The car pulled to a stop in front of my family’s apartment, and I looked up to see the shadowy figure of my mom standing at the sliding glass door. I knew that stance well. It meant she was angry. Again. What could I have done this time? It was 11 o’clock at night, which after mom’s normal bedtime, but I was 21 and had been at a church event with my boyfriend and his godparents.
I entered the apartment to ringing accusations.
“Where have you been? I’ve called everyone including your previous pastor, the police, your boyfriend’s cell phone and his godparents’ house. You couldn’t have been at church the whole time!”
I seethed inside. Don’t I have the right to live my life? How embarrassing that she called the police on me because I wasn’t at home before 10pm. Why is she suspicious of everything I did. Can’t she trust me? I had never done anything to jeopardize her trust. I have never smoked, never drank, never got in with the wrong crowd. I’ve tried so hard to obey.
I felt trapped in an endless nightmare of wondering what would upset her. She hadn’t always been like this. When I was a child, people sought her out for godly wisdom and frequently visited our home. She was active in church activities and held a good job. My dad passed away when I was 7. The first few years after his death were relatively uneventful but when I was 11 Mom became increasingly paranoid and was admitted to the psychiatric ward for several weeks. After that she was never the same. She was suspicious about everything and everyone. This prevented her from holding a job and she cut off contact with all my extended family. Her irrational anger reared up anytime someone appeared to be against her even when the perceived threat was completely unfounded.
I lived day to day, year to year, trying to hide myself away so that I wouldn’t be the target of her fury. Those years took a toll on my mind as well. Since everyone else had been cut off, Mom was the main influence on my life for a long period. At times, her break from reality was a slow fade which pulled me with it. She would talk frequently about how people were against us. I started to believe that she was right: everyone was against me and I shouldn’t trust anyone.
But I was angry. I saw my peers gaining increasingly more freedom with age, while my freedom was continually reigned-in the older I got. Anytime I voiced my resentment, Mom accused me of being rebellious and twisted my words. In the end, I would feel guilty for my reaction and convince myself that I was wrong for feeling that way.
When I was 17 I started working at a local convenience store to help support the family. While I was working one day, a local locksmith named Walt came in the store. He started a conversation with me and found out that I was a Christian. When he left the store that day, God told him that he needed to continue visiting me at the store to demonstrate to me the love of God the Father. Over the next several years, Walt continued visiting me at work. He encouraged me to write down my feelings about my situation, and gradually I began to trust him. Walt’s wife suffered from mental illness, so he was able to help me sort through many of my own issues stemming from my home life and my mom’s condition.
It took me years to understand that mom’s actions and behavior were and still are a result of a mental illness. She remains in denial of it and I was too, for a long time. As I came to terms with her condition, I grew to understand my past, and learned to be more realistic about the future. For so long I lived with a false expectation that she would one day be normal again. Every time she would have another episode, I found myself deeply disappointed.
Living in that environment for so many of my formative years made me realize that I had to learn how to break the cycle for myself and my children. I began a quest to understand my own mind. I wanted to figure out why my pervasive emotions were overwhelming fear, shame, guilt, and insecurity. I began reading books by neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf, and through her writing, I gained perspective about my own mental struggles. As I studied the statistics, I knew that if I didn’t work to retrain my destructive thinking patterns I would be passing these traits of mental instability on to my own children. As my fearful thoughts would bubble up to the surface, I began the tedious task of painstakingly separating them into two categories: is this a rational fear based on truth or is it something that Mom was afraid of?
I still have a relationship with my mom, but having struggled with anxiety and moodiness when I spend time with her, I’ve had to set boundaries. My husband’s godmother insisted that I had to find a way to separate my mom from her illness, encouraging me to enjoy her on the good days and recognize that on other days it was the illness talking.
Situations still arise when the illness takes me by surprise and I am frightened by its shadowy figure. In those times I learn to screen the phone calls, or turn the issue over to my husband. Denial would lead me to live subjected to the illness. Courage leads me to tough love in the form of boundaries or emotionally distancing myself for a period of time. I choose not to be a victim, and I live each day as it comes, endeavoring to love her despite the sickness.
Naomi Fata is a wife, a work from home, homeschooling mom of three amazing children, and author of Beyond Head Knowledge: Knowing Christ Who Satisfies Our Hearts. She says she is an ordinary person who has found victory in an extraordinary God. Weekly she writes about renewing our minds at Christian Resource Ministry. You can find her on Instagram Twitter, and Facebook.