Loving My Mother Through the Mental Illness That Led to Her Death
I was 8 years old the first time my mother told me she was going to kill herself.
Born to loving parents who had been married for nine years and growing up in an idyllic Maryland suburb outside Washington D.C., I got a solid start in life. But within a few years, my home life began to unravel. In addition to depression, my mother had borderline personality disorder (BPD), marked by her emotional instability and dysfunctional relationships, and prescription drug addiction. Experiencing abuse as a child and always possessing a willful temperament, my mother was not an unlikely candidate to develop BPD. But it’s a psychiatric illness that’s notoriously difficult to treat, and despite being in therapy since her early 20s, over the whole of my childhood, my mother declined rather than improved.
My mother had the best intentions when it came to parenthood. In the late 70s, she wanted a baby girl more than anything, and when I arrived she showered me with love and attention. The baby book she made detailing every milestone and the photo albums with all of her captions prove as much. She was the first person to really encourage my writing, and she was always the person I wanted to talk to when I had a problem. Although her nurturing behavior decreased the older I got, there’s no doubt she gave me a good foundation and was an emotional force at a time in my life when my father and other family were absent.
With no real support network surrounding the family, I had no choice but to rely on my mother’s contradictory parenting for sustenance. She alternated between worshipping and loathing me, fiercely protecting me in public and then verbally abusing me in private, holding onto me tightly and then pushing me away. My childhood was punctuated by endless groundings for infractions real and imagined, humiliating scenes at the doctor’s and the grocery store, and the repeated mantra that I was “rude and abusive.” Individuals with BPD are known for “splitting” people as black – all bad – or white – all good. My mother experienced this all my life. I lived for the “white” moments. She was everything to me, and I panicked at the thought of losing her. My life was a game of control, and as long as my mother was alive, I’d won.
Though she’d had her troubles with it. But the year my grandmother died and she finally divorced my father, she began a backward slide from which she would never recover. Obsessed with her physical problems, she traded one drug addiction for another. Every time I would return to my childhood home, which had been meticulously kept up when I was young and was now unclean and cluttered beyond recognition, I would see more evidence of my mother’s condition worsening. The crying jags and suicide threats increased in frequency and intensity and caused unbelievable pain and anxiety. Our experiences turned me into an adult well before my time, but by the time I graduated from college I felt like I was a hundred years old.
Some of the incidents from my 20s are burned in my brain – the time I left a dozen panicked messages on her machine convinced she was dead, only to find out later she was sitting next to the phone, the time I made a list of her insults from one conversation that spanned two typed pages, the time I came home from work and found 20 moving boxes filled with her belongings on my front lawn, the time she called to tell me she had “accidentally” overdosed.
After I got married at the age of 28, I stepped up my endeavors to secure help for her. I moved her to Providence, Rhode Island, where there was a world-class treatment program for people with BPD. I was despaired when she didn’t complete the program and moved back to Maryland against medical advice. There, I continued to fight my war with social service caseworkers, group therapy programs, and Social Security resources. I finally realized nothing I was doing was working because it felt like my mother was not motivated to get better. I mourned this loss. But I continued my efforts anyway until a monumental event happened – I got pregnant.
Eventually I conceded that after 30 years of fearing my mother would leave me, I was going to have to leave her. I told her I didn’t want to speak to her until she re-enrolled in therapy.
A tremendous sense of guilt and accountability for my mother’s life had kept me from making such a move earlier, and it was never easy, for I worried about her every day. We did exchange a few cards and letters. I knew in my heart my mother was losing her ability to be miserable on her own terms.
Then, one fall morning, my mother killed herself. We found out when a policeman from our local district came to our house and rang the doorbell.
Through all the hospitalizations, all of the times my family and I sent the police to her door in the middle of the night, all of the times she did or said something I’d add to the collection of wounds from my childhood, all I ever wanted was for my mother to be out of pain. I hope wherever she is, some part of her knew I would have done anything to help her and how hurt and sad and frustrated I was when I couldn’t turn things around.
When a loved one has a severe mental illness, it isn’t black and white, and there isn’t one way to think or feel about it. The only thing I can do as a survivor is share my experience so others know they’re not alone.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.
Ally Golden is the author of the new survivor memoir, A Good Soldier. A passionate advocate for those coping with the mental illness or suicide of a loved one, Golden lives in Chicago with her husband and two children.
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