By NATASHA POYNTON
It is the emotions I had regarding my mother’s episodes of mental illness that I mainly remember from my childhood.
There were feelings of embarrassment, as she would collapse down on her knees in the middle of a busy shopping centre, bags of groceries spilling around her, cans of tomatoes rolling away, while she emphatically threw her arms up in the air and thanked God. For what she was thanking Him for I don’t know, nor cared. Or when, in the middle of a short flight between two cities overseas, she stood up in the middle of the plane and screeched out “I am the Devil!” while my sister and I tried to attach ourselves to another family, a ‘normal’ family, for the remainder of the flight.
There were feelings of horror when I would wake suddenly in the night and find her standing over me, looking at me intently and yet not really looking with her own, familiar eyes but someone else’s eyes – a crazy person’s eyes. Just standing and looking. And rocking. Sometimes there would be rocking. Back and forth, from the balls to the heels of her feet. In the night. In my bedroom.
There were feelings of fleeting concern for my safety as she would grab me by the throat, but without too much strength or malice – just that ever, present vacant craziness in her eyes. There were more often feelings of concern for her safety as she would threaten harm to herself – never to my sister or I – but only threaten to jump as we would talk her down, always hoping and almost believing that she didn’t really mean it. Or on the countless times when she would escape from hospital and we wouldn’t know where she was or where she would turn up next.
Then there was that menacing, creeping dread, when she would turn up somewhere unexpected, like at the door of my classroom at school, insisting that my sister and I take tablets to protect us from the AIDS virus that we had never been exposed to; or the dread of her constant pacing, circling around us, like a shark.
There were feeling of confusion where suddenly she would ‘turn off’ and go into a catatonic state that could last for days; when sometimes she would try to speak but no words would or could come out of her dry, empty lips and her dry, empty eyes would stare off unfocussed, to some distant object that none of us could see.
There were certainly feelings of rejection when suddenly she would turn on me and verbally lash me telling me that I had always been a naughty girl, or imply that i had caused the illness that was afflicting her through my own birth, my own presence or the stress of looking after me. Sometimes I was her angel, but sometimes i was the devil himself.
But mostly there were feelings of love and protection, wanting to protect her from whatever demons were chasing her, from the voices talking in her head or about her behind her back, of the paranoia, of the shaking that seemed to take over her hands. Protect her from whatever it was that drove her out of bed at night, all night and creep around the house. And wanting to protect my sister from the emotional fallout of our mother.