Mental Health Take Care: Mothers, Daughters, and Inheriting Self-Hatred
“All my mother had done was try to love me while not loving herself.”
She had to get to the Erie Canal, that much was certain. She had studied maps closely, so closely she knew the mountain ranges, the rivers and their tributaries, the font of the letters spelling out the words new york , the palette of the states. She studied the map so closely she could no longer actually decipher a route to her destination. North, blue, Mohawk River, left, Catskill Mountains, Times New Roman, westward, onward, upward. No matter. She just had to get there, it was the thereness that mattered. Nothing else.
Built in 1853, or 1808, or 1945, the canal, she knew, held what she needed. Hard labor, honest days, moral values, common sense, perfect truth, forgotten youth. It would be the ideal antidote to her, to time, to all things lost. She was not worried about what she would do once she arrived; connection would be easy. Why, the very purpose of the Erie Canal was connection! Freight moving from railroads to water. Making connection, following the route, hollowing a root, striking a clue, drifting the blue, guiding the way, finding the day, shining above, sent with love, to New York.
From there she could hop a boxcar, find a rail yard, talk to a jail bird, sleep on a mail sack, hide in a luggage rack, walk on the train track. She would watch the stars in the sky barely moving as she rumbled clickety-clack. Nighttime on the City of New Orleans penny a point ain’t no one keeping score, pass the paper bag that holds the bottle, feel the wheels rumbling ’neath the floor. She would talk to Willie Nelson, or someone who looked like Willie Nelson and with just a few words and a threadbare smile so much would be cleared up. Cleaned up. Understood. Overalls.
Emboldened by truth and clarity she would continue westward ho across a country she had not been born to, born in, but had come to. Coming to. But first she had to get the kids from school.
Everyday life threatened to invade her calling as she drove to collect her daughters. But it was too late; her journey had begun. Driving her car down the middle lane of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway she felt a profound sense of connection with the road, every rise and fall she registered in her body, as if she were riding a bison, atop a whale, a slap of the tail. Everything was a part of everything, her car, her body, the pavement, the air all moving together like one gigantic ripple through space and time.
By the roadside stood a billboard for interior vehicle protection . On the billboard was a woman with blonde hair and a pink sweater. This woman glowed as she stepped out of the billboard to deliver a message. The car slowed to forty miles per hour; the woman reached her hand out of the paper; now thirty miles per hour; she was smiling; now fifteen miles per hour. Everyone was honking, cars swerved around her, shaking her vehicle. Sharply she turned her eyes to the road and the message dispersed like confetti in the air. Though she rolled the words “Interior Protection” safely into her brain, storing them for later usage.
Her daughters plucked from school and safely home, she was free to move on to the next phase of her plan—it was a coat. Of course a coat! Riding in boxcars was to be no mean feat. It was the day before Thanksgiving and the stores were closing early. From beneath her duvet she called her babysitter, and then she called Barney’s seventeen times, seventeen times called the store but no one could verify the existence of this particular coat, well of course they couldn’t, it was not that sort of coat. So she took the L train to the 4,5,6 uptown. She used her cerebral cortex to push it northward 59th street, 59th street, 59th street. Willing it past 28th street, past Grand Central, the seconds clocked. Eyes wide she tried to judge which side of the train the doors would open, there was a pattern, left, left, right, or was it right, left, right? She burst from the train and ran up the escalator out into the rain. Over Lexington, over Park, Madison-bound.
She reached the door of Barney’s at 5:58 p.m., two minutes, two minutes, scared the security guard would turn her away, she tried to hide herself among the people exiting. Head down, her chest ripped with cold air and panic, she stumbled red-faced and shaking into the store. The guard touched her elbow and she knew it was over. She had been caught. But no! He was offering her a chair. Was she okay? he asked. Was she okay? Ha! It was a trick. She would not fall for it. So she smiled at him: Yes, yes, I’m okay, nodding her way into the sea of people. Into the elevator she pressed the number 6 for reasons only she knew. The coat was only steps from the elevator door, she freed it from its hanger and paid for it, and then the coat was hers, she knew, of course, it always had been.
Back on the train, downtown, homebound, goose down. A lady with hair, or was it hands, or maybe a smile like her grandmother’s, got on the train and held on to the same metal pole as she did. The same pole! Their eyes met and in that instant something secret passed between them. At Union Square it became apparent they were both transferring to the L train. Of course they were! The woman didn’t look at her once on the journey, but her blank back broadcasted a message of connection, of inclusion, of love. So when the hands, the hair, the smile, got off at 3rd Avenue she knew she had to follow. She followed the lady up the stairs and into the cold rain. The woman began to walk away. She followed for a few steps and then she wasn’t quite as sure that she knew what she was doing. The raindrops fell wetly upon her face. Something about their wetness felt very real, a different kind of real, the real kind. Her bag felt too heavy, it was dark, the cold rain was soaking through her leggings. She looked around at the cars and delis, at the grid pattern of Manhattan, and she realized she had gotten off at the wrong stop. She lived in Brooklyn. She was cold, she wanted to go home, tears sat behind her glazed eyes. She was me.
What I was experiencing was a manic episode. I did not know this at the time because they are hard to recognize from the inside—that, and I had never had one before.
I had been depressed a lot in my life. I had been sad. I had been hopeless. I had wanted to die; I had tried to kill myself, twice; I had been hospitalized seven times; I had scars on my arms and legs from cutting them; I had woken up crying in the morning at the thought of another day.
Before my manic episode I had slit my wrist. Carelessly I made a slash at death, but my ambivalence won through and I lived. After I was sewn shut and pushed back into life, my therapist fired me. Some things just aren’t worth the trouble, and apparently I was one of those things. Trying to find a new therapist while nursing a slit wrist is like trying to sell a condemned building. It made sense that the only therapist willing to make such an unwise investment was unlike any therapist I had encountered before. She did not nod while I spoke. She did not say, “And how does that make you feel?” She brushed aside the stories I was used to telling. She wore feather earrings; she was a free spirit; she was a little bit dangerous.
Predictably, I fell in love with her. Slightly less predictably, she fell in love with me. We started texting at night. Laughing like teenagers caught in a girl crush. She came to my house to help me throw some of my dead mother’s things out, and stayed for coffee. The next time she came it was just for coffee. We walked arm in arm everywhere we went.
With her I released my depression. I ran through the woods, I read my tarot, I shed my diagnosis and prayed to the angels. “There is nothing wrong with you!” she shouted. This was news to me.
At that time I was taking Seroquel, an atypical antipsychotic used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorder. I took 200 milligrams at night and it made me sleep. Heavy, I logged through the nights like a felled trunk. Oblivious to children’s feet and elbows and requests for water. I thought of Seroquel as a sleep medication, because that is what it did. But rather like calling a cigarette a finger-warmer, this description may have been missing the bigger picture.
Instead I thought of my spirit deer drugged in the woods unable to stand on its stick-like legs and I knew this medication was no longer for me, for who I had become, a child of Mother Nature! A being of light! And that is how I decided not to taper the medication over the course of a year as my doctor had recommended, but to stop taking it over the course of one day as no one had recommended.
I wanted to celebrate the fact that there was nothing “wrong” with me. I wanted to be a warrior princess emerging victorious from a haze of misery and chemicals. So I prayed and meditated and visualized a cloud of white light that would carry me. I ate kale! I engaged in fish oil! I liberated Brazil nuts!
At first I felt good, buoyed by rebellion and my therapist’s endorsement of my science-free recovery. Sure, I was waking up early, but oh! The dawn! I sat in my kitchen in Brooklyn and drank tea watching the dark turn to colors that I did not know came before the blue of day. When I awoke at 5 a.m. I got up and made crepe batter. I read books. I was alive! By day four the shine was starting to wear off. By day five I was exhausted. By day six I was desperate. I couldn’t sleep and this new life was starting to seem less magical, and more frightening.
Living with my husband, two children, and two dogs I was far from alone, but through the magic of depression I was convinced I had no one. Less than no one.
I found by mixing melatonin and Klonopin I could achieve sleep, but the longest I could remain there was five hours, and so went April, May, and June. The evenings found me on the couch, backed into a corner, waiting for bedtime, praying for sleep, dreading its opposite.
At the recommendation of a fellow Mental Health Enthusiast, I went to see a “natural psychiatrist.” Listening to my story, this woman seemed pleased, bordering on delighted at the failure of western medicine to help me. Yes, yes, she said, of course! Ha! She loaded me down with supplements, powders, shots, and pills and I felt the weight of hope upon me. This was going to do it! How could one not fall asleep carrying this heavy a bag of supplements? I could just lie on the bed and put them on top of me.
She also informed me that Klonopin was the most dangerous drug out there, and that I had to stop taking it or I would develop early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. I had just written her a check for $800, so she could have told me that Paul McCartney was the best toaster out there and I’d have put my bread in him.
When we are depressed, when we are afraid, when we think maybe we’ll never be okay, when we can’t remember both feet leaving the ground at the same time: We are vulnerable. Whether it is electroconvulsive therapy, herbs, antipsychotics, amino acids, soul-retrieval, antidepressants, or hypnosis. We will listen. And we’ll think, Maybe now, maybe this time I’ll be okay . But usually we won’t. So tread lightly, my well-intentioned mental health workers, because hope is a terrible thing to give.
October was month seven without sleep. The leaves changed colors and my husband, my children, and I drove to our house upstate with a friend for the weekend. With another adult to watch the children I attempted an afternoon nap. It was in this nap that I began to edge over the line from incredibly tired to lightly crazy. I lay curled on the bed keenly aware of the mountains that rose up behind the house. I felt them bear down on me. The trees rustled in whispers. Within half an hour the very continent I lay on had become untrustworthy. I pulled the covers over me and mentally drafted an open letter to North America and Those Who Call It Home—to inform it that I, Ella Wilson, formerly of the United Kingdom, no longer trusted it.
I felt unsafe, hurtling forward into a dangerous unknown. In an attempt to counterbalance my present fear p arts of my brain sent out synaptic carrier pigeons with messages from the past, trying to guide me to safety. Was it in England, perhaps, where I had once been held so tightly by my father inside his dark green raincoat that I had wanted to live there permanently? Or was it on a canal boat where I had spent a summer watching my father, who for once was not sick, navigate manmade waterways from the back of a barge as we cut through the countryside? My father had listened obsessively to Willie Nelson as cancer took him month by month, skin by hair, veins pulling him like strings away from life. As if somehow the world Willie Nelson sang of might just rescue him. Time ago. Trains in the night. Wishes and dreams. And now, I too, at the edge of life searched my personal library for anything that could bring me back.
Going crazy was not at all like in the movies. It happened more slowly and with much more of my awareness than I would have thought possible. To know you’re going crazy is a strange experience indeed. Like hiding behind a wall, jumping out, shouting boo, and then screaming in fright. Or stealing your own handbag. Most mental health problems don’t look like we expect them to. People with crushing depression can still laugh and clap their hands together. People with bipolar depression can still go to work, order coffee in Starbucks, tread in dog shit, get married. The day I slit my wrist I had gone down a slide at a children’s play-space with my younger daughter in my lap. We are everywhere: Those of us who walk only in the shadow of buildings, who use side streets and leave no trace. Those of us who get home and hide under a duvet, get home and drink a whole bottle of wine, eat a whole pizza and then vomit it straight back up. Those of us who have never quite belonged—of depressed mothers, distant fathers, too-close uncles and favored sisters—who were not handed love as a matter of course.
My mother had lovely, bouncing brown hair that shone red in the sun. She was lively and busy and reminded me of a squirrel. But beneath her shiny facade hid a damaged girl. A girl whose mother was depressed and whose father drank. A girl who once ran away from home for two days before returning to find nobody had noticed. Who was raped when she was twelve. So she smiled and scurried and buried nuts for winter, but every once in a while she would flash her broken child at me—and this child was angry and mean. And out would shoot a sliver of hatred, a spit of cruelty.
When we become parents—when we have children who are not us—we have an impulse to protect them from the hurt we felt as children, to give them the things we did not get, the things we think would have smoothed our way, had we not been deprived of them.
But there is another part of us, a sideways part—and we do not all have it, and those of us who do may not even know it, for this part comes in fits and hiccups, like a nail on the floor or a bolt of lightning, quick and sharp and gone before the damage can be assessed, but don’t be fooled, there is more damage in that one blade of hate than can be fixed with a lifetime of hugs, or smiles, of singing and birthday cakes—that wants to pass along the bad things that happened to us. We do not know we want to, but there is so much we don’t know that I wouldn’t let that worry you.
My two daughters, six and eight years old, are in the throes of childhood. There are moments I see how happy they are and it pains me. It pains me that they will not always know such safety, it pains me that I never did and somewhere in there, for a fraction of a heartbeat, I want to point at them and scream: You do not know! You do not know how much I love you! You do not know how much I could hurt you right now. All I have to do is pull this part of your body. Call you this name. Hit you this hard. Laugh at you this much. Leave you alone this long. And then you will know. Maybe it is my own eight-year-old self, sitting in a half-empty bath while her mother points to her belly with an incredulous laugh and says: Why do you have a potbelly? I don’t have one and your father certainly doesn’t—where did you get it from? Maybe that girl. Or maybe that girl four years later, as her mother pushes the bubbles aside and points at her vagina with fake concern and says: What’s that? It’s ugly. What is it? Maybe that girl would like the power to hurt someone in turn.
My mother did not mean to hate me, she did not even know she hated me, and yet I was hated. And I carried that hate with me through life with more pride than it perhaps deserved. A bruise of honor.
I had a psychiatrist, the regular kind, whom I had known for years—since my first daughter was six months old and I was not feeling the way new mothers are supposed to feel. She was a smart woman with a penchant for bluntness that is helpful when you’re floating at the end of a balloon string mumbling about bridges or boxcars or some other topic incompatible with a balanced life. Having recently become au fait with crystals, candles, and my therapist’s living room I had been routinely canceling appointments with my psychiatrist. Telling myself she was too normal to understand my current trajectory. Stuck in a world of knowledge and common sense she wouldn’t dig my vibe.
I had tried to tell other people about my designs on the Erie Canal but at best they had chuckled and at worst they had pretended not to hear me. But my psychiatrist did neither. The Erie Canal? Yes, and what do you think you will find there? Right, and are you receiving messages through billboards or commercials? I was. I told her how I felt like my brain was a few seconds in the future, that I could actually feel the front part of my head being further forward than anyone else’s. I could see she understood. At work I knew what people were going to say before they said it so I could reply ahead of time and sometimes the words that came out of my mouth were interspersed with words I was seeing around me, and can you believe that coffee I know it! But what we can do is take it smartly and just zip drive it until everyone is in the same chair and people will iPhone to all of us and lattes!
I found deep relief in her certainty. Yes, she said, you are experiencing a manic episode. Yes, you are having psychotic thoughts and yes, that is why you are thinking about canals and billboards and following old ladies around the East Village. Her normality proliferated, securing me to the world as it was.
She suggested I start back on a low dose of Seroquel. I wouldn’t. Medication-free was a part of my new identity. Regardless, she called me each day to see how I was doing. She told me that what was happening in my brain was biological and the only way to stop it from getting worse was to take medication. I cried and didn’t take it. She told me that it was okay for me to take the medication. I didn’t take it. She told me how she was on medication too, and that it helped her. I was surprised, but I still didn’t take it.
Obviously there was a part of me that wanted to go back on medication, else there would have been little reason to visit my psychiatrist. The first night back on medication I took 50 milligrams of Seroquel and nothing happened. The next night I took 100 milligrams, then 200 milligrams. But I was not coming down. The further the trajectory skyward the greater the force needed to stop the object in motion and reverse its path. We hit 500 milligrams and my husband had to carry me up the stairs to bed. So we settled on 400 milligrams and I slept the sleep of bears in winter.
But as the brakes were put on my speeding train of thoughts it slowed to a depressing stop. I dreaded the morning. I cried. I hid under the covers. I loved no one. I didn’t want canals or coats or old ladies or life itself. Then the train started to roll backwards, slowly but surely, into a dark tunnel.
As my depression deepened my doctor prescribed lithium, which was supposed to balance my mood. Then Klonopin, after I had more racing thoughts. Then Wellbutrin. But still I cried for the children in Russian orphanages, dogs in pounds, overripe bananas, John Denver, the rising of the sun, my children’s shoes, New Jersey—nothing was beyond the scope of my misery.
My doctor, my therapist, my husband, all told me this would change, that things would shift, that I wouldn’t feel this way forever. But it was rather like having your head held underwater for thirty seconds: It may be finite and most likely you’ll survive, but that doesn’t mean you’re not going to panic as your bubbles of existence escape to the surface.
My psychiatrist called me daily, after my children were asleep. She called and said, Ella, it’s time to brush your teeth and take your meds and go to bed. And she’d stay on the phone while I swallowed the pills. And she’d check that I’d had dinner and if I felt sad she would say watch something funny on TV. And if I couldn’t fall asleep she’d say read a book till you’re sleepy. And if I felt like hurting myself she’d say make a cup of tea. It seemed too simple, I didn’t like it. But it turns out normal things are normal for a reason.
These are the kind of things a mother might teach a daughter. How to get through the day. How to feel a little better when she is feeling a little worse.
The idea of taking care of myself was foreign to me. I had grown up in a house of terminal illness: first my father, and then my mother. I knew how to take care of other people. I took care of my father in obvious ways: in the plump of a pillow, the anticipation of a cup of tea, the willingness to play Scrabble at all times. This was easy for me. I did not mind missing parties and sleepovers, I did not mind missing my teenage years, I did not mind missing myself. In truth it was something of a relief.
During the nine years that my father was sick, I looked after my mother in more nebulous ways. The most important was in the pretending that nothing was wrong. I laughed and joked on our drives to and from the hospital. I cooked meals and rented funny movies. I changed the light bulbs and checked the car oil. I did not cry. I slept on my father’s side of the bed, lest the spell be broken. It was like running off the edge of a cliff in a cartoon and paddling desperately in the air for nine years. It would be another five years before I would once again need to employ my skills against reality. But sure enough, when my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer, within twenty-four hours I was by her side with chocolate and jokes, and the complete DVD box set of Brideshead Revisited . It was like no one had ever been healthy.
But something got lost along the way—something that was needed for me to grow into a happy, balanced, healthy adult. If I tried to do something kind for myself like make a cup of tea, I’d feel ashamed waiting for the kettle to boil and I’d click the gas off and walk away. Instead of watching something funny on TV I’d watch a documentary on Margaret Thatcher because the idea of enjoying myself felt wasteful. If my husband was out I ate toast for dinner. Everyone loses something. Bag half empty, items strewn by the roadside, we arrive disoriented, half-prepared for our lives, or worse, fully prepared for lives that have already passed. And so I arrived in adulthood, both parents taken care of to the grave, not knowing how to take care of myself.
One day my psychiatrist told me she loved me. It was not a dramatic pronouncement. She was explaining to me in simple terms that she’d known me for a long time and that she cared about me. I was confused at first because she was not hugging me, or crying, or kissing my face wildly, or trying to patch over hurt, or squeeze out pain. I had never seen love delivered with such poise. It was not passionate. It was not dangerous. I was not quite sure I believed her.
I had never expected that my psychiatrist telling me she loved me would be one of my happier moments. It sat in place of something that had been missing. A sensible love. A love that was not the other side of hate. A love that did not need me. Which was good, because there was little of me left. I was drifting. Readying to untie the weights from my feet and float up into the sky to return to the dark matter from which I was formed. And this woman was reeling me back in with everything she had. Be it lithium and phone calls, Wellbutrin and kindness, Seroquel and love.
The shift that finally occurred in my depression was not what I had hoped for. In my hopes I’d seen happiness and laughter, maybe a floral dress, a sunny day, a skip in my step. In reality what I got was: not crying every time I was alone, wearing a different pair of black leggings from my other pair of black leggings, and occasionally showering. That is what shift looks like. Medication cannot cure you of depression; like a seatbelt, it can save your life—but a seatbelt never brought joy to anyone’s heart.
It was in this new place of not-crushing depression that I took my children to my friend’s house for dinner. She has three children of her own, all younger than my youngest, and a colorful history of heroin addiction and bulimia. I felt safe with her. She knew the worst of it.
After the kids had eaten dinner and gone downstairs to watch TV we sat around the dinner table and talked. Her husband came home. Her au pair had a friend over so it was the five of us and then my five-year-old daughter walked into the room and said, “My mum’s going to kill herself.”
She did not say it with fear, or drama, or sadness. She just said it. “My mum’s going to kill herself.”
Time stopped. My internal organs briefly failed to function and I feared I might turn inside out on the spot. The fact that she was not wrong hung heavy in the silence that followed. I chanced a look at my friend to see if she had heard what I had, and she met my eyes with a look that said, “Yes, your five-year-old daughter just announced your impending suicide to me, my husband, the Swedish au pair, her German friend, a six-month-old baby, and a cat.” If such a look exists.
I hunched over my daughter in shame while the world fell apart. Things were breaking in places I had never been. A window shattered in Delhi, a vase fell in Tokyo, a star exploded in the ninth quadrant of the outer nowhere.
Not until that moment had I believed my careless attitude toward life—my disbelief in myself as a viable human being; my starving, my cutting, and my hitting; my hatred; my mania; my depression—never had I considered it could spill over, burst its banks and stain my children.
That I believed as a mother, as the center of their universe, I could operate in a vacuum showed how little I understood of physics, space, windows, and breathing apparatus. My daughter had ingested my depression, my loneliness, my ambivalence. Despite my singing and cooking and trips to the Natural History Museum. Despite my book-reading and funny voices and last-minute sewing of monkey costumes. Despite it all my death wish had found its way into the curly bouncing head of this child. And for the first time in my life. After I cried for three days. And for the first time in my life. After I vomited with sadness. And for the first time in my life. After I considered maybe she was right and I should just get it over with. And for the first time in my life, I felt motivated.
I had been so sure I would not give this ungift of hate to my children. I knew I would never poke my daughter’s body, I knew I would never laugh at her, call her fat or tell her she looked like Clint Howard from Gentle Ben , as my mother had. Of these things I was sure. What I did not realize is that we don’t get to choose what we pass on to our children. I did not know that while you hate yourself you cannot pass on self-love, just as I could not teach my children to speak Russian or pole-vault.
I wanted to pass love on to my children, not just my love for them—because as wonderful as a mother’s love can be, it is still an external love, tied to a person, a flawed person, a person who will at some point die. And to pass on a love to my children that would never leave them, a love that would allow them to make themselves a cup of tea, and hopefully more ambitious ventures of which I know little, it would have to be a love they carried for themselves. A worthiness. A vast sense of okay.
I could not decide that my children would not pick up on my own self-hatred. Like being covered in black tar and trying to hand someone a white bed sheet, no matter how careful you think you’re being, no matter how loudly you shout, “I AM CLEAN! I DO NOT HAVE BLACK TAR ALL OVER MY HANDS! THE SHEET IS WHITE!” someone is going to be left holding a dirty sheet.
All my mother had done was try to love me while not loving herself. All she had done was make me feel about myself as she did about herself. She had been pummeled by life, by loss and by men, neglect and upheaval. She taught me what that felt like and it felt like shit. But in this realization there was great relief. My mother had not hated me. She had not thought me fat or misshapen or disgusting. These were feelings she carried about herself. Turned out it wasn’t personal.
I did not want my children to grow up in the shadow of hereditary hate. But for anything else to be a possibility I was going to have to learn to love myself.
A voice began to say to me, “When you are hungry they are hungry,” and because I would never starve either of my children, I ate. And, “If you punch yourself in the face you are punching them in the face,” and because I would never punch my children in the face I did not punch myself in the face. And I did not press my arm into the 400° oven rack and I did not slash my legs with scissors. I did no harm. I took care.
When I could no longer deny the link between mother and child, the hereditary nature of misery, the pervasive air of sadness, the thump of shame through blood, only then could I understand the message that I had been given over and time again. And it landed in my soul with a thud to wake all cells. Take Care. For yourself, for those you have carried, for the universe, for those gone before you, for your heart, for your soul, for your great-great-great granddaughter. There has never been a more selfless selfish act. Take care.
An alternative version of “ Take Care ” copyright © 2016 by Ella Wilson first appeared in Show Me All Your Scars: True Stories of Living with Mental Illness , edited by Lee Gutkind (In Fact Books, 2016).