A love like ours should never have had to second-guess itself in the first place, but lack of emotional fluency isn’t uncommon in families.
As my mother enters her twilight years, we’re finally united, drawing much comfort and strength from being able to confide in each other.
To me, this is nothing short of extraordinary.