Sleeping With The Light On

In a certain way, I had a dangerous childhood. Physically, it was safe enough, suburban, low crime, mothers at home during the day, someone always around. Materially, it was a bit fragile from time to time, such as the summer my father’s union was on strike from Memorial Day through Labor Day, which meant no paycheck for twelve long weeks. My parents were children when the Great Depression hit, and young adults during the rationing of World War II, as well as the eldest boy and girl respectively of their large families. So they knew a thing or two about surviving lean times. Make do, make over, don’t buy it if you don’t have the money, fix it up and fix it yourself. Those lessons have stood me in good stead through our current national and global economic woes, and I’m grateful for them. But my mother was mentally ill all her life, and her illness and its consequences pulled the rug perpetually from under my feet.

One thing you learn about mental illness when you live with it is that almost no one is crazy all the time. In some ways, it would have been easier to adjust to if my mother had been ubiquitously, consistently crazy. It was inconsistency that made my childhood dangerous. My mother was, thank goodness, at heart a kind and loving woman. It was her illness that made her sleep too much or not enough, that convinced her that she was the target of social conspiracies perpetrated by neighbors or relatives, that prompted her to pull down the shades throughout the house when I was in high school. My father was not mentally ill, at least not in the same dramatic way. He was simply unavailable. Thus it was that I learned early on to exist without any reliable source of emotional solace at home. When I was ten, we had a dog who became my pal and protector. He was very comforting. And I was a quick study. I made do.

The one thing that could cause my mother to pull herself together and behave lucidly was the need to take care of me when I got sick. I have vivid memories of being extremely and unpleasantly ill with measles, mumps and chicken pox, but I also recall that those were the times when my mother acted like a mother. She was available, accessible, attentive, comforting, nurturing. She was lucid. She was uncrazy. She brought me soup and extra pillows. She went to the library and replenished my supply of books. She left an extra light on at night when I went to sleep. I had a real mom when I was sick.

My mother died in 1994 at the age of 72, but in a real sense she had died several years earlier. Age and my father’s death nine years before did not improve her sanity. During the last several years of her life, I learned to give up hoping that she would marshal her lucidity. It was painful to give up that hope. It was the hope of my childhood self and I had carried it around with me all my life and the weight of its unfulfillment hurt. In the end, she was not my mother anymore, but my patient, my social work client. I was her case manager, not her daughter. But I was glad to do it. She was a dreadful, uncooperative, self-neglectful patient. She made me absolutely crazy every single day of the last five years she lived. But I loved her and I was glad to be able to be of use to her when she needed me and I wished I could have done more.

Since I was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly a year ago, there have been many, many moments when I have felt like a small, frightened child, left all alone and lost. I wanted someone to scoop me up and be the grown-up and promise to make it all better. “I want my mommy,” I would say to myself during the worst of those moments, and chuckle sadly. Had my mother been alive during this past year, I know it’s unlikely that she would have been much help to me. She could scarcely help herself in her last years, not so much because of physical frailty, but because without my father’s daily presence anchoring her to reality, she no longer had the strength to hold her mental illness at bay. It grew in psychic strength even as she diminished in emotional strength. She existed mostly in a tempest of her own making, a strange, nervous cloud that jittered around her all the time. And yet every now and then, when someone tried to put one over on her, she could still gird her loins and do battle for herself.

So I wonder. I wonder what she would have done had I been able to call her up the night I found out I had cancer. Perhaps because her little girl was sick, she might have been able to blaze fiercely and lovingly one last time, prepared to help me do battle with this monster that was trying to put one over on me. Even though she couldn’t drive anymore, she could have kept me company during all those endless excursions to the cancer center and the radiology department and the surgeon’s office. She could have brought me soup and extra pillows. Maybe. I’ll never know.

The night I was diagnosed, I fell asleep with the light on. My dog, who’s like a big teddy bear, lay at the foot of my bed that night and guarded me, as he’s done every night since. I’m still a quick study. I’ve learned a lot about what I’m really made of and how to make the best of things. I’ve been falling asleep with the light on for almost a year now. I make do.

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This entry was written by Kathi, posted on Saturday, July 11, 2009 at 02:07 am, filed under Cognitive Dysfunction & Depression, Fatigue, Life & Mortality, Nitty Gritty, Stories from Childhood, Survivorship and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

22 Responses to “Sleeping With The Light On”

  1. best blog yet 🙂 {{hugs}} or should I say my fav.. the great thing about blogs is you can take something out of each one and feel so many different emotions..thanks for that!

  2. This is beautifully written. Really wonderful. Thanks for sharing. Now I know you a little better, and I understand. I think we’ve got a lot in common. xoxox.

  3. Poignant. Beautiful. It shows how you’ve transcended obstacles. And I caught the Father of Photography entry below it…another gem. Love your writing and your photos. Yes, it is both photography and art.

  4. I lost my mother in 92. I learned at a very early age as well that parents are human with flaws and personality defects and mistakes. There were times I did not like my parents much after I was grown but no matter what I still loved them.

    This helped me tremendously with my youngest daughter. Her father was mentally ill. The older he got the more noticeable it was. Also, the more I lived life with him before we divorced the more obvious it became. He passed last year with her taking care of him. It was so hard for her because even at the end he couldn’t be loving to her, thankful to her, caring with her. He could only accuse her of stealing paperwork and passports and other assorted things that meant absolutely nothing. It was sad.

    I know sometimes I wish I could curl up in a ball and someone else make it all better. But there is no one. I am thankful that I have the strength to do what I need to do. Not having that luxury is probably a blessing. My strength is sometimes hard for others to deal with. But I am thankful it is there.

    When ever you feel the need just wrap your arms around yourself and know that Coco is there for you. Sisters in arms, sisters in life, even though we have never met.

  5. Kathi I am OmahaGirl at BCO, you my girl are one fabulous talented writer and artist extrodinare'(sp?) I have shared all of these feelings and I still sit in my tub which is my refuge and sob “I want my mommy” and though she is still here on earth she can no longer take care of me. When I saw the title for your story it brought a little choke, my BFF who died last year always said throughout our 35 years of friendship “time to be a powerful Amazon Warrior again” to whatever trouble was ahead. So, in my rambling here I am just trying to express to you how much I am loving your story and it is even better because I can feel it too.


  7. Kathi, sad to say but I can relate so well to this blog. I’ll not go into detail at this late hour but I understand what you endured & what you feel now all too well.
    I admire your strength. You are a survivor in every sense of the word.

  8. Thank you, Lita. There are so many of us who have grown up with mentally ill parents. It’s a tough subject & not everyone is lucky enough to turn out sane themselves after such an upbringing. I’ve had my own share of depression as an adult, but I am grateful not to have suffered the way my mother did.

  9. Oh Kathi. The heartbreak our little tribe carries is expressed so eloquently. The faith you have in your mother’s love, despite her serious limitations, comes through so clearly and poignantly.

    Thank goodness for loyal dogs.


  10. CB, it has certainly given me a different perspective on parenting, which may well be the subject of another post. I’m grateful to have been resilient enough to cobble together enough of what I needed to get through. And my cyber sisters have certainly helped. xoxo

  11. Honest and well-written post. I can relate as a breast cancer survivor who was the child of two mentally ill parents; one never diagnosed because of her refusal to admit it. My mother, too, only parented me when I was really sick, and then it was with the over-riding fear I would get her ill, too.

    At my worst times, I also have longed for a “mommy” who would take care of me, but now only have one who is still a child, wanting me to take care of her. Breast cancer put a punctuation mark on the need for me to take care of myself first and accept the love and support of people, who unlike my parents, are capable of nurturing. It hasn’t been an easy road, but I believe my childhood struggles have made me stronger and wiser.

    Thanks for your bravery in sharing on this tough subject. It’s good to know there are others out there like me.

  12. Tami, thanks so much for writing. There are so many of us who share this kind of childhood experience. And most of us are grateful every day to have every morsel of sanity and wisdom we’ve managed to accumulate. So many of us end up with our own emotional struggles as adults. I credit having a sense of humor, too, with keeping me going and helping me keep some perspective. We already learned a lot about surviving before breast cancer came along, didn’t we? And we are lucky to be able to nurture each other in our blogosphere.

  13. Hugs! 🙂 It certainly helps to have a sense of humor! We survived our childhoods; we can survive cancer!

  14. A genuine and wonderful post. May I share a little poem?


    Do I weep for her–
    for me–

    for the relationship
    that might have been

    and now will never be?

    (Excerpted from The Last Violet: Mourning My Mother, (C) 2002 Lois Tschetter Hjelmstad)

  15. Sorry for the spelling error. That’s relationship.

  16. Just fixed it, Lois. Lovely poem. And very apt. Thank you.

  17. […] tells a little more of the story of my family legacy of mental illness, and how I’ve coped: Sleeping With The Light On. You may also visit some of my previous posts by visiting the archive at The Vault. Or find the […]

  18. Kathi, you and I have this in common. I have many, many memories of my mother as my biggest cheerleader and believer in me. “When she was good, she was very very good …” Unfortunately, because of her psychological state, I often felt bereft of a mother. Even when she was alive, I often grieved that loss. Thank you for sharing this. I get it. xoxo

  19. Mental illness is such a sad, heart-breaking thing. I’m just relieved she wasn’t violent or abusive. Hugs to you, Eileen. There are a lot of us children out there that grew up this way. xoxo

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