Ten years ago my mother committed murder.
She was 44 years old and living in a severely underfunded halfway house for mentally ill adults. I was 22 and like the rest of my family, unaware and completely disinterested in her whereabouts. Two decades of aggressive outbursts, hallucinations, long-term psych ward stays, court dates, and endless lists of medications we couldn’t name, wearied all of us and made it that much easier to pretend that my mother didn’t exist.
She was out of sight, out of mind, out of heart.
The resentment I held towards my mother started as a young child. A diagnosed schizophrenic, I spent most of my childhood watching her talk to people I couldn’t see, or cowering in corners hiding from monsters she believed wanted her dead. When she wasn’t sick at home, she was a patient in various hospitals across southern California, which I loathed visiting her in. Seeing her surrounded by adults who needed supervision was embarrassing and instilled a fear in me that I will end up just like her. I eventually stopped visiting.
As I matured her illness worsened. Completely naive of the subpar treatments she received as a patient, my family remained hopeful of a medical miracle. We grappled to understand why she failed to get better and found any excuse to blame her for her condition. Her sporadic use of drugs and alcohol, her failed marriage, even the fact that she was exceptionally brilliant–perhaps too brilliant–symbolized to us a weakness that could be fixed if only she had cooperated. Year after year, we thought of new excuses of why she remained ill and when there were no more to be made, we simply gave up.
Let her handle her own self, we said.
The last time I saw my mother before her arrest was on my 18th birthday. She had stopped by the house for the usual routine of bickering with my grandmother over money for cigarettes. When she caught sight of me, she seemed genuinely happy but I wasn’t happy to see her. She looked disheveled in clothes that were too big for her small body and her face looked much older than I had remembered. After I sheepishly hugged her, she pulled a wrinkled birthday card out of the plastic bag she had always carried with her. I opened the card to a looped recording of her high-pitched voice singing the chorus from Stevie Wonder’s version of Happy Birthday–the song she always sang to me on birthdays she wasn’t hospitalized. I forced myself to say thank you as she smiled adoringly at her youngest child in my first day of adulthood. Never feeling a sense of closeness to my mother, her stare always felt like that of a stranger. As her eyes scanned my face I snapped and yelled, “stop looking at me!” Later that day, I threw the card in the trash.
I felt sorry for her.
Really, I felt sorry for me.
I learned of my mother’s crime less than one month after she was arrested. A random Google search of her name during a late night study session, revealed a police report detailing how she fatally assaulted an employee. I immediately felt an overwhelming sense of guilt that I didn’t know my heart could feel and all I could do was lay on the floor and sob. I cried for her safety as a patient of a flawed healthcare system and feared for her life in the hands of doctors who believe that rehabilitation comes in the form of a pill. I cried because her mother died just a month before, robbing my grandmother of the chance to see any possibility of her youngest child being able to heal. I cried because I thought of the family of the 56 year old woman whose life she took and if she had children, I wondered how they felt about losing their mother, too.
I cried all night for her.
My mother was found not guilty by reason of insanity and will spend the rest of her days in a psychiatric hospital. Sometimes I think that if I had gotten over my resentment and instead learned to love all of her, including the sickness, I could have saved her. But like any situation in life, we cannot change the past and can only change our present selves. Learning this in my journey as an adult has allowed me to begin to love my mother completely.
Within African American culture, there is a history of silence and shame that prohibits frank discussions of mental illness. I share my story as a challenge to this and to encourage others to share theirs. I believe that when we do, we create a new black history–one that is built on having compassion and understanding towards those of our community that struggle with the disease so that we can all begin to heal.
Ten years ago my mother committed murder. At 32 years old, I am now ready to forgive her.