Out of the darkness: Dealing with mental illness this May
May is National Mental Health Month and here at GL we're encouraging girls all over to work hard to get—and stay—healthy. Writer and blogger Elizabeth Trabert Piper is familiar with that struggle, and she wants to help. Check out this piece she wrote for GL's April/May issue.
For years, Elizabeth Trabert Piper lived in the shadows of mental illness as she watched her mom struggle with the disease. Here, she brings light to the dark subject no one really wants to talk about.
When I was 15, my mother showed up at my high school intoxicated. She sped up through the carpool lane in her red Focus station wagon and rammed the car in front of her. As she stepped out to look at the damage, I remember her screaming incoherently at the man whose car she had hit.
One by one, faces turned to observe the scene and began whispering. I stood there in the crowd, desperately trying to hold back tears, and briefly considered joining my peers and their parents as they unconsciously judged my mother.
I remember thinking that it would be so much easier to pretend I didn’t know her than it would be to walk over and identify this drunk, angry woman as my mother.
Instead, I made a choice that day—a choice I would be forced to make time and time again in my complicated relationship with my mother and her mental illness. On that day, unlike so many other days when I would sit by her side, I turned away from her and walked myself home.
My mother wasn’t always like this. On days when she was sober and well, she was my best friend—I couldn’t get enough of her.
She used to take me to her favorite lunch spots, where we would laugh and talk. She was the type of woman everyone would gravitate to at parties, just to hear her colorful stories. She had tales of boyfriends, first kisses, being in the military and meeting celebrities. Often, we’d go shopping and find ourselves in her favorite hat store, posing in fascinators. It was so fun to dream with her, talk with her or just be silly with her.
On that afternoon when my mom came crashing into my school parking lot, I so desperately wanted to show my classmates how much fun she was. I wanted to explain to them how wonderful she could be—on a good day. Share how she was adventurous, vivacious, passionate, empathetic, accomplished, resilient and inspiring. How she was everything I hoped to be one day.
That is, until she would change. Sometimes, she would skip her bipolar medication or take it with alcohol and become drunk. On those days, she turned into a different person. My loving, charismatic mother became cruel, angry, depressed and embarrassing to be around.
During my teens, I spent countless hours sitting in emergency rooms after my mother would consume enough alcohol to pass out. As my friends received lectures from their parents about the dangers of drinking, I was witnessing them firsthand. I would sit there, next to her hospital bed, just waiting for her to wake up.
And when she did wake up? She would sob in my arms and beg for forgiveness. She would promise to stop drinking, take her medication and never cause me pain again. No matter how many times she went back on these promises, I never stopped believing her. Her sobriety and sanity were the prayers that tucked me into bed every night.
From the age of 7 until age 22, I hoped that, one day, the demons caused by my mother’s bipolar disorder and addiction would subside, and her grace, empathy and love would prevail. It was this hope—this vision sculpted from all the beautiful moments we shared together—that made it impossible for me to give up on her.
I remember the last sober conversation I had with my mother. At that point, I was lucky if I could get one good day a week with her. I was in my room when she knocked on my bedroom door and asked to come in. She sat down on my bed and looked at me with sad eyes. With a trembling voice, she told me she was sorry that she wasn’t stronger for me.
Looking back, I wish I had known the right words to say to her. I wish I had known how to save her life. A week later, she overdosed on alcohol. I found her on the floor at the foot of her bed.
There was nothing that could ever prepare me for losing my mother. I felt like part of me died when she passed away. Once again, I had a choice to make. I could spend my life wishing things were different—wishing she were alive and we could go back to the hat store where everything made sense.
Or, like so many times before, I could put one foot in front of the other and walk myself home.
What my mother’s death, or more so her life, has taught me is this: Each of us possesses an inner strength that has the power to get us through the darkest moments of our lives, moments when we question whether we will ever see the light again. This inner strength exists within us all.
Elizabeth Trabert Piper is the founder of The Prettygirl Revolution, a global movement to empower young women to celebrate their innate worth.
Have you or has someone in your family struggled with mental illness? How do you deal?
Photos credit: The Prettygirl Revolution/Elizabeth Trabert Piper