Choose the Better Part: Confronting Mental Illness

By Deborah Call

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Minerva K. Teichert (1888-1976), Jesus at the Home of Mary and Martha, c.1935, oil on canvas, 46 x 70 inches. Brigham Young University Museum of Art, 1943.
Used with permission.

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We should not be so occupied with what is routine and temporal that we fail to cherish those opportunities that are unique.

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My mother had severe anxiety and depression.  This inhibited her relationships with others and left her incapable of taking care of herself.  It went undiagnosed for most of her life.  She always told people she was fine and refused any form of treatment.  As a child, I didn’t know there was anything different, I thought my mom was tired a lot because she didn’t sleep well at night.  Most days she would sit on the living room floor and not move.  If the phone rang, she would answer it, if someone knocked at the door, she opened it and she kept a cheerful voice when speaking with others, but all other times, she sat on the floor.

My father was very social and outgoing so she let my father do the talking.  She was always very kind to others, but didn’t seek them out.  One day I wanted to visit a friend’s house and I asked my mom to call their mom to see if I could come over.  I remember she picked up the phone but wouldn’t dial.  I remember being pretty upset when she put it back down.

She was unable to discipline her eight kids and we were pretty wild.  As long as my father was at work, we knew we could get away with anything, so we did whatever and went wherever we wanted.  We dug holes in the lawn, we lit fires, we disappeared into the woods, we ran through the sprinkler naked. Sometimes my dad would go out of town on business and dishes piled up in the kitchen until mold grew on them.  It never occurred to me that my mom should be doing something about it.  I thought we were naughty, lazy kids for not doing our chores.

I didn’t know anything was different with my mom until I was a teenager.  At girls camp, girls would mention how much they loved their mom, how much their mom did for them and taught them, how much they appreciated their mom talking to them at night or enjoyed spending time with them or how their mom was their best friend.  This seemed strange to me and I wanted that kind of relationship with my mom too.  I wanted her to be interested in things that were going on in my life.  I wanted her to be excited for things I did and help me pursue my interests, but I didn’t know how to make that happen.
The relationship I had with my mom was very lukewarm. There was no friendship, but there was not hate either.  There was little emotion involved. When I was in college, my roommates called home frequently to talk to their moms and would be on the phone for an hour.  I called home very seldom and the conversation was only a few minutes and relayed little more information than “I’m fine, school is fine.  I’m having fun.”

As I got older and got married and had children of my own, I wished I could go to my mom and get advice, or just talk about life.  I wanted to hear her hopes, to know what made her happy and what frustrated her or to even just have her talk about her day.  She couldn’t do any of this.  Some days I deeply resented her for this.  Most times, I just ignored it.  It was easy to go for a year without talking to my mom, and then, it was usually only on mother’s day for a few minutes.  I had almost no contact with my mom for almost 12 years.
Ultimately, my mom’s anxiety and depression was the cause of my parents’ divorce.  My father left her the house which was paid for, the car which was paid for and money each month to support herself and the kids.  After all her children had left home, it was evident that my mom was unable to manage a household on her own.  Her new car had been repossessed, and the bank was foreclosing on the house due to unpaid debts.

In 2005 my mom moved closer to where I was living so that I could take care of her.  As a result I got to know her a little more.  She wanted to be with us, but didn’t participate in what we were doing.  It wasn’t easy to hold a conversation with her. She would briefly answer questions but never expound or tell stories or express interest or ask questions. The best she was able to do was to be present. She came to my house almost every day, but while she was there, she would quietly watch from a corner.

In 2007 she found a lump in her breast.  She waited months before mentioning it to me.  We went to the doctor and she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.  I was with her every step through her treatment, the surgeries, the chemo, the radiation, and the doctor appointments and after several months, it was gone.

It was after her cancer treatment that she spent a week in a mental hospital and was diagnosed with anxiety and depression.  They tried a couple of different medications but she didn’t like any of them.  Once she went home, she would stop taking the medication.

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Photo by Brendan Church. Used with permission.
My philosophy in life has always been that you do your best. When you pray for answers and don’t seem to get them, you look for what you think is the best option and do that.

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In 2015, she started having lower back pain. It got bad enough that she went to have it checked. She called me and told me that they had found some cancer and wanted to do some more tests. My philosophy in life has always been that you do your best. When you pray for answers and don’t seem to get them, you look for what you think is the best option and do that. My mom and I never had a very strong bond, but she was my mom I was ready to do my best to take care of her through this cancer treatment again. I approached it like an employee.

Now, there are not very many times I have had a divine course correction.  But this was one of them.  I didn’t even know anything about how serious the situation with my mom was, but after I hung up the phone, I had a distinct impression that this began the end of my mom’s life, and I needed to help her through it.  I needed to forget the past and create a different future. I needed to build that relationship we never had. No more lukewarm relationship.  I needed to be there for her.  I needed to be her advocate and her strength. I needed to be her family.  I needed to do more than pay her bills, make sure she had groceries and get her to her doctor appointments.  I needed to show compassion.  I prayed for strength. I prayed that I could be the Lord’s hands and make the right choices.

Bad news came and we learned this cancer was back, had spread and was terminal.  The doctors strongly suggested hospice, but my mom wanted to beat this like she beat it before.  We went against the doctor’s advice and fought.  After 4 really horrible months, my mom got about 1 year of good life. This was a blessing for her, but it also was a blessing for me.

Knowing that I wouldn’t have much time left with my mom, I spent a lot of time with her and saw her almost daily.  She still didn’t have much desire to do anything or go anywhere, but I pulled her out of her corner.  I talked to her more and asked my kids to tell grandma about what they were doing.  I made sure she was as involved as she would allow.  Instead of just doing things for her, I included her and asked her opinion.

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Photo by Michal Grosicki. Used with permission.
I know it seems insignificant, but when you only have small things, they become the important things.

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Every few days I would ask if she needed anything from the grocery store. She lived in an assisted living facility and had everything she needed including dessert after every lunch and dinner; but every time I went to the store, she asked for a Hershey bar with almonds. She said she just needed something to give her energy. I tried other candies, but she just wanted the Hershey bar with almonds. I know it seems insignificant, but when you only have small things, they become the important things.

She was too weak to go shopping so I would go buy her clothing and rather than show her what I bought and hang it up, I would pick each piece up and ask if she liked it. We talked about when she could wear it and what other items of clothing would go with it. Sometimes I would help her try them on and talk about how she looked in it.

After her doctor appointments we would talk about what happened. When we talked about her options, I didn’t just tell her what I thought was best for her, we talked about what she wanted, I asked her what she wanted to know about. I gave my thoughts, but I let her call the shots. I waited for her. Most days she said she didn’t want to talk about her health or hear any of it, so we didn’t talk about it at all. We would talk about food or family or anything else. Only once she asked what cancer was and what she should expect from it and once she asked what the end would be like. These were two conversations where I felt a tenderness towards my mom that I hadn’t before. In these two questions, I felt her open up even though I was doing all of the talking.

As I took care of my mom, I came to see my mom in a new light and understand her. I came to accept her for who she was rather than expecting her to change. Her thoughts and reasoning were still unconventional, but I started to really see who she was and how she thought. We developed a closer relationship then we ever have had before. As I tried to alleviate her suffering and help fill as much of her life with good things, I grew to love her for who she was, depression, anxiety and all. She was my mom and I loved her. We had small moments that became precious memories. I am very grateful that I listened to the prompting to show my mother compassion.

So often I wanted to take care of things and make things run smoothly. While this is good there is something better about sometimes stopping to see the people we serve.

The Savior taught this idea in the tenth chapter of Luke. He had traveled to Bethany, not far from the old city of Jerusalem. When Martha “received him into her house” Mary, Martha’s sister “sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was “cumbered about much serving,” and said, “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.” Jesus replied “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38–42). We should not be so occupied with what is routine and temporal that we fail to cherish those opportunities that are unique.

Sometimes the most important item on the grocery list is the Hershey bar with almonds. By having compassion, I was given a chance to have a relationship with my mom that I never had before. She became my friend.

My mom passed away in January 2017.