Growing up, I always knew that my mom was different. In some ways her uniqueness was a trait that my friends envied. They were jealous of the way that sometimes, we would be driving to the supermarket, spot a blimp in the air, and then suddenly find ourselves taking a detour to the local airport to watch it land.
Without warning, she’d be replaced by a cold, distant clone. The clone looked like my mom, sounded like my mom, wore the same perfume as my mom — but it didn’t feel like her. Her body was there, but mentally she had “gone away.”
When my mom “went away,” it meant that the house would be full of silence so tense that you could barely breathe. It meant unpredictable outbursts directed toward me and my father. It meant that my mother would lament to me that she was “raising a monster.” It meant that I would count the seconds until my father came home from work, so we could discuss mom’s mood swings in hushed tones.
My father and I gave my mother the nickname “Sunshine,” because some days her personality could light up an entire room. But like sunshine, she could become clouded over at a moment’s notice. When this happened, we would walk on eggshells around her as we patiently waited for “Sunshine” to return.
When I was a little girl, I couldn’t understand why every few months my mom would sleep on our couch all day, for several days straight. The curtains would remain drawn and we both stayed in our pajamas all day. When she went through these periods, no one was allowed to touch her. When I attempted to snuggle, she would visibly flinch, as if something grotesque was approaching.
I didn’t know she was dealing with anxiety.
I would repeatedly ask what was wrong. She would shake her head and beg me to be quiet as we sat in the car. After several minutes of hyperventilating and waiting for the pill she popped to kicked in, she would mumble that her tummy hurt. A decade later, I learned that those shopping trips were being interrupted by the severe panic attacks that plagued my mother.
As I got older, I developed a sixth sense about when the tides were about to turn. When the light behind her eyes began to flicker and our typical dinner conversation was replaced with quick jabs of hostility, it was my cue to take cover.
I’d sleep at my best friend’s house, or stay in my room and wait it out — whatever it took to protect myself until my mother’s sunshine was beaming once again. But sometimes, there was no warning.
“Things will get better,” he’d promise me. “Mommy’s just not feeling that well. She’ll come back.”
We became pros at crafting excuses for her at family functions, on days when mom’s sunshine was nowhere to be found. Under no circumstance was anyone to know about the screaming matches or tears shed behind our closed doors. By the time we arrived at our destination, our smiles were to be in place and our eyes dry. No excuses.
My father and I sometimes stood back and observed the magnificent show of charm she was able to put on for outsiders, knowing that less than hour earlier we were attempting to defuse one of her meltdowns. At times, this caused us both to question our sanity and reexamine our reality.
Things became even more complicated when I was 12 and my mom was diagnosed with heart disease. Our family was now forced to deal with both her moods swings and the repercussions of her strokes and heart attacks, which changed her life forever.