“That’s where all the crazy people go!” blurted one of my fellow grade-school students as our bus drove past the Mental Health Institute on our way to a field trip of a museum and planetarium in Cherokee, Iowa. False shame reached out its grubby hands and strangled me as I stared out the window at that unfriendly brick building, my enemy. The razor-edged words sliced into my heart, slashing the scream begging to give voice, “My mom is NOT crazy!”
My mom often battled bouts of depression when I was growing up. She wanted to be there for us kids, but she couldn’t. Several times throughout my childhood she would have stays in Cherokee and later in a Sioux Falls hospital or in Yankton when we lived in South Dakota.
Sadly, shock treatments and pills were the norm in those days. My mom didn’t receive quality counseling to enable her to work through the deep-seated childhood rejection and emotional abuse that caused her depression. Counseling was not widely available in the 1960s. Inevitably her pain kept festering inside, ready to shove her into debilitating illness time and again.
Unfortunately the minister and church elders didn’t understand depression. Whenever my mom was in the hospital, they wouldn’t even visit her, even after she came home. She didn’t even receive a note of support. Their silence and lack of support pierced and twisted a knife into her heart and further stoked the fire of shame that further undermined her self-worth.
Add to that shame… Fear. Raw fear. We often heard about hell, and we perceived God as a distant, furious Judge ready to punish us. We didn’t hear how the love of Jesus offers hope, how Jesus hurts when we hurt.
In spite of her periodical battles with depression, I still knew my Mom loved us. But when she disappeared, emotionally and sometimes physically, it was so difficult to convince my child’s heart. And I suffered from living with her depression. I’d see her crying or in hysterics, and it tore me up. Like many children, I somehow felt guilty for her illness. Why couldn’t I make Mom happy? What did I do wrong? When she was suicidal, it devastated me. Weren’t we worth living for? When Mom was again taken to a hospital, I was lonely and afraid.
Subconsciously I began to believe it was my job to make everyone happy. I became a people pleaser to try to quiet my longstanding belief that I helped cause my mother’s depression. If anyone around me was unhappy or upset, I would try to “fix” it. If I couldn’t make someone feel better, my load of guilt became heavier. What is wrong with me that I always mess up people’s lives?
It took years before I worked through my guilt and feelings of desertion that I had felt as a child. But when I did, I realized what a wonderful mom I really had. Although depression sometimes snatched her away from us or plunged her into inescapable self-centeredness, she loved us deeply. There was nothing she enjoyed more than to be surrounded by her family, and I believe she would have sacrificed her own life to save ours. In fact, she nearly did.
One day I was contentedly curled up with a book on the living room couch. My little brother was in the playpen on the north wall of the kitchen next to the door leading to the living room. Mom was in the kitchen preparing supper and heating oil for french fries in an aluminum pan on the gas stove burner. When she lowered the basket of frozen fries into the hot oil an explosion of light and a bone-chilling shriek shattered my serenity. I snapped out of my frozen-in-fear moment and raced to the kitchen to see fire climbing up the curtains next to the stove. Oblivious to the burning flesh on her hands, Mom screamed, “Get the baby out! Get the baby out! Get Dad!”
I grabbed my little brother, heaved him onto my hip, and rushed out to the barn. Meanwhile, my mom worked feverishly to get the fire out; and if my memory serves me correctly, she succeeded before Dad arrived. But then the pain took over and consumed her, and Dad rushed her to the doctor.
The 2nd and 3rd degree burns on my mom’s hands took time to heal. But those gauze-wraps were loving hands of a mother who cared more for our safety than for her own. That same hand, scarred with love, soothed my fevered brow when I was sick and brought me tea and toast and patted my back with encouragement to pursue interests I enjoyed.
That loving hand carried an automatic switch whenever I traveled with her. A sudden step on the brakes would spring her hand out to my side of the front seat in the car, and her arm became my safety belt. That switch could always be depended on, even later when I was an adult and we had seatbelts. I didn’t mind though, and we had some special moments over it. Later, as my mom became older and rode along with me, we chuckled when one day my hand sprang out.
How I loved my “crazy” mom! I’m so proud of how she broke the abuse cycle of possibly generations of moms. She had to battle the monster of depression and she couldn’t always protect us from harm, but she still managed to model what a mother’s love should be.
I am so grateful that in the later years of her life, Mom was blessed with a counselor who nurtured her and encouraged her to find her identity in Christ Jesus. She was finally able to experience Jesus loves her and know she has priceless value in His eyes. Her faith in a Savior who sacrificed His life for her grew and blossomed like a rose. Deep-seated thorns of insecurity and depression still tried to inhibit her from full bloom, but she was still, oh, so beautiful. Yes, depression often dominated her life, especially when we were growing up, but I still picture the deeper scars on one of her hands. Scars of love. Sacrificial love. Even when a spinal stroke paralyzed her and took away her freedom to hug us, she still wanted us to know we were loved. Fighting for breath, some of her last words were whispered in succession, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
I wish I could go back in time to those kids on that school bus. I would stand up to them and proudly tell them how much my “crazy” mom loved us and how blessed I am that she was my mother. I am a better, more caring person today because of her. And I know she is now with Jesus where she can forever bloom perfectly. There is no more depression and no more pain.