As a kid, I did my best to keep busy. Anything to keep my mind off of negativity. I loved painting, reading, listening to music and watching TV. I got really good at writing computer programs and on my brother’s Commodore 64 (**nerd-alert**). I spent hours playing video games and hiding out in my room or geeking out over my fav TV shows: Knight Rider, The A-Team, and later Star Trek: The Next Generation and Quantum Leap.
One day while I was doing homework in my bedroom, I heard mom having a delusion. It was a typical one where she was accusing someone of hurting her and our family. As she yelled at the walls, I kept working and tried my best to drown it out. After 30 or 45 minutes passed, I realized I had some paperwork that needed to be signed by a parent for school. I couldn’t communicate with her when she was having a manic episode. That was fruitless. I had been conditioned to become strategic when asking things of my mom. I learned to constantly observe, analyze and gauge her behavior and mood before interacting with her. I would wait for an opportunity when she appeared calm, lucid and pleasant. If she was smiling or singing, I knew I could speak with her. If she was talking to the walls or upset, I would stay away.
So I opened my bedroom door and emerged from my room. It was quiet–Maybe this is my chance to speak to mom. I walked gently to the family room, but it was empty as was the kitchen. I walked back to my parents’ bedroom but she wasn’t there either. Maybe she is out in the patio. I looked out our glass sliding doors leading to the patio, but there was not any sign of her.
There was no sound in the house. Just an eerie silence. I went back to my room and started drawing. I presumed she was outside in the garden where she often tends to her plants. I figured I'd just get with her later.
Another hour had passed. I hadn't heard my mom come inside. I began to have an uncomfortable feeling. I pushed the discomfort away and walked to the kitchen to grab a quick snack. After eating, I decided to get some organ practice since I had a lesson coming up the next day. I made my way to the living room where the Lowery my parents purchased a few years earlier sat by a large window. I was about to settle down on the bench when I noticed my mom sitting at our dining room table. This was odd as our family rarely went into the dining room except to gather for special meals. So I had not expected to see her there. She was quiet and not screaming so I decided to try engaging with her.
I was about to open my mouth to speak, but I stopped short. She sat with her one hand on the table and the other in her lap, shoulders slumped and was quietly staring. Not at anything specific. Not at the wall, not the table or out the window. I observed her for several moments. Her eyes never moved or shifted. They were fixed, but not on any particular item in the room.
She didn’t speak or move when I approached her.
“Mom? I have some paperwork for you to sign.” Silence. She didn’t look at or acknowledge me. My presence nor my voice broke her from this silent reverie. Is she daydreaming? How long had she been like this? If I get her attention, will she start yelling and screaming at me or the walls? Has she been this way for hours?
I spoke again, but no response. She continued staring, rigid and immobile like a wax figure in Ripley’s museum. Her Asian features were expressionless as she stared blankly with her dark, almond shaped eyes. She sat in utter silence and complete stillness.
I became frightened and backed away. I was scared of where her mind was and how she might act when she came out of the dark place I presumed she was in. I shuffled back to my room, shut my door, squeezed my shut my eyes. I cried and pleaded to God to make it stop. The vision of her staring with no emotion was terrifying and haunting. I can still picture her sitting there alone as if turned to stone.
20 years passed before I understood what mom was experiencing. Catatonia is a mental state when a person can't move, speak, or respond to stimuli. People experiencing a catatonic state can go hours or even days completely immobile and silent. There are different types of catatonia. The type my mom exhibited manifested in hours long of being motionless without the ability to speak. I have read catatonia can be a symptom of brain disorders like bipolar or schizophrenia.
Thinking back, I don't think she heard me talking to her or could process what I was saying. When she went into this state, it was like her brain disconnected from the here and now and went somewhere far away. I can't imagine what it was like for her to experience these episodes. It had to be confusing and scary for her. How ironic that the mental illness causing her to feel so much fear and pain spilled over and took hold in our hearts and minds.
The loud silence
The silence was agonizing. It was just as hurtful as if she had lashed out verbally shouting accusations at me. This heart wrenching silence spoke volumes to my young and impressionable mind. It wasn't peaceful and uplifting as you would think silence has the power to be. Rather, this quiet darkness that resided in my mom's mind told me she was not well. It told me I was unseen and alone.
With no one to turn to, I was isolated. I felt like an outsider. These episodes made me feel unwanted at home. At school, I felt like the oddball that didn't fit in because of the chaotic home life. I didn't fully belong anywhere. Nothing seemed normal and nothing made sense. I couldn’t tell my friends the things she did and the way they made me feel. They wouldn’t understand. I'm sure they'd think I was weird (or already did). I mean, I didn’t even realize what was going on, so how could I put this into words? All my friends and schoolmates seemed happy and carefree. No one I knew had a parent that acted like this. So I continued to just keep it all inside and pretend the chaos in our home didn’t exist.