The scars on my mom’s wrists serve as exclamation points of a desperate act performed by a sick woman. It wasn’t her first attempt or her last, but it was a long time ago. The stigma never goes away nor does the fear. My fear. Even forty years later, I don’t trust her not to try again. Some daughters might ask why, but I know. I’ve been in that dark space many times. All that has kept me from choosing the same path are those scars on my mom’s wrists. They have affected me so profoundly over the years, that I cannot imagine where I’d be if she had actually succeeded. Whenever I’m tempted, I think of my husband and my children. I love them too much to leave them with such a legacy.
My mom is not a diagnosed manic depressive nor does she take medication, but in the early 70’s she spent two years in a mental institution being treated for schizophrenia. Her experiences there were appalling. Mostly my dad takes care of her and since retiring a few years ago, she seems to do well enough.
I, however, did receive a diagnosis when I was twenty-two. More than anything, I felt relieved. Suddenly, my three days on the couch missing classes when I was typically a straight-laced student made sense. My odd desire to jump off bridges no matter how well my life was going had a name: bi-polar disorder. Not curable, but treatable. I had hope.
Nevertheless, my mom’s scars haunt me. She’s beautiful, funny, intelligent and quirky, and I almost never knew her. I would, for example, have missed rolling rugs.
Later I wondered why I had not asked more questions or made a few suggestions. Why did my mom and I need to move the carpet right now when Dad was at work with the truck? “Perhaps, we should measure the carpet,” I might have said. Reasonably, I might also have asked my mom to drive her Buick Skylark up to the shed. Bring Mohammed to the mountain rather than the other way around. Measuring the carpet would have proven the mission fruitless, while moving the car would have saved us two long hours of sweating and cursing.
My mom often sprouted ideas. These ideas emanated from a place of magical fairies and elves, or so I came to believe. I knew her ideas to be illogical even at the ripe old age of twelve, but like children who never stop believing in Santa, I never lost faith in my mom. I may have been a level-headed, straight-A student with an old soul, but when faced with my mom’s enthusiastic plans, whatever logic I possessed fled, and I jumped right in.
I recall one particular adventure when I was vastly overdressed. Because my mom often locked herself out of the house, it was inevitable that once or twice she would do so at a most inopportune time. Such was the case when she was to drive me to a fancy dance that I did not particularly want to attend. The dance had been my grandma’s idea. Ballroom dancing classes for the young Southern lady supposedly taught proper etiquette and manners. All I remember is being stuffed into taffeta dresses, wearing heels that hurt my feet, and having to dance with other girls because no boy would be caught dead taking ballroom dancing classes. (Well, okay, there was one boy who suffered quietly through with a constant blush, and I honestly hope the lessons paid extra dividends at his wedding reception.)
I carried my own house key, usually. But impractically dressed as I was, I had no pockets and carried no purse on this particular evening. Knowing my mom as I did, I should have been more vigilant. Caught up in my own yellow ruffled misery, I neglected to pay attention to the key situation. So, as my mom locked the door and headed for the car, the keys remained where they often did, on the kitchen table. This being 1982 our only option lay in knocking on doors until we could find a neighbor willing to let us use their phone to call Dad.
My parents and I lived in a little green box of a house on two acres in the middle of a well-trafficked road. Because my parents loathed subdivisions and craved space, the closest house in either direction sat at least a mile down the road, a road with no sidewalks. I remember hoping none of my classmates would drive by to witness my humiliation and mentally cursing my shoes, the dress, and the heat. I didn’t bother cursing my mom because locking herself, and occasionally others, out of the house, was simply a side-effect of being her.
Another memorable incident with my mom involved a frozen chicken. For reasons easily guessed, my mom rarely cooked. She made an effort now and again, but the cooking gods cursed her at every turn. The one and only time my mom made a meatloaf she substituted lemon extract for lemon juice. I’m not even sure where she got the recipe, because whenever I’ve told this story over the years, the listener is always puzzled at this particular ingredient. Regardless, I’m certain of this lemon extract because what happened as a result imprinted itself on my brain and in my nostrils for eternity.
One thing I now know with absolute certainty is that lemon extract and lemon juice are not interchangeable. The resulting loaf reeked as if it had been marinating in the sulfurous gases of hell. Dad and I, attempting to be supportive, reasoned that bad smell didn’t necessarily translate to bad taste. Maybe if we held our noses, we could choke it down. No one ever died from lemon extract poisoning, right? Dad, a former marine and therefore devourer of almost anything constituting food, took a bite. As I recall, he choked it down, but only just.
He looked at Mom apologetically. “Beth, I can’t eat this.”
By then, we were all suffocating on meatloaf fumes, so his announcement surprised no one. Ultimately, we threw it over the fence to the dogs that took one whiff, whimpered, and ran away. Dad was forced to bury the meatloaf the next day.
As for the frozen chicken, it was the most uncooperative bird I’ve ever encountered. Mom had thrown it into the sink to thaw, but the chicken remained as frozen as if we’d pulled it straight from a snow drift – nearly impossible in South Carolina, by the way. The chicken’s innards needed to be extracted before it could go into the oven. Mom tried running hot water over the chicken and basically gave it a hot water enema. She banged it on the counter and beat it with a rolling pin, but the chicken paid no heed.
After a long and futile struggle, Mom called me into the kitchen with a new plan. I’d grab the metal piece keeping the innards in place, and she’d grab the other end. And we would pull. Here’s what I learned from this experience: frozen chickens are slippery and don’t like to part with their innards. In the end, we left the innards in place and cooked the chicken as it was. To this day I have never bought nor attempted to cook an entire frozen chicken. When a dead chicken beats you in a wrestling match, you never quite recover.
Regarding the rug, to my memory it was 20ft long and weighed 5,000 lbs. A person of sound mind would never have attempted to move it as my mom and I did. Let’s just say there is more than one use for a push-mower, but balancing and pushing simultaneously takes much sweat and more than a touch of insanity.
Somehow, hours later, we had pushed and rolled the carpet around the house to my mom’s car, a standard four door sedan. I might add that my mom is 5ft 2in and 100lbs soaking wet. At twelve, I had outgrown her, but not by much. The two of us wrestled the carpet into the back seat of her car, and it should come as no surprise that it didn’t fit. At least two feet of carpeting hung out of the open door. No amount of bending or twisting or pleading could persuade the carpet to cooperate further. Then, of course, rain began to fall. Either we must allow the carpet to be ruined, or make the dreaded phone call to my dad at work.
When dad arrived, he said absolutely nothing. He simply yanked the carpet out of the sedan, tossed it in the back of his truck, drove it back around to the shed, and shoved it in. The whole process took him less than 5 minutes.
Not for the first time, I reconsidered being my mom’s sidekick. But when she was manic, she was hysterical, and she wanted to include me. I considered inclusion a privilege despite the insane treks on which she took me.
Because of course, dark days came too. At the time, I took it personally when she wouldn’t look at me or speak to me. How could I not? Evidently, I had displeased her in some way. These were the days that I tip-toed on eggshells and felt confused and unloved. I wondered where my mom who rolled rugs on lawnmowers had gone.
Years later, I now see her behavior for what it was: the result of mental illness. I’ve had dark days where I cut myself and thought deeply morbid thoughts followed by days where I eagerly made special sandwiches for a picnic and labeled each one with my label-maker. I’ve also run away from home on more than one occasion with the idea that I’d find a job wherever I landed and start some new adventurous life or with the idea that I’d end my life at the end of my journey.
So neither my mom nor I need tattoos to remind us of what we have survived and of what we must endure every day. We both have scars made by our own hands. I did my cutting where no one could see, but my mom expected to die. Her arms look as if they went through the windshield in a horrific car accident.
Some survivors of suicide tattoo a semi-colon on their person as a reminder. I wish she just had a semi-colon tattooed on her someplace. But, for us, no punctuation is necessary.
Allison Moyer is a certified librarian who worked in the field for thirteen years before her bipolar disorder forced her to go on disability. Now she reads more than ever, writes as often as she can, blogs, and takes Zumba classes. She’s been married for 20+ years to her high school sweetheart and has two grown children both currently serving in the U.S. Army as their father did before them. Born and raised in South Carolina, she traveled the world as a military wife. Now she lives in Georgia where she feels quite at home.
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