Sunday, May 5, 2013

Pot Holders

In the late 1960s, before I was born, my mom received electroshock therapy, twice.  Once because she drank a beer after taking a Valium and it triggered her "nervous breakdown" and the second time because she found out her husband, the father of her four children ages eight and under, was cheating on her and that her marriage to the man she had known since she was fourteen was over, and her life, at the age of twenty-eight was surely over, and how could she get a good paying job to support her kids as a single mom since she decided to not go to college and become an architect after all and instead dropped her "hard" classes her senior year of high school to take cooking and sewing classes because she knew the one thing in life she was destined to be is a housewife and she would be the best wife and mother she could be.  What she forgot to factor into her life plan at age seventeen is that marriage is a partnership and no matter how hard you work, if your partner isn't participating, it's time to quit.  Before she came to this realization, during a fight with her husband in which she took off running down the street in her nightgown to get away from him, she was taken against her will to the hospital, given medicine to calm her down, and given a series of electroshock therapy treatments.

Needless to say, Mom is not a fan of psychiatry.  When I told her my sister Kit, my husband Will, my daughter Katie, and I were taking a trip to the Glore Psychiatric Museum, she asked me why on earth we'd want to go there.

"It'll be fun.  They have artifacts from the history of mental illness treatment.  It should be fascinating."

"I don't know why you've always been so interested in mental health issues," Mom said.

I raised my hand, palm up as if I were presenting evidence to the court, and moved my hand back and forth between us.  Mom's had electroshock therapy, something thankfully I've never experienced, but I've got her beat in the age of first treatment category.  I was only eleven when I was taken to my first shrink.  She was in her twenties.  

Mom pointed a finger to her chest and feigned ignorance.  "I don't know what you're talking about me.  I'm not crazy.  I'm perfectly fine."

"I don't think you're crazy, Mom.  But you do have quite the history of mental health treatment," I explained.

"That's not my fault," Mom argued.

"I never said it was," I assured her.  I dropped it because I didn't want mom to get defensive.  I have to accept the fact that she and I grew up in different eras of mental health treatment and acceptance by society. When she was young, seeing a psychiatrist and getting treatment for mental health issues was something to be ashamed of.  By the time I was a kid, First Lady Betty Ford was touting rehab for alcoholics, Woody Allen was making mainstream jokes about his long-term psychoanalysis, and people started sharing their mental health stories with Phil Donahue on daytime TV.  Society opened up its collective mind about mental health.  Getting treatment is no longer something to keep secret.

I understand why Mom likes to ignore her psychological past.  Denial shields her from the pain.  She prefers to sit in her comfy chair and watch "The View" and paint rocks and tables and chairs and canvasses, and crochet afghans, and sew quilts, and create all the "busy hands are happy hands"-type crafts she makes.  That shit drives me crazy.  Over the years Mom has tried putting needles and paint brushes and clay into my hands and I throw the stuff down after five minutes.  I don't like to make things with my hands.  I like to use my hands to write.  I wrote long-hand mostly when I was younger, but now I type.  Fingers flying across the keyboard as I pound out my thoughts and feelings and creative impulses.  Writing is my therapy as crafting is Mom's.

When I was a teenager and still lived at home, Mom and I would escape our hot house and my hot-tempered dad by sitting on the front porch in the evening, talking.  We mostly talked about our favorite TV shows, what had happened during the day, who was annoying us and what we wanted to do about it, but sometimes, if she was in the mood, I could get Mom to talk about what she remembers from her times in the hospital recovering from shock therapy.

She doesn't remember much.  Electroshock therapy is amnestic.  What she mostly remembers is sitting in the hospital bed keeping busy hands by making pot holders. The nurse would bring in a box, a kit, that had fabric strips and a plastic loom and instructions for how to weave the fabric in such a way that you end up making a useful item: a pot holder.  Something that keeps you from feeling pain.

I saw these kits when I toured the Glore Psychiatric Museum:

I'm glad I went to the museum and saw these artifacts from my mom's psychological past.  It helps me understand her better.  It reminds me to be thankful for how lucky I am to be a woman who lives in the time period I do, where I am encouraged to speak freely about my struggles and share my stories with the world.  That when I have temper tantrums and freaks outs and yelling and crying fits, I don't have to worry about being carted off by an ambulance to get shocked by so-called experts in the mental health care field.

My blog is my pot holder.  Although it doesn't keep me from feeling pain, in fact sometimes it temporarily intensifies it, I find that when I share my stories it helps me heal and the more I heal the less pain I feel from my injurious psychological past.  Writing doesn't cover up the pain.  It teaches me to endure it.