Most people I know have some intimate knowledge of Mental Illness — even as I loathe to call it that — capital M, capital I. Either they struggle with it (a lot or sometimes), or they are connected (sometimes or a lot) to someone who does. I’m of both camps — I have it, and I know people who do, too.
Depression and Anxiety (capital D, capital A) are the most significant issues I must keep in check and watch for triggers — like falling boulders in a canyon. I know they’re there and are dangerous, evident by rocks littering the side of the road and ones sitting precariously on the mountain peak.
I observe them, understand how they got there, appreciate their power, and move on. Why? Because I refuse to be stuck in that canyon, and I have things to do, a life to live.
One way I deal with my unique culmination of nature and nurture is I remain curious about it — not just my stuff, but other people’s too. Once I discover some aspect I’ve never known, I try to apply it to myself or some complex character in a multi-layered story. It helps me to understand humanity and makes life feel less scary.
I am riveted by a moment I spent with my grandmother, who died many years ago but whom I still think about and treasure because of this one moment at the apex of her mental Illness.
My favorite thing about my grandma growing up was that her initials spelled out DOPE — which, for a woman that always matched her purse, belt, and shoes, wore pink lipstick 24/7, and had weekly hair appointments and manicures — DOPE did not match her.
She would also address me unapprovingly — telling me I would be more attractive as a boy, calling me fat, and making sure that any Christmas gift she bought me was useless, such as a fingernail manicure kit (same gift five years in a row), when she knew I bit my nails down to the quick — and it wasn’t to nurture me into growing out my nails. It was to stick it to me that I had a problem — Thanks, G-Ma (capital G, capital M).
However, things changed when my grandmother began driving her car in the middle of the night with her trunk up, when she couldn’t quite figure out that shoes came in matching pairs, and when she didn’t recognize her son, my dad, thinking he was either a stranger at her house (actually his house) or that he was a potential suitor. Grandma was always boy-crazy, but now it seemed she’d dropped the boy part.
So, DOPE was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s with that special one-two punch of Dementia and moved into a facility with weekly hair and manicure appointments and plenty of eligible men.
Another intriguing part that grew inside my grandma’s demented mind was the ability to escape. Like a seasoned magician, she could break out of her well-chained, well-padlocked, well-encased glass enclosure and venture into the night without anyone noticing until hours later.
One night, the magician sneaked out a side door, slipped on black ice in the parking lot, and broke her number two vertebrae (also known as the Christopher Reeve break) — and survived. Ta! Da!
My dad asked me to visit her one last time before it was too late. I did not want to. I knew who this woman was when she was stone-cold-sober and sane. I had no idea what she would be now that her filter had been ruined. Plus, I kept picturing her sneezing and her head popping off, which freaked me out. Still, I went.
A nurse, a little frazzled, met me at my grandma’s private room. She opened the door, hair a mess, a painful smile of forced pleasantry across her face. I knew that feeling. I also knew the nurse was trying as hard as she possibly could.
Small paper cups filled with pills sat untouched on a breakfast tray, wheeled up to my grandma’s bed. In a lavender nightgown and squatting on her bed, my grandma had decided she was tired of wearing her neck brace. She kept yanking on the Velcro tabs that wrenched her neck from side to side and back to front.
Seeing the scene, I was immediately transported into someone else — a lion-tamer facing off the ill-tempered lioness. I knew my grandma. I knew what had made her tick once upon a time. And I had nothing to lose, so I went for it.
“Good morning!” I called and sat on her bed. She didn’t recognize me and pinched her eyebrows together. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t like this,” she said, jerking her neck brace.
The nurse hurried over to her, “Please stop doing that!”
My grandma huffed at her and did it harder.
“You don’t like it, huh?” I asked.
“You look so pretty in it, though,” I said. My grandma stopped yanking.
“I do?” she asked, her sky-blue eyes shining.
I nodded. My grandma sat down against her headboard.
“Does she need to take these?” I asked the nurse, pointing at the tray. The nurse nodded.
“Will you take these pills for me?” I asked, “It’ll be a nice thing you do for me.”
My grandma grinned and chugged down every pill — even finished off the water cup.
The nurse left with the tray, and another nurse entered.
My grandma seemed to like this new lady. They talked back and forth while the woman took her vitals. Then, the nurse asked my grandma who her visitor was.
“She’s my favorite nurse, Angela,” Grandma said. A pang zipped up through my body. I had never been my grandma’s favorite anything before…
I told the nurse who I was. She smiled and bobbed her head.
“Maybe you could answer a few things for us?” she asked. I agreed.
“How many times was your grandma married? She says it was six.”
“No,” I said, “It was two times. The first was to my grandpa, Oris, and the second was to a man named Sven.”
My grandma beamed at me.
“You were very loved by both of your husbands,” I said. It was the truth. She knew it was, too.
“Can you tell her about living in Seattle?” the nurse asked me. I looked at my grandma, puzzled. She remembered living in Seattle, Washington.
“Com’er,” Grandma said, scooching over and patting the empty side of the bed. “Tell me the story ‘bout Seattle.” She twirled a piece of her hair between two fingers, waiting.
I suddenly saw who my grandmother was — not the bold woman who dulled out compliments like blunt force trauma, but she was a little girl who had forgotten who she was and where she came from.
I also realized that as I told her a bedtime story, she would snuggle against me while I did it. My heart ricocheted against my ribs. Sweat bubbled up and poured out of my armpits, but I stayed. I snuggled. I told a story.
“I remember Seattle in three colors,” I began. “Green because of all the fir trees, blue because of the sky and ocean, and white for the puffy clouds and the tall buildings.”
“Yes…yes…yes,” my grandma said dreamily, closing the gap between us.
I told more stories, one about the day she received a note from my grandpa during her High School English class that asked her to meet him in the parking lot at 3:00 if she wanted to get married.
There were other stories, too, but the one that I remember most is the one that started with my grandmother, whom I despised my entire life, and ended with me holding her like a four-year-old. And that four-year-old melted away my hurt, anger, and hatred.
Mental Illness is complicated for everyone associated with it, and it often has such negative connotations that nobody thinks about possible positives. This moment with my grandma was positive. It transformed how I knew her, how I felt about her, how I would continue to remember her, and that was the most precious gift I’d ever gotten from her. Thanks, Grandma.