My Mother, the Madwoman in the Attic

First Person

My Mother, the Madwoman in the Attic

Illustration: Namaah

M

y mother is a blurred presence in my head, occurring in slow, hazy silhouettes.

I remember her as this curly-haired, big-eyed, magnificent woman who was often lost in a world that she created out of reccurring thoughts and surreal hallucinations. One moment she would be cheerful, cooking while humming her favourite song, and in the next she would stand in an empty room with a terrified look on her face and hauntingly ask me, “Do you hear a baby crying?”

My earliest memory of her is from when I was three. It was a sultry afternoon and my father was at work; my elder sister was at her tuition class, and I was hungry. I kept telling mom that I wanted to eat and it was like, she couldn’t hear me. To her I did not exist. I ran to the kitchen and got an orange and asked her to peel it for me, and again, there was no response at all. So I spent the whole afternoon trying to bite into the orange and I just couldn’t. I ended up falling asleep on the floor, hungry.

Most people know schizophrenia as a theoretical construct – a mental disorder that affects the way a person behaves, thinks, and perceives the world, altering reality. I know it intimately as the event that shaped my life.

***

On a visit to Assam a few years ago, I was skimming through a random photo album at a maternal relative’s house when I found an old photograph of my mother tucked between the last dusty pages. There were three girls in the faded photograph, all of them draped in saris and there she was standing in the centre – her curly hair tied in a bun, her lips wearing a subtle, shy smile, and her beautiful, twinkling eyes looking straight at me through the photograph.

I was three when Ma was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, but I was a teenager when I came across that photo. At 13, I was old enough to understand what paranoid schizophrenia meant, but young enough to wonder how could this smiling woman be ill. She looked happy, she loved to cook, and sang sweet Assamese songs.

How could a person like that have been dealing with such a chronic mental illness? Shouldn’t she look sad and weary? Shouldn’t her hair be messy and tangled, her clothes shabby, and shouldn’t she lack motivation to do anything at all? I didn’t realise it, but from my naïve understanding of the disease and longing for my mother, who had been separated from me, I was judging her. What I was essentially asking is, if she could manage to smile, surely she could have managed to raise a child.

As I grew older, I began to understand the central reality of a mental illness – it is not always obvious. Your chirpy, singing, cheerful co-worker could be dealing with depression, your next-door neighbour, who always smiles at you and stops for a conversation, could have social anxiety and you would never know. A person dealing with a mental disorder may never show physical signs like a bruise or a bleed, yet it is one of the leading causes of suicide.

Ma was a friendly, lively person, but she had no one to talk to. Trapped in an arranged marriage and with two small girls to raise, she couldn’t find time to talk about the chaos that had overtaken her mind. As her disease took hold of her, she stopped dressing up, stopped combing her hair, stopped wearing her favourite red lipstick, and eventually stopped smiling. All that was left was a vacant look in her eyes, and the fading hope of ever getting better. She was accused of being a bad mother, a terrible wife, and a dysfunctional person, just because she was dealing with an illness they couldn’t wrap their head around. It would have been easier if she had diabetes or cancer; society would have been more forgiving.

When her condition was finally diagnosed the family was shocked. They’d never dealt with a “mad” person before. She was put on anti-psychotic medication and like most people who are given this medication without a strong emotional support system, she developed an unhealthy dependence on it. She was also severely dependent on tobacco, as it gave her a sense of relief every time she used it. But after my father stumbled upon that orange with my teeth marks on it, he put his foot down, banned the pills, and stopped giving her any money.

My father always created this grey, abusive environment at home, even though he is supposed to be wholly sane by society’s standards.

This only made her more desperate. She would often trade her valuables with someone to get her the pills and tobacco. But there were days when she didn’t get her hands on either. Many a time, when she was deprived of the substances, she would sleep for long hours at a stretch and sometimes a whole day would go by, without her getting out of bed. There was a point when she turned into a zombie with no sense of social etiquette.

One day, she was sitting in the bedroom; my sister and I were in the house too. There was a carpenter, fixing a table, and Ma just sat in her room, unresponsive, and staring into nothingness. She did not even have the consciousness to drape her sari properly and the pallu was spread across the floor. My sister, who was about seven or eight years old, ran and put a shawl around her, making sure she didn’t catch the carpenter’s eye.

As her condition escalated, episodes of her normal self became few and far between, and one day things came to a head. It was a grey evening and my father was back from work and my parents were having yet another argument. My father would blame her for being irresponsible and as he abused her, she would often cower. But that day, she spoke up. She told him he was a terrible person, confronted him about his infidelity and violent streak. The more she screamed, the angrier my father got. He pushed her to the ground, picked up a heavy wooden chair, and hit her with it on her head, back, and shoulders. She bled all over the floor; there was blood on the walls as well. At the time, she was pregnant with my youngest sister.

The bloodstains stayed on the wall for a long time after she left.

***

My mother went back to her maternal home in Assam. My father refused to let her take my sister and me, and a decade would pass before I would see her again.

I met Ma and my youngest sister Ankita on a visit to Assam when I was 12. The woman from my memories was still there. In her years in Assam with her loving parents, Ma began to heal. She also cooked regularly, but I realised she is not what you and I call “normal”. Constant therapy and medication is very expensive so she may never completely recover.

But meeting Ankita was a joy. She is a testament to the fact that having a mentally troubled person for a parent need not affect a child detrimentally. The environment is what matters. My grandparents made sure to give her all the love and helped my mother to bring Ankita up. She understands what Ma goes through and that she has good days and bad days, but she doesn’t hold it against her.

Ankita recently got her results for the tenth grade and is now deciding on her higher studies. She is a happy girl, full of compassion, and mature beyond her years. Even after living with someone dealing with schizophrenia, she has turned out to be a bright, well-adjusted, and happy person.

Ironically, my sister and I, who lived without my mother, have developed mental-health issues. My father always created this grey, abusive environment at home, even though he is supposed to be wholly sane by society’s standards. I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which I was diagnosed with last year. I can’t venture out in public. Fear and anxiety are my constant companions.

I don’t know if I will see my mother again. Too much time has passed; all that is water under the bridge now. But I have fond memories of her even today – telling me silly jokes, excitedly experimenting in the kitchen, and singing serene Assamese melodies. I hope she has a happy life. Nobody deserves it more than she does.

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