Schizophrenia stole the best years of my mother’s life—not just from her but from us, too.

I must have been about five or six years old when I started to notice that my mother’s behavior seemed odd. I won’t ever forget the afternoon my mother sat my two brothers and me around our kitchen table. She gave each of us a glass then brought out a container of aspirin and a bottle of Manischewitz wine, a sweet kosher wine used for blessing and during Jewish holidays. (Mom’s mother converted to Judaism when I was a baby and I’m pretty sure that’s how she was introduced to the wine.)

Mom poured each of us a glass of wine. I was the youngest of three children; my brothers were four and seven years older than me. Then she doled out three aspirin and calmly instructed us to swallow the pills and drink the wine.

My brothers and I were completely bewildered—stunned, actually. We were old enough to know that medication and booze are a dangerous mix—especially for children. We didn’t often disobey our mother, but this was just plain, weird. We shifted in our seats nervously. No one took a drink. Mom repeated her command, this time in an angry voice. My brothers told her “No” and she left the room, returning with the dreaded strap.

We were not afraid of our mother but we lived in fear of “the strap”—a thin belt used for disciplinary purposes. This was the 1960s and at that time corporal punishment was still okay. Straps, paddles, and thin tree branches were all acceptable tools. Mom said if we didn’t do what she said she’d beat us. I was terrified and started to wail. Thankfully, my brothers remained firm. They told her firmly we would not take the aspirin or drink the wine.

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The next thing I remember was my grandmother trying to keep me distracted in a bedroom just off the kitchen in our two-family home. Somehow, I managed to sneak a peek into the kitchen and saw my mother laying on a hospital gurney. I remember feeling very scared and confused.

Life Between Breakdowns

Looking back, I don’t know if my mother was trying to kill us or simply wanted to make us sleep. The gurney I caught a glimpse of wheeled her out of the house, and she mysteriously disappeared. She was gone for a while.

I learned later that she was taken to a psychiatric ward for treatment. While she was gone, our grandparents and great-grandparents pitched in to watch us while our dad was at work. Whenever my mother needed to go “away”, our grandparents stepped in. Mom had some half-siblings, but they were not really involved with us, and Dad’s brother was busy working to support his own family.

Brown Family circa 1960s

The Brown Family, circa 1960s.

When my mother wasn’t having a nervous breakdown (that’s what we called her mental health crises back then), she was just like the other moms—a busy homemaker raising three children while her husband worked long hours to support his family. Mom baked cakes for PTA bake sales, attended our school plays, music recitals, and other events. She was a pretty good cook, too, except for the occasional soggy, veggie side dish.

My childhood was fairly normal. We attended public school and did the usual stuff kids like to do. We played with the kids on the block and went to the playground. I loved the swings but could have lived without the metal slide. I remember well the backs of my legs burning on my way down the slide dressed in summer shorts! City playgrounds at the time were built on asphalt that was hard and hot, too. They really were mean streets!

Whenever he could, Dad took us on fun family outings. We went to drive-in movies, amusement parks, and dined out at our favorite local hamburger joint. After dinner, we’d get ice cream—everyone’s favorite dessert. We lived in a predominately Black section of Brooklyn, New York known as Bushwick. I thought it was the greatest place on Earth; my father had other plans.

Moving Up and Out

Brooklyn was changing in a way my parents didn’t like, so Dad bought us a single-family home on a nice mixed-race street in Queens—the borough next door. We’d barely gotten the boxes unpacked when he decided he’d had enough.

Dad told my mother he wanted a divorce and asked her to share the news with us. We rarely saw him again. To this day, I’m not sure why he left but I sometimes wonder if he’d grown tired of explaining to the neighbors why Mom was being taken away in an ambulance, again.

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Suddenly single, Mom was forced to find a full-time job to help support herself and the three of us. Since my parents married right after Mom graduated from high school, she had little work experience, so it took a while to get work. Welfare helped us make do—I remember drinking powdered milk and eating cheese bought with food stamps—until she eventually got hired by a dry cleaner to work at the counter.

Still, there wasn’t much money left over for emergencies like the winter when the furnace broke. We used the oven and electric heaters to stay warm. I’ve got to hand it to Mom, though. She bought a new furnace and made what seemed like an eternity of monthly payments, and we never went hungry. It couldn’t have been easy for her. Except for an occasional glass of Manischewitz on special occasions like Christmas, she never took illegal drugs or drank excessively.

She kept her sanity with the help of prescription medication she took daily. I’m not sure which medication she took, but I know it worked well…until it didn’t.

Family Secrets

By my estimation, Mom’s mental health issues emerged after the birth of my oldest brother when she was in her early 20s. I didn’t learn the name of her condition until many years later.

Apart from the ‘kitchen incident,’ I suspect the adults in my life shielded me from many of my mother’s mental health issues and I’m sure I blocked out a few on my own.

Another episode I remember happened a few years after the ‘kitchen incident,’ when Mom locked my brother and me out of the house. When we broke a window to unlock the back door, our mother flew through the front door and ran down the street hysterically. Her hallucinations may have made her think we were robbers breaking in.

I am certain the neighbors had a lot to talk about after witnessing our short, heavy-set mother, clearly in distress, sprint down the street and be taken away by ambulance a short time later. It was all very humiliating for me.

Our mother/daughter bond was tested again and again during my teenage years. A couple of times she took herself—and me—to the hospital. (She must have sensed something was wrong.) Getting an insider’s view of a mental facility was scary and didn’t do much to strengthen the relationship.

I never spoke about my mother’s condition to anyone. My brothers and I didn’t discuss it much and my relatives rarely mentioned the illness either.

After my older brothers moved out (one to Colorado and the other to Manhattan), I lived alone with my mother and dealt with her mental health struggles on my own. One day she left without letting me know where she was going. I remember frantically calling local hospitals trying to track her down.

I didn’t find out where she was until the hospital that had admitted her called several hours later to tell me she’d somehow broken her ankle. My brother in Manhattan thankfully came home from his apartment to visit Mom in the hospital with me. The broken ankle was a huge ordeal that led to several surgeries. Thankfully, my brother helped me care for her during the long recovery.

Unless you were a family member, it wasn’t always obvious that Mom was having an episode. She would speak normally and then—out of nowhere—blurt out something outlandish. When Mom had friends over, I’d nervously stay close by, monitoring her behavior in case I needed to step in and sort out any confusion.

Her illness sometimes made her talk in riddles that she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, explain. I’d ask what she was talking about, she’d say angrily, “You know what you did!”—which was telling since I hadn’t done a thing!

Over time I could sense she was on the verge of a breakdown by the way she talked. Not what she said, but by the way she said it. The tone of her voice would get higher, and she would speak in short, clipped sentences.

Living Behind “Bars”

In the mid-1990s, following a 10-year period without any breakdowns at all, I gained the confidence to move to California and join my brother who had relocated from Manhattan a few years earlier.

About a year after living on the West Coast, I called my mother to see how she was doing and sensed she was on the verge of another breakdown. Wasting no time, I caught the red-eye a few hours later. Not long after I arrived, I ran into the woman who lived next door—our family’s trusted friend.

She was upset and told me Mom was a risk to herself and shouldn’t live alone anymore. We sold the house and bought a condominium so Mom could spend what was left of her life living close to us in the Golden State.

She settled in nicely. I took her shopping and brought her to the doctor. At one of those appointments, I finally learned the cause of my mother’s erratic behavior all those years. Schizophrenia had been the culprit all along.

Despite hearing my great-great-grandmother spent time in a mental hospital, my brothers and I never worried we’d inherit schizophrenia from our mother. Other than the ‘kitchen incident,’ we were never afraid of her—she was our Mom.

One last breakdown stained the last years of her life.

When my father died in 2008, Mom was in her 70s. After much debate, my brothers and I decided to attend his funeral back in Brooklyn even though he had not been much of a father to us. My mother never remarried, but our father did and went on to have a life without us.

The news of his passing may have been the trigger, but regardless it was clear she could no longer live alone.

During this time, things came to a head, and I wasn’t very pleasant to her. I clearly harbored a lot of resentment and anger. Why couldn’t she ignore those voices in her head? Why hadn’t she been there for me when I needed her?

Sadly, my mother spent the last two years of her life bouncing between hospitals and nursing homes. She passed away in February 2012.

I think about her often and miss her more than I thought I would. I wish I had handled the situation better. My mother did the best she could with the lousy hand that life dealt her. I can see that now. She loved her children and kept us together, no matter what. I will always admire her for that.

Schizophrenia is an elusive thief. It preyed on my family for more than 50 years. It stole Mom’s mental health and robbed her of the life she wanted; it robbed us of our mother and it got off scot-free.

I hope with all my heart that modern medicine will find a way to eradicate this cruel mental condition. If schizophrenia isn’t locked up for good, it will continue to dash dreams and ruin lives. It’s time to stop the crime spree.

Last Updated: Aug 26, 2021