I grew up believing my mother was crazy.
That’s what my father said, so it had to be so. I don’t think he ever used the word “crazy,” but that’s what he meant. I didn’t know any better, so I believed him. Mostly, anyway. I thought there must be something wrong with her — because she would get along with my father if she weren’t crazy. Right?
I grew up believing my father was the word of truth about everything. Worshipping him was the family religion. His word was divine. No dissent was allowed. To question him was a sin. And he assured me that my mother was crazy.
Everything was simple then. He was light; she was dark. He was sane; she was crazy. He was good; she was bad. He constantly told me stories to reinforce that.
Today, I see things very differently. He was the crazy one, not her.
But in the era of my childhood, it would have been easy for my father to convince doctors that he was sane and she was crazy. After he pushed her to a breakdown when I was 5 and she attacked him with a knife — which I’ve told you about — he had all the evidence he needed.
I’m sure it was easy for him to get her male psychiatrists to assume she was the crazy one after that. I now understand how helpless she must have felt — and why she felt nobody would listen to her.
I’ve been thinking about this aspect of my childhood from my mother’s point of view this week because of an article which a friend pointed out Monday. It’s a chilling story making the case that doctors are often unwilling to take women’s narratives about their health seriously.
The woman whose story is told early in the article was put through a series of shock treatments, which made me think of my mother — because that’s the treatment she was given after her breakdown when I was 5 years old.
I learned to hate the idea of shock treatments when I was young, because I learned what they did to my mother. Although I was shielded from some details — and my father wouldn’t have known what actually happened during the treatments — I know that those treatments changed her and stole some of her memories.
And they did her absolutely no good.
After shock treatments, Mother didn’t remember certain things. For instance, she had to relive the death of her own father, because she didn’t remember after the treatments that he was already dead. Since the treatments had stolen that memory, she thought of him alive and well, so she had to grieve his loss all over again. I still remember how hurt she felt about that.
She had to experience her father’s death, but there wasn’t the catharsis of a funeral and talking to others about it — because the death had happened a year or two ago for everyone else.
I remember her being somehow different in other ways, too. She had always been happy and confident before those treatments, but she became unsure of herself and felt down more often. Doctors just gave her antidepressants and told her everything was fine.
Why was she having the treatments to start with? Everything was blamed on her attack on my father. I can remember her telling me that she tried to talk with doctors about her frustrations with my father — with the anguish that led to her breakdown — but nobody was really interested in hearing about that.
They were interested only in finding a medical explanation for her action. She had to be sick — in their minds — because she wouldn’t have snapped otherwise.
Mother soon learned to quit telling doctors about her frustrations with my father, because her psychiatrists weren’t interested. The fact that they were all male — in a profession which still saw women as quite inferior — surely played a role in that, but I would never be able to prove it.
From that point on, Mother was just trying to find a way to get away from my father — without losing her children. She spent the next four or five years moving in and out of our lives. If my parents had had no children, I’m confident that she would have cut him off completely. But because he had documentation that she was “sick,” he held that over her. If she didn’t comply with what he wanted, he would take the children and she would have no say.
In the end, that’s what he did anyway.
I now understand that my father’s issues with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) were at the root of the way he treated her and the way he treated us. I was blind to all of that. My mother saw what he was — because his dominant personality crushed her — but she didn’t have the diagnostic language to explain what he was to anyone.
So nobody listened to her. Nobody believed her.
(There was one exception to that. My youngest sister was closer to Mother and saw through the illness of our father far earlier than my other sister and I did. She and I have had strong differences since then, but I have to give her credit for seeing that fare before anyone else did.)
Things have improved for women insofar as being listened to by therapists and doctors, but I still think there’s a strong tendency for many people — especially for a certain type of insensitive man — not to take a woman seriously, especially when she expresses emotions that seem extreme to them.
Women who want to be taken seriously have to learn to stifle their emotions and hide what they feel much of the time. Because too many people — mostly men — are going to give each other knowing looks and mutter something sexist about women when a woman is honest about what she feels.
The medical profession still does a poor job of dealing with things that doctors can’t measure. When I was having a problem years ago, my internist spent a couple of weeks giving me every test know to medicine. When all the test results were “normal,” I heard the verdict. Maybe I should talk to a psychologist, because there was nothing wrong with me.
Ironically, my internist was a woman.
So I understand what it’s like to report something and have it ignored simply because nobody can figure out what’s going on. But I think the situation can be even worse for women — even in 2019 — and women are more likely to be given mood-altering drugs and told that nothing is really wrong.
Women are sometimes mentally ill. Men are sometimes mentally ill, too. But there’s too often a strong tendency to assume a woman is nuts, especially when a narcissistic man can play the part of the concerned husband who’s done nothing wrong.
I eventually concluded that my mother would have lived a perfectly normal life if she had never married my father. She would have been a brilliant and loving and creative woman who taught school and mothered the children in her elementary school classes.
She would have always marched to the beat of a different drummer. She would have always been willing to stand apart from the crowd. She would have always been messy and disorganized — and wouldn’t have felt any need to apologize for it.
My mother wasn’t crazy. She didn’t need the drugs she became dependent on.
My father crushed my mother’s spirit. He tried desperately to force her to be like him. She even tried to do that, but she simply wasn’t like him. She couldn’t obey and live his cookie-cutter life. So he crushed her with his efforts to mold her — and then the medical industry did the rest by not listening to her.
I wish somebody had listened to my mother and taken her concerns seriously when I was a child. It’s possible that her life might have gone differently. It’s possible that my father might have gotten the help he needed, too. It’s possible that the lives of their children might have been better.
It’s too late for any of that, but it’s not too late to learn a lesson from her story.
If your wife or your mother or your friend or your co-worker tries to tell you that something is wrong — even if she can’t quite express what’s going on — don’t just assume she’s crazy. Listen to her. Help her. Take her seriously.
We all deserve to be heard and taken seriously, men or women. Make sure you’re listening to the women in your life, not making their burdens worse than they have to be.
My mother wasn’t crazy. I wish someone had taken her seriously when I was a little boy.