The Mighty Logo

What It Was Like to Grow Up With an Abusive Mother Struggling With Mental Illness

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

As Mother’s Day came and went this past year, I once again found myself with conflicting feelings. Part of me wanted desperately to join in with friends who were fondly honoring their moms or mourning the mothers they had lost over the years. Another part of me, however, felt numb and empty, because I never had that type of cherished bond with my mother. I honestly never knew her.

No, my mother didn’t die when I was born. She passed away 8 years ago this Thanksgiving Day. No, she didn’t give me up for adoption nor did she abandon me. The truth is that my mother was there throughout the majority of my childhood and sporadically at best throughout my adult years. I just never really knew her because the woman she truly was was buried deep beneath often untreated, always under-treated, mental illness.

Growing up, my mother was one of my biggest abusers, both mentally and physically. She was prone to severe mood swings that would shift into bouts of rage at the drop of a dime. She had bipolar disorder.

We were estranged for the last few years of her life. I could no longer handle the abuse, nor did I want my children subjected to it. It seemed that her medication was never quite balanced nor were her moods. It always felt like what little treatment she did receive was not helping, was not working and she was doing very little to proactively work towards correcting anything. She felt to me like a ticking time bomb, one I was afraid would go off at any moment and I did not want my children caught in the crossfire.

Over the years as I have struggled with my own mental illnesses, I have come to deeply regret my feelings. I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorder and PTSD, labeled “treatment-resistant” for years. No medication ever seemed to work. It wasn’t until the last year or two that I discovered via genetic testing that my resistance was caused in great part to a genetic mutation. I’ve often wondered since then if my mother suffered from the same mutation.

The truth is that mental illness changes a person, or perhaps more appropriately it snuffs that person out, dimming their light and dulling their soul. The person that you are is trapped underneath, desperately needing to come out, wanting to shine. But there is this dark hopelessness that oozes over everything, making it impossible to fully be the person you truly are.

I think about my own children and how my diagnosis has affected them. They have only seen glimpses of the real me over the years. The creative me who would spend half the day drawing huge murals with sidewalk chalk on the tennis courts at the park with them on summer days. The silly me who would make paper pirate hats and eye patches, transforming our dining room chairs into a pirate ship to celebrate Talk Like A Pirate Day with them. The nurturing and educational me who would catch tadpoles in buckets with them to show them how they turned into frogs.

More than anything, though, they saw my mental illness. They saw the mom who was too exhausted just from going through the daily motions of life to do anything fun. They saw the mom who opted for quiet family days indoors watching movies or playing board games because I was physically and mentally unable to do anything more. They saw the mom who often emerged from the bathroom drying my eyes as I attempted to hide the tears I could never seem to stop from flowing.

They were vaguely aware of the person I truly was but they knew my mental illness well.

I remember when I first started taking the medication I needed for my genetic mutation and I had my first truly happy moment. It was the first time in my life I ever felt that sludge of mental illness be lifted off of me, albeit for a short period of time. The medication is not a panacea. It in no way cures or stops my mental illness. However, it does give my mind the ability to fight back in a way that it never could before.

That moment of happiness was beyond blissful. I laughed, cried and hugged my boys, asking them again and again if that was truly what happiness felt like. I had never experienced anything else like it. That sludge continues to lift here and there sporadically and I have a genuine hope for the future now, that there might be a day when there’s more periods of happiness than illness. But for now, more days than not, I still struggle.

I have heard from people that knew my mother at the end of her life, in those last couple years, that she had finally gotten the treatment she needed. Her medication was finally balanced. She was happy and more herself than she had ever been before. She was doing crafts with the neighborhood children and even developed a fondness for “Harry Potter.”

Part of me envies them because I never knew that woman. I never had the pleasure of meeting her. All I ever knew was the sludge and taint of her illness. On Mother’s Day, I mourned the ghost of a woman I never even met, a woman I would have loved more than anything to know.

Please keep in mind sometimes people struggling with mental illness are not completely themselves. Sometimes, the person they truly are is in there somewhere, beneath their diagnosis, fighting to get out. Please don’t ever assume that we’re just not trying hard enough, that we’ve already given up or that we’ve lost who we are along the way. It is a daily battle, a constant fight, against your own mind. It is a never-ending struggle to push your way through a thick layer of darkness just to come up for air.

Looking back, I truly regret becoming estranged with my mother. I had done what I thought was best at the time, trying to shield my children and myself from an illness that was not her fault. She had no more control over her bipolar disorder than I do over my own mental illness. I am sure she was trying harder, fighting more, than I ever realized.

To the mother I never knew — I’m sorry I was not there when you needed me. I’m sorry I allowed my fear to dictate my actions and choices and that I abandoned you when you needed me most. I’m sorry I was not more compassionate and understanding of all that you were going through. Most importantly, I am sorry I never had the pleasure to truly meet you. Happy belated Mother’s Day.

This story originally appeared on Unlovable.

Originally published: September 14, 2018
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home