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Mother's Mental Illness Colors Christmas

By Virginia Holman

This article first appeared in the December 21, 2003, issue of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The JEB Stuart Home for the Aged was not much to look at on Christmas Day. I'd imagined today in the nursing home we would be jostling with knots of festive relatives visiting with their ill loved ones.

On the long drive from my mother-in-law's I had tapped my husband's shoulder and offered him no fewer than six unsolicited suggestions for alternate parking, so sure was I that the streets around the building would be clogged with holiday visitors. He politely removed me from the parking decision, saying, that, given the cold, the best option would be to drop my sister and me off in front of the home and then meet us in the lobby after he had found space for the car. But there was no need: When we arrived, parking places stretched down the street like long pauses in a conversation.

This was my mother's first Christmas institutionalized with what her doctors had deemed a nearly untreatable schizophrenia. I sat in the car with my sister and husband, my vision shot full of glittering holes the way it is when a migraine's coming on, and felt guilty for being so nervous.

My husband turned off the car, and my sister cranked down the back window to get some air. I unzipped my purse and took two Midrin that my neurologist prescribed. Taken just after the migraine aura appears, it can sometimes blunt the pain.

"OK, ladies, you ready?" My husband walked around and opened the car door for me and my sister, and we stepped on to the sidewalk.

"Are they open?" I asked as if we were stopping in at a restaurant. My husband turned to me, his face squinting and frowning in a state of question and near-pity that he graciously did not utter, and instead took my arm as if I were his elderly bride. My sister tipped her chin toward the sky to better see the large American flag flying in front of the building.

"He's out here every time I come." She said to the flag.

"What? Who?" I asked.

"The vet," she said, folding her neck and nodding forward. "I'm guessing Korea." In front of us was a man who appeared to be in his seventies; he sat in a small wood chair just inside the portico to catch the sun and avoid the north wind. I jumped and he flipped up his sunglass lenses from his prescription spectacles to get a better look at us.

What was I expecting a JEB Stuart Christmas to be like? Perhaps a wreath or red felt bow on the door? Some tasteful white electric candles in the windows? Some small attempt at Christmas cheer? The apartment buildings around us were almost all decorated and the area looked like a slightly down-at-the-heels southern snowglobe scene, without the snow. On one slate roof a giant glowing Santa stuffed one boot down an impossibly small chimney; a few rowhouses down someone had assembled eight rather stocky reindeer by arranging several pine logs and affixing driftwood roots as antlers. The flower ladies, always selling on the corner of the nearby intersection, were perched on their stools above a red rush of poinsettias, their zinc buckets full of bitter chrysanthemums.

My sister, father and I had spent the morning exchanging gifts and enjoying one another's company in a way that had not been possible when my mother lived with us. At home, her delusions and rages had taken over. And no one could treat her without her consent until she became "a danger to herself or others."

It was a late and bittersweet Christmas gift when earlier that year my mother's behavior finally caused the state to enforce hospitalization and treatment. But intervention came too late for successful treatment: Our family had pleaded for forced treatment on my mother's behalf for nearly a decade and for the whole of that time my mother had been actively psychotic. Those long years of psychosis had left her with a large amount of tissue damage to her brain. No matter how cutting-edge the drug, my mother wasn't ever going to be well enough to care for herself. Once the insurance ran out -- and it always runs out -- there wasn't a psychiatric hospital other than Virginia State, which had a sorry reputation, that would take in patients not covered by private insurance.

Then we discovered JEB Stuart and a host of other nursing homes that took disabled psychiatric patients. At JEB Stuart, fully one-half of the patients there had a psychiatric disability. The other half were frail and elderly.

My father, sister and I had guiltily enjoyed this first Christmas season without my mother and the unpredictability that her disease brought to our daily life. Without my mother Christmas at home was blessedly quiet. My sister and I had talked my father into purchasing a tree and after much cursing and sawing, my father got it stood up in the front window. He sustained mild abrasions to his face and hands stringing the lights through the branches and then declared his work done. "It's you girls' job to decorate it," he said and sat down on the sofa with a scotch and sighed mightily. My sister and I spent hours entertaining my father by unwrapping glorious old sparkle-encrusted ornaments from newspapers so old and dry the type has begun to powder.

Throughout Advent my sister and I played a game where I dragged out an ornament that she had made in second grade that she detested and hung in dead center in the tree. When she saw it, she immediately moved it to the back and she returned the favor with an ornament I had made as a child that consisted of a slightly chewed Styrofoam ball with two sequins and a bent paper clip as a hook. The family was more at peace than at any time I could recall. Still, around the edges of our conversation lingered a sadness no one dared put into words.

After a big brunch, my sister, husband and I shed our pajamas for street clothes and got ready to visit my mother. My father didn't join us when we visited my mother at the nursing home. He checked in on her once a week, taking her some pocket money, pantyhose and any basic toiletries she needed.

He also handled the alarmingly complex stack of legal forms, SSI forms, and medical documents that more than often conflicted with one another and basic common sense. My parents had lived in separate dwellings for the past two years but the marriage had become merely a thing of duty and my father had, with great difficulty, filed for divorce. This was not a sad thing to my father, my sister and me. My mother was so delusional that she didn't understand that they were divorcing. Her husband visited her, she wore a ring -- she'd allow no other belief.

My father's desire for the divorce was an action that indicated hope -- my father's depression lifted and he saw the possibility of love growing in his life -- even though he knew that while he was alive, he would assume the daunting responsibilities of caring for my mother's needs.

When we walked in at JEB Stuart, the heat blasted over us as if we had just opened a glass door into a desert. Clearly the boiler had two settings, on and off. The receptionist at the desk in powder blue pants and a matching floral top sported a Santa hat. My sister signed us in.

The receptionist gave me a look. "Just a little visit -- the usual in and out?" I felt her judgment weighing down on my own self-criticism.

"It's Christmas," she said and leaned across the counter between us with both hands. She had two-inch long, immaculate acrylic nails, each one decorated with a different symbol: a little gold cross, holly and berries, a wreath, a little purple box with a bow. Clearly she had the holiday spirit. "Your Mama say she want to be home at Christmastime. Home for just a coupla days."

My sister turned ashen and my husband's eyes pleaded with me not to make a scene.

I took a deep breath and my eyes ached. "My mother says lots of things," I replied and felt my mouth bunch up. "Perhaps you've noticed that, too."

The receptionist clucked her tongue at me, but I refused to look away until she began punching some numbers into the phone with the end of a pencil and then held the cradle directly in front of her face to call my mother's floor and let her know that she had visitors. Then she jabbed her pencil toward the elevator.

"Room 4-1-2," she called after us. As if I didn't know.

We waited in front of the closed doors, listening to the old elevator clang and hum like giant clockworks.

In the lobby there were some old folks in their wheelchairs watching reruns of "Scarecrow and Mrs. King." A black man as thin as a pane of glass was seated at the piano tapping out "We Three Kings" with one hand and holding a steaming Styrofoam cup of coffee with the other. He was wearing a green gabardine suit and a hat with a perfect orange feather tucked flat against the brim.

A number of people sat in wheelchairs with blankets on their laps, even in this sauna. Most dozed in the afternoon light. I tried to read the Christmas menu on the whiteboard, but the migraine made it impossible. Some letters vanished while others doubled. I closed one eye and then the other. It's almost impossible to realize that a migraine aura isn't a problem with your eye, but with your brain.

Right then I understood my mother's illness a little better. My mother had steadfastly maintained that she was not ill. "Perhaps I am psychic," she'd say. Then she'd reason she heard voices because, "the government has implanted electrodes in my brain." But she'd insist to her psychiatrist, to family and friends that "there is nothing wrong with my brain. I am most certainly not schizophrenic." My migraine, my mother's schizophrenia -- though vastly different in severity and impact on reasoning -- both caused our brains to seek other reasons for such strange manifestations as auras and delusions.

We got on the elevator. It smelled strongly of floor polish and some antiseptic scent. When the elevator doors opened, my mother was waiting for us, and we all exchanged hugs. She was dressed in slacks and an ill-fitting plaid shirt. Her hair looked lopsided and her face was creased from her pillow. I wondered how long she'd been awake.

"Merry Christmas!" my husband said and my mother gave me and my sister a hug finished with a big squeeze.

Despite everything, her hugs were still the best in the world.

We walked back to her room and we stood, still in our coats and scarves, my husband perspiring, as my mother moved her nightclothes from the bedside chair and smoothed out her bedcovers so we'd all have a place to sit. She kept her purse tucked close under one arm; it was stuffed with the cards and letters we'd sent. Her room key dangled from a ribbon around her neck.

"If I leave my room unlocked, people come in and steal things."

"What have they taken?" I asked. I was thinking to report this as we left.

"They come in and take my soap or money your father brings. They come in to put in spy cameras and to hook people on drugs."

I paused. Which part of this was real and which part delusion? "Well," my sister said, with a measured detachment I admired, "then you should lock your door."

"I do!" my mother said.

"Why don't you sit down and open your gifts?" I suggested. We had brought her things she enjoyed when she'd been well: A Jean Naté bathsplash and powder set so pungent its solvent-strength aroma seeped through the silver wrapping paper; an outsized hand-embroidered sweater that we couldn't afford; and a long golden necklace embossed with hieroglyphs that we purchased at a kiosk in the local mall. Our unspoken hope was that she would be lucid enough to enjoy them.

She plunked down on her bed, hooked her fingernail under the tape and opened each gift, politely admired each one and then set them aside. "Such nice things." Then she put her hands in her lap, sighed and said, "Thank you all so much, but next time could you bring me a carton of cigarettes and some beer?"

"Beer?" my sister said, astonished. Growing up my mother kept half-gallon bottles of Gallo laid side by side across the bottom of the fridge and drank it out of sweaty long stemmed glasses. When did she start drinking beer? "That doesn't seem like such a good idea with the medication."

"What kind of cigarettes?" This from my husband.

"Dorals," Mother said. "They're cheap."

Why not? I thought. Deadly pleasure trumps none at all.

My mother began rummaging through her dresser. "I didn't have a chance to wrap these," she said and fumbled through a drawer jumbled with string, emery boards, shampoo bottles, crumpled cigarette packs. She gave my husband a dusty box of Dial soap, my sister the same tube of pearly, dimpled bath beads I brought her on my last visit, and me a half-full can of Aquanet.

We tried to refuse. These were things she used and enjoyed. She had no money to buy us gifts and no focus to make us anything. And we didn't expect gifts. But she pressed the soap into my husband's hands, saying, "This is for you!" her eyes shining like a child unwrapping her own present. I looked at my sister and she gave me a tiny shrug.

"Sit, sit!" my mother said and stacked her gifts and boxes beside her. We sat down, unbuttoned our coats and took off our gloves: my mother, husband and I lined side by side on my mother's twin bed, my sister in the wingback chair beside us; this was the only furniture in the tiny room where we could sit. My sister and husband talked of school and I spoke of my job. We asked my mother about her life and within minutes she was speaking of her involvement with the CIA and how her mother had Rose Kennedy over to their house one day and how JEB Stuart home had implanted listening devices in the walls.

Conversation became impossible. I felt a sob ball up in my throat. I got up quickly, feeling for a moment that I would have to flee the room, and everyone reflexively, politely, rose. We stood there, the four of us, murmuring "I love you"s and promises to visit soon. Yet no one moved to the door, so we just swayed there, silent. My mother was directly in front of me, but my migraine caused her to wink in and out of my vision like an image in a blighted home movie.

What, beyond "I love you," could I say? I wondered. I longed to say something more to my mother that would remind her of some earlier Christmas joy we'd shared, I was desperate to connect with her, to find words that would get past her delusions, but my mind went blank and I felt my grief was failing both of us.

The PA came on, announcing that it was time for afternoon meds. My mother rushed us away. "The line is long and I hate having to wait," she said. Then she leaned in for a hug. "I love you," she said and I felt my body unfurl and curl around hers in a hug that, like any child, I wished would never end.

Despite everything, her hugs were still the best in the world.

Virginia Holman is the author of "Rescuing Patty Hearst: Growing Up Sane in a Decade Gone Mad." As a child, Holman was held captive by her schizophrenic mother in a 700-square-foot cabin with cement floors and no ceilings in rural Virginia; her book tells the story. She received a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship for 2003-2004.

Copyright 2003, Virginia Holman. Reprinted with Permission.

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