When I was in junior high and high school, my mother gained herself quite a bit of admiration from many of my friends. “Fucking Phyllis,” they used to say and laugh when I told them something wild she said. “I love your mom, dude.”
So did I. She was the one who instilled a healthy dose of apprehension in me, making sure I knew that the adults in my life were not infallible and that I shouldn’t be afraid to question them. In addition to my independent thinking, she encouraged me to become a voracious reader. It was her support of my sibling and I that brought a computer into the house, dial-up connection and all when I was barely old enough to form long term memories. The cow print on the box of our first Gateway PC became a well loved pattern in my childhood heart and it never would have happened without her insistence.
At thirteen, I came home from school with a stack of Bush signs I had swiped out of people’s yards. My mother was both amused and mortified. At the time, she bled blue and was proud that I had learned her liberal tendencies but informed me that what I had done was quite illegal. She was concerned that the authorities would think she put me up to it. Nothing ever came of this other than me having a stack of 2004 Bush/Cheney signs in my closet for a super long time.
When we found out my grandmother Judy was in Hospice, we made the pilgrimage to see her. Phyllis was adamant about bringing her extra Buddhist prayer wheel with her, so she could give it to her mother. The belief is that by having a prayer wheel with you upon passing, you get to skip many of the afterlife trials and go basically straight to reincarnation. We had been practicing Buddhism for some time now after reading about many different religions. This was just after my Wiccan practice and I had been somewhat disenchanted by paganism due to my inability to really believe in God. I always appreciated my mother letting me have the freedom to choose my own religion instead of forcing me to church like so many of my friends. So when she started talking to me about it, I was totally on board. Depending on the sect of Buddhism you follow, God is pretty optional. Atheism plus spirituality? Win/win. We both chanted a lot. And she safety pinned the prayer wheel to Judy’s top before tearily kissing her goodbye. Later we were told that not more than a minute following us leaving the room, my grandmother took one last, deep breath and passed away peacefully. My mother was the last of her children to visit her.
“I knew as soon as I saw that fat ass that you were one of us,” she had told Caitlyn at fourteen. My mother was full of Phyllisms - gruff, unfiltered, usually hilarious comments that no one else’s parents ever made. I admired my mother and hoped that I would grow up to be as strong, funny and independent as her.
I can’t really tell you at what point she began to change. These kinds of things rarely happen overnight. Probably around the time I graduated high school, a shift began. She didn’t want me to leave for college so I stayed home and attended the local community college for a short period of time. It didn’t really pan out. She worked and worked and worked but it was obviously wearing on her. She later told me that when she quit her job, the reality is that she suffered a “mental breakdown”. This is probably the closest I can come to a concrete turning point. Not too long after this, she left for North Carolina to live with my sister. My heart broke and I cried and cried. But her absence didn’t last long.
While my husband and I were attempting to save money to move to Chicago (this obviously didn’t happen), she ended up moving back. And she was different. I didn’t really notice it at first - it’d been a few months and truth be told I was more focused on being upset that I was obviously trapped in Ludington. After some passed however it became more and more clear she was not the loud, raunchy, liberal, unconventionally spiritual woman I had been raised by.
She became obsessed with Jesus, sin, Satan and The King James Bible. All other versions are incorrectly translated. With some time, she stopped leaving her room, bathed maybe once a week. The worsening of her physical condition obviously played a toll in her mental state. While she wasn’t sitting in the dark, muttering in response to the voices in her head, only the lit tip of her cigarette visible anymore, she was somehow worse. Of all the symptoms of schizophrenia, in my mother’s case, the voices are less concerning than others. She’s had the same cast her whole life and in her own words, they’re her friends. While I’ve asked about names, ages, anything, she won’t tell me a single detail. You now know as much as I do. It’s been a long time since I tried prying.
No, more worrisome in her particular case were the days without sleep. The manic episodes, where I could tell she’d been zooming for far too long and suddenly snap, “Have you taken your medicine?” She fucking hated that. Especially because I could almost always tell when she hadn’t. Her mania is hard to mistake. Strangely, I realize now that when I was younger, she was probably low grade manic more often than I had suspected. Thus the tongue piercing when she started Prozac, the off the cuff comments and zany story telling. The mania grated me and concerned me both at the same time. It was nice to see her more social and energetic but it was scary to think what it could evolve into so I never encouraged it. But honestly, the worst of all symptoms? The delusions.
Paranoid schizophrenia is riddled with delusions. Some are small. Some are very big and scary. Some are easier to dispel than others. My mother used to be fascinated with UFOs, ghosts and the supernatural. She still has a vague curiosity related to these things but in general believes any paranormal phenomenon we’re presented with are demons. All demons. And now she is so fucking unbelievably obsessed with The Bible and Satan that it’s… it’s made it basically impossible to hold a conversation with her. In general, I really don’t give a shit what religion people practice. I have my personal qualms with organized religion - specifically when it finds its way into legislation or results in the persecution of other people - but I’m very much in support of freedom of religion. I don’t mind that my mother decided to go back to her Christian roots, especially since I know it brings her comfort. What bothers me is that we’re incapable of talking, texting, having any exchange, that doesn’t devolve into her quoting passages at me and telling me she’s going to save me and get me into heaven. What bothers me is her listening day and night to some really fucking out there YouTubers talking about the Antichrist and all the signs of the end of the world. What bothers me is the fact that she won’t read anything else, seldom watches anything else, and in general has completely rearranged her life so that every moment revolves around her religion.
The thing that sucks about this particular delusion is that it’s encouraged by our society. You can disagree with me here about whether or not believing in God and the related texts is a delusion or not but at the end of the day, in relation to my mother, it absolutely is. Though I believe it’s a delusion for anyone, schizophrenic or not, I’m not interested in arguing that point. A delusion, keep in mind, is a belief that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by rational arguments. Anyone who’s spend time studying logic, the constructions of arguments or related material knows that belief in God requires you to commit several logical fallacies. A reasonable person can accept these arguments, know that it’s irrational, shrug and say, “hey man, you just gotta have faith.” It’s not something I’d ever be comfortable with but See: Freedom of Religion. More troublesome, my mother thinks these arguments are quite fucking literally the devil’s handiwork and that to have any doubt in the existence of God is 100% unacceptable.
And that’s where the real problem lies. The fanaticism, the obsession with Satan and the Antichrist, and the utter devoutness of her time. Maybe I’m overreacting. Nuns and monks and other religious figures devote their entire lives to God, too. And while I still low-key think they’re also delusional, most of them shower more than every other week, leave their rooms more than every other month and only hear one voice in their head. So they might have a leg up on her in the end.
Delusions or not aside, my real issue is that the mother I had as a child is gone. Seldomly I catch a glimpse of that humor, that spark of independence. Most of the time I just see a shell of the woman I used to look up to. Now she sits in bed all day, face craned over her phone, watching the latest video on Discipleship, a lit Cheyenne hanging from her mouth. I used to feel so, so guilty for leaving her. Sometimes I still do. But after some months and distance, I realize I really fucking needed to get away from her. Watching her mental and physical state slowly deteriorate was destroying me from the inside.
We text most every day. The other day I texted that I missed her and she answered me a day or two later with a Bible passage. I don’t know what I expected. I still care about her and love her of course but I’ve only just now begun to hear a tiny voice in the back of my head, the one I’d been drowning out by screaming about how she needs to quit smoking, get a sleep study, keep taking her meds, go for a walk, do something other than watch YouTube all day. A terrified whisper which is close to actually accepting the loss of the mother I once had. With trepidation, it squeaks, “Maybe it’s time to stop holding on to her.”
During my last visit home, I helped her fill out a questionnaire for the doctor. One question read something like, “Have you ever experienced a traumatic event in your life?” I knew the answer but I wasn’t about to just fill the thing out for her and assume everything. After bursting into painful, hysterical laughter, she answered, “I had a father and a husband - how about you put that down?”
Like her mother before her, she’s had a really hard life. I guess that’s why I’ve been clinging to her now, now that she’s free of the men who abused her - I want her to enjoy maybe one decade free of suffering, even if she just makes little bead crafts and highlights every page in The Bible. But she’s told me more than once she’s not afraid of death. Before and after going hard into Jesus. And I had a hard time believing her at first but I think I understand now. Because even though she’s not in those situations any more, she’s still so impacted by them. Maybe she could heal but maybe it’s too late. Maybe the damage is done. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe death is the only true relief she’ll ever have. It makes me want to rage and cry and scream but I can’t help but feel like I might be refusing to look at the truth.
Either way, it’s time for me to start making my peace. With the fact that she’ll never go back to “normal”, with the fact that she’ll probably only get worse as she gets older, with the fact that she’s probably going to die within the next ten years. I’ll keep trying to connect with her, to cherish the moments that shine through, free of religious doctrine. Because I know I’ll miss her like fucking crazy when she’s gone. But I’m only hurting myself by clinging to her. As usual, I have to remind myself: everything, everyone, is impermanent.