Spotlight: Letters From Indiana

[creative nonfiction]

My mom sent me letters from Indiana. Stacks of cards with flowers and curly, purple ink inside. Breathtaking cursive spanned the card. My small hands touched the parts where she’d written sweet girl or my name. She had her first nervous breakdown when I was six years old, and was admitted to a hospital where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She and my father were recently divorced, but lived together, so while she stayed with my aunt in Indiana, I stayed with dad in our big, blue house in Holly, Michigan. When my dad gave me a new letter, I snuck it off to my room where I sat on a pink, ruffled bed and read it over and over. I put the card on my desk next to others arranged to face my bed.

After two months of cards, I was allowed to visit her. I was seven by then. I kicked my legs excitedly in the backseat of my dad’s SUV as he drove to a rest stop halfway between our house and my aunt Lisa’s. Lisa drove me the rest of the way to Indiana. The car ride was a blur of eager anticipation. When we reached her subdivision, I realized that I’d never seen where she lived. I only knew Aunt Lisa in the context of family gatherings at my grandparents’ house in Ohio.

My curiosity about Lisa’s house disappeared when she opened the door and called my mom’s name. Lisa walked through the foyer and into the living room. I stood in the doorway. My heartbeat quickened, and then I saw her. Mom was sitting in the living room, like a shy terrier on the couch, waiting for me to approach. She was cautious and quiet. Not how she used to be. The skylight made the room look cold and the distance from the foyer to the living room made me anxious. My pink, glitter shoes made squeaking sounds on the tile in the entryway as I walked toward her. Why didn’t she run and hug me? Why was everyone so quiet?

Everything from the living room carpet to the shelves and the smell of the air was clean. Every surface shone. I didn’t know how to act in this house. I was used to candles burning, covers thrown carelessly on furniture, and toys scattered on the floor. I looked around the room, and from my mom’s face to the folded hands in her lap. Maybe she didn’t know how to act here either.

I tried to get her to laugh and be silly. When she was happy, Mom would crack jokes and have everyone near her laughing. A woman once called her “Hollywood” because every time she saw her, Mom was singing and smiling. Now her face was puffy, her features blurred. Her smiles carved new lines on her face and disappeared quickly. Weren’t they letting her laugh here?

She seemed scared, like she wanted to leave. I told her she could come home with me. She cried, and tried to wipe the tears from her face before I could see. She wouldn’t look at me. She tried to occupy me with flowery hair clips and crossword books. She asked me questions about my dad, teachers, and school.

When it was time to leave, I asked if she was coming with me. Lisa said Mom had to stay in Indiana a little longer. Why were they speaking for her? Why couldn’t she leave? I thought she was trapped, but when I offered escape she wouldn’t take it.

“Mom?” I asked. I wanted her to say why she wouldn’t come home.

Lisa spoke for Mom because she loved her. She wanted to spare Mom the pain of explaining her mental illness to me. She wanted to make us believe this was something that would pass.

She looked at my aunt Lisa. Lisa nodded, and Mom said “I’ll see you soon, honey.” End of discussion. Mom would stay in Indiana until they said she could come home.

Now I know that my mom was subdued because she was medicated, and didn’t know what to tell me. She was in Indiana because she couldn’t be alone, and because a psychiatrist said she was unfit to care for me. A condition of her release from the mental hospital was that family would care for her until the psychiatrist said she was stable enough to live on her own. Lisa spoke for Mom because she loved her. She wanted to spare Mom the pain of explaining her mental illness to me. She wanted to make us believe this was something that would pass. Lisa was good at joking, cleaning, pretending… But her life wasn’t easier than ours. Most days she battled either depression or her controlling husband. Which meant she was good at keeping the house clean, and having easy answers for difficult questions.

*     *     *

When my mom felt stronger she moved out of Lisa’s basement and back to Michigan. Though they were divorced, she’d been living with my dad to feign normalcy and keep my life simple. After her breakdown, she was too much for him to handle, so she rented an apartment near Dad and school. The apartment was on the third floor of a squat, brick building. We could hear sirens from the small living room, but Mom said it was safe, that we heard sirens because we were near a hospital. She put sunflower laminate inside the bathroom cabinets and strawberry decorations in the kitchen. We stationed bright lamps in each room. She was back to smiling, laughing and being my mom so quickly that it seemed like she’d never been gone. She couldn’t work, but received social security and did well as a stay-at-home mom and volunteer for my Girl Scout troop. She was happy for a while. More stable.

While I was in middle school, she got a job at a real estate company and saved money from her commissions. We moved from the apartment to a small condo in a better neighborhood. The walls in the condo’s living room were mirrored. Mom said a body-builder lived there before us. I used to imagine him with a buzz cut, in a bright pink and yellow leotard, flexing in our living room. The kitchen was decorated in strawberries again, but was so small that when I opened the drawers they nearly touched the wall. There were no sirens, and we had a backyard. A backyard where we sat in the grass, did crafts, and where I celebrated my tenth birthday with friends.

When I was thirteen, she was promoted and we moved into a bigger condo closer to the middle school and high school. It was beautiful, with wood floors, granite countertops and vaulted ceilings. Upstairs, the walls and white carpet were covered in rainbows from refracted sunlight. After a string of apartments and dingy condos, it was home. It was the cheapest in the subdivision because it was so close to the main road. We didn’t care. We joked that our driveway had a name because Woodcliff Trail, the entrance to the subdivision, was a short street that ended at our garage. We called our condo the beach house because traffic from the highway sounded like waves outside our door. We called the couch the big boat and the loveseat the little boat, and would use our hands to make binoculars so we could spy on each other from opposite sides of the living room.

She unpacked the strawberry decorations and put them in the kitchen. We bought furniture from Rent-a-Center and painted my room. It was the first time I had a room I could paint. I wanted to paint full scale scenes on the walls, but mom convinced me to settle for purple, blue, and pink sponge patterns instead. We made friends with a chipmunk that visited our porch, and laughed about the traces of glitter from her crafting. Our condo was the promise of a good future for us. It was as if her mental illness was a bad dream we’d shared long ago.

*     *     *

By the time I entered high school, my mom would work for three days without sleep. When the weekend came, she’d stay in her pajamas, stay home, and nap. I learned to notice when she’d gone off her meds. Without medicine she was more stressed than energetic and sad than tired. I didn’t know what she was taking, but I knew to ask her if she was taking it.

I thought we were in control, but there were days when the act fell short, and I saw we’d been lulled into a false sense of wellbeing. Either we’d gone too long without refilling her prescription or she’d been hiding her mood swings from me and trying to work through them on her own. But she couldn’t pretend for long. Everything inside her would pile up and spill over.

These were the days when she’d cry silently, her chest heaving like a child’s. Her muscles would tighten and her face contort in pain. Her round, freckled cheeks would be stained with tears. Eyes shut impossibly tight. Her mouth would hang open and her face would turn red. A numbness would overcome her, as if nothing I said or did could reach her.

I’d pretended I wasn’t scared. I’d talk to her, barely able to hear myself speak over my pounding heartbeat. When talking didn’t help, I’d run upstairs to the white carpeted landing that led to my room. I’d duck in the shadows, behind the half-wall as if it were a barricade and I was on the front line. From the dark upper landing, I’d watch my mom in the living room below writhe on the couch and scream in anguish. She’d scream lonely, angry screams ending in sobs that echoed up the walls and into the vaulted ceiling. I’d hide behind the half-wall and dial my Aunt Becky’s number.

My aunt would answer, and I’d tell her Mom was upset again. In the background, my aunt would hear my mother shrieking like an animal was ripping her apart. She’d asked to speak with her. Mom would talk to Becky and glare at me. She didn’t approve of me getting family involved, but once Becky saw through her façade it came crumbling down. My mom would cry. She’d say she was fine, but sad. That she’d be okay. Becky would ask to speak with me again. I’d climb upstairs, and we’d talk about whether she’d drive from Ohio to help. We’d decide it was all right. And after I hung up and heard the silence, I would breathe deeply, knowing that mom would be okay as long as I was there.

*     *     *

In the summer of 2012 I was taking classes at community college, working, and living at home. On Tuesdays I’d visit my dad. One Tuesday that June I decided to stop by mom’s house first. On the way, I got a text message from her that read, “I’ll love you forever.” Nothing else.

I sped until I was home. I pulled into the driveway and ran across the walkway to our door. Inside I saw a bottle of vodka, a glass full of tomato juice, and a pack of cigarettes on the living room table. Ashes and medicine bottles were strewn across the wood.

She told me she was sad, that she’d been fired, and she didn’t want me to see what would happen next. She rambled about her plan, and how they were going to take her away. She said I wouldn’t have to see the body. She cried, I pleaded, and as we spoke, I started to understand her threat. She meant what she was saying. Nothing I said would convince her not to kill herself.

I felt like a child. I wanted to yell for help, to run to the loft and call my aunt Becky, but I couldn’t leave Mom alone. So I told Mom to sit down. I sat opposite her on the loveseat and texted Becky with my phone on silent, hidden between me and the couch cushions. I talked to Mom, using the voice and words I’d heard people in movies use when they needed to calm someone clinging to the side of a bridge or window ledge. I didn’t know how long I could pretend to be calm. I didn’t want to be there if she killed herself, but I couldn’t leave her.

We talked for the next two hours until she was so exhausted she fell asleep on the couch. My aunt arrived a little later. She walked in the door, sat next to my mom on the couch, and pet her hair until she woke. I watched them, feeling like an outsider eavesdropping on a stranger’s emotional moment with a friend. I didn’t feel sorry for Mom. I wasn’t happy that she was alive. I was numb. Some part of me was relieved Becky was there, but all I felt was tired. I wasn’t sure if that night really happened, and didn’t want to know the truth. So I went to bed, and took refuge in unconsciousness.

I wanted to see my name. I wanted her to admit how hard it was to leave me or that she wanted someone to take care of me, but she didn’t. It wasn’t poetic. It wasn’t beautiful.

The next morning, I woke and confronted the evidence of the night before. My aunt was cleaning the mess in the living room. Ashes in the trash can. Pill bottles gone. She told me that while she was cleaning she found a note, and asked if I knew anything about it. I told her I didn’t, and a few minutes later dug through her purse until I found it. I took the folded piece of paper upstairs and locked myself in the bathroom.

My palms were clammy and fingers shook as I unfolded the paper. I scanned it quickly then reread it, searching for my name. I don’t know what I thought I’d find. I wanted to see my name. I wanted her to admit how hard it was to leave me or that she wanted someone to take care of me, but she didn’t. It wasn’t poetic. It wasn’t beautiful. It was a suicide note written with simple words, by a woman unable to stand the pain of thought, language, or living any more, but unable to leave without an explanation. It amounted to something about losing her job, how hard life was, and that she and hoped everyone would understand.

*     *     *

I despised her for her selfishness. For trying to leave me. For putting her pain before mine and everyone else’s. For saying with assorted medicine and that fucking note, that whatever pain her death caused wouldn’t matter if she could relieve her own. During the month after she left, my helplessness turned to rage. I resented her for being weak. I was angry that she left me to deal with her foreclosure and pack while she pieced together her psyche. She went with Becky to live in Ohio. And again she was living in her sister’s basement. But this time, it was a different sister, and in a different state.

Becky is the sister who looks most like Mom, talks like Mom, though she always seemed tougher to me. People told stories about Becky being the one a man in her subdivision called when he found a snake in his yard. Becky was the driver for long road trips. She was either everyone’s mom or everyone’s dad depending on the circumstance.

Though Mom is the eldest of her sisters, her breakdown left her in a childlike state. She surrounded the bed and the remaining room in Becky’s basement with seemingly meaningless objects, including a shell and shadowbox items. Everything else was in boxes. She asked me to come with her. I couldn’t bear the idea of being another one of mom’s prized possessions collecting dust in Becky’s basement. And I still hadn’t forgiven her. So I stayed in Michigan and moved in with my dad, marking the first time in decades my mother and I had any separation.

*     *    *

A few months later, my mom and Becky returned to Michigan to get more of Mom’s things from the house. Becky sat with me on the front porch and explained that I needed to be nice to my mother.

“She’s sick,” she said.

The concrete of our porch was cool on my legs on that hot August day. I stared at the cars that passed on the road beyond our driveway. The neighborhood kids rode by on brightly colored bikes, shrieking and laughing. A garish light shone off the metal.

She put her hand on my uncovered knee.

I turned.

“She’s sick, just like someone would be sick with pneumonia or cancer, or anything else. That’s my understanding of it, anyway. I don’t know very much about this stuff, but from what I’ve heard the doctor say, that’s how we have to think of it. That she’s sick and we need to try and help her.”

My lip quivered. I bit at the inside of my cheek and tilted my head down, trying not to cry. I clenched my stomach muscles, willing myself to be stronger. Be stronger. Be stronger. The only way to get over her breakdown was if I refused to let it break me too.

“We have to help her just like we would if her body was sick. Her mind is hurting and she needs our help.”

Becky, her sisters, and my grandparents had been dealing with Mom’s mental illness for decades. They knew more about when she was in the hospital, rehabilitated in a mental clinic where she did arts and crafts, and lived with Lisa, but I knew what it was like to live with her day to day. I knew her better than any of them, and felt betrayed in a way that I thought they couldn’t understand.

Becky stared at my face for a long time, waiting for me to speak. I stared at the concrete.

“I know she hurt you,” she said more quietly, “but you have to forgive her. She’s your mother and she needs you. She loves you.” My aunt put a hand on my back.

I started to cry. Terrible, childish crying. I felt guilty and angry with myself. Crying reminded me of my mother. For years I couldn’t be weak, wouldn’t let myself get emotional, because I had to be there for her, and promised that I’d never break like she did. Her suicide attempt showed me that I wasn’t enough. I gripped my aunt’s hand as her other rubbed circles on my back. She let me cry. Then she led me into the house to help my mom.

I helped them pack some of her clothes and said I’d watch the house for a few days while they figured out what to do. I remember waving to them from the front door. After they pulled away, I walked upstairs to my past refuge.

During the foreclosure process, the water and power in the house had been shut off. It was cold upstairs and the furniture was gone. I settled calmly on the floor. I slowly leaned my head onto the dirty, white carpet, and I cried. My hands spread out in front of me. My nose dripped onto the carpet filled with lint and dirt from all the people who’d been trying to help us move out of this house. I whispered, “God” and “please,” hoping He could string my prayer together without other words. I felt emptied of strength and feeling. My mom was my best friend and I hated her. I didn’t want to talk to her, but I had to check on her, make sure she was okay, and coordinate the foreclosure with the condo association.

It was dark and cold in the house, but I didn’t care. My hands gripped the carpet. I could feel the dry fibers of it on the tender skin beneath my nails. I pinched the muscles in my face, gritted my teeth, and then opened my mouth against the carpet and screamed.

This time I wasn’t hiding. I wasn’t calling my aunt or peeking at Mom over the wall. Her screams didn’t fill the house. This time, the screams echoing through our beach house were mine. I wasn’t trying to help her get through one of her episodes. It was too late for that. I’d already failed, and everything broke. So I screamed until the sun set. I screamed in our empty, cold house. The cars on the highway sounded like waves outside our door, and I sat alone in the near darkness. I couldn’t think or speak. Instead I muttered and sobbed, and hoped those waves would swallow me whole.


Brooke WhiteBrooke White received her bachelor’s degree in English and Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. She’s a Michigan native, with a penchant for prose and long conversations. Winner of the Hopwood Committee’s Roy W. Cowden Memorial Fellowship for nonfiction, her work has appeared in Ugly Sapling, and Lunch Ticket’s Amuse-Bouche series.