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A reminiscence on mental illness in the family and on having had my mother as a mother.

For of all sad words of tongue or pen, . . .

"For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: "It might have been!"
                                                    from the poem "Maud Miller" by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)

My father died in October of 1988. He died the day before my mother's birthday. They had been divorced for twenty years. They had been married for twenty-five years prior to the divorce.

At his memorial service I wept and spoke about my sadness and about not having been able to get to know him because of his addictions. I have had more negative feelings about my mother than my father because she acts with deliberate malevolence from time to time and it is hard for me to get past that even though I know that she is mentally ill. It is possible that I don't know the real person who is my mother because of the mental illness. I've never known what she would be like without the mental illness. It has always been there.

I have questions about life that remain unanswered. What is the real core identity of a person? Is it the personality that they present to the world every day? Is that the real person? What if they are addicted to something or are mentally ill and they never succeed in overcoming their addictions or mental illness? Is that whom they are? Or is their real person buried under the layers of addiction and/or mental illness? If they are cruel, is their cruelty their own responsibility or is it a symptom of their illness? Who is the person at their core? Could it be that they aren't so nice and that they also are mentally ill? Is the cruelty a symptom or is it something that was there already and would be there even if they weren't ill?

I know that it is a rare person who is all good or all bad. (Although I am convinced that there are people who are truly evil.) All of us have shades of grey in between our light sides and our dark sides. No one is perfect. In fact I am convinced that the condition of being human means that everyone has a bit of insanity somewhere in themselves because we are born with these large brains and no one's brain operates perfectly all the time. We get overtired, hungry, depressed, stressed, physically ill, out of balance and that all affects our minds. Even the best of us do stupid and hurtful things on occasion.

I've met people who were truly sweet people who later did horrific things that no one who knew them expected them to do or understood how it was possible that they could have done them. Of the ones who did these things and who are still alive, I don't know how they can stand to remember what they did. In the one case that I am thinking of, the person is incarcerated and goes back and forth between prison and a psychiatric facility. For her I think that the mental illness may offer a haven of escape from the memory as well as being the reason why she committed a horrible crime.

Life is not fair! Have you noticed that? It is so blasted unfair. I have been told stories of estrangement in families that were so painful that it is a wonder to me how some people manage to go on. I hurt for them hearing their stories.

The words of the Whittier poem occurred to me today when I witnessed someone being deliberately hurtful.

The saddest words truly are "it might have been". But the truth is that "it" never was possible. It couldn't have been. It wasn't in the cards. Some things I have accepted, even though they make me very sad. It couldn't have been. I could wish that "it might have been" but it couldn't and it isn't. Some people are their own worst enemies and you know they are mentally ill because they hurt themselves as much or more than anyone else and they are clueless what they do to themselves. Sometimes they are friends you know. Sometimes they are family. It's hard to accept that the only person who has it within their power to get them to a better place is themselves.

I see people do these things and then I say the Serenity Prayer.



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