My mother went mad during menopause. Whatever was holding her together all those years finally gave away. She never came back. Growing up I remember her as never really sick but never well either. She would run from one doctor to another but they couldn’t find anything wrong with her. They gave her pills to calm her down and told her to quit smoking. Of course that was impossible. She clung to her beloved Lucky Strikes the way a child holds onto a favorite toy; her only friend in a world she couldn’t comprehend.
She was a simple woman of peasant stock who just didn’t have the skills to get through life. She was out of place in the rich, Jewish community on the North Shore of Long Island where we lived. This was a town where the women had frosted hair, drove pink Cadillacs and wore diamond rings the size of walnuts. I was deeply ashamed of her. She knew it. I knew she knew it and it made me feel even worse. I wanted desperately for her to be like other mothers; to wear pretty clothes, attend PTA meetings and bake cookies. Instead she wore mismatched colors, spoke Lithuanian when she was with family or friends and never went to school meetings or signed our report cards. It’s not that she didn’t love us; I think she was just confused. Life was complicated and nobody had taught her the basics.
The simplest tasks seemed to give her difficulty and when my father criticized her she became even more helpless. He complained about everything; her cooking, her cleaning, the way she ironed his shirts. Yet those simple domestic chores were her only identity; when he took that away from her she had nothing. His constant yelling and bullying wore her down. She was a gentle soul who couldn’t seem to fight back. Instead she withdrew, further and further until she disappeared altogether like a bar of soap.
My father needed an opponent. My sister at eight was too young. There was only me. At sixteen I became the object of my father’s rage. I had begun modeling in New York City, got accepted to a top agency and begun getting a few jobs, which for me was a source of enormous pride. My father associated it with something sordid. According to him I was the cause of everything; my mother’s illness, my sister’s problems at school, and of his own unhappiness. I was not afraid to stand up to him and we fought constantly; he couldn’t be in the same room without attacking me. I remember my mother and sister huddled in the corner of the living room like two frightened children while by father chased me around the small apartment threatening to kill me. Sometimes the neighbors would all the cops and I would escape through the basement of the apartment building. My father worked nights as a short order cook. I’d wait for him to leave for work before going back.
I left the day after high school graduation. I moved into New York City where I worked as a dancer at places like the Copacabana and the Peppermint Lounge. A year later I left for Rome. The film business there has exploded and I found steady work, travelled, and had lots of colorful adventures but inside I was filled with fear and self- hatred. Rather than escape my demons, they seem to rise to the surface. After a few years I decided to return to New York and find a therapist. I didn’t even know what that meant but I knew I needed help.
When I returned I discovered my mother’s madness had erupted, spilling over into the small apartment like an explosion. No longer sitting quietly on the old green couch, she now screamed obscenities while her body shook violently as if some inner machinery had gone awry. My sister, now a teenager was left to fend for herself. My father didn’t have a clue as to what to do. No longer the bully, he seemed utterly lost and turned to me for help.
The first thing I did was arrange for my sister to live with relatives. Finding a doctor for my mother wasn’t easy. Plus I was pretty fragile myself. Eventually I found a brilliant therapist who literally saved my life. He gave me the name of a psychiatrist in the city and I brought my mother there. The diagnoses was schizophrenia. “There’s not much you can do,” he told me. “I can give her medication that will control her behavior. If there’s someone who can take care of her she can remain at home.” And so my father became her caretaker.
Needless to say I always feared menopause. I associated it with my mother’s final breakdown (at age fifty-one) and assumed it would destroy me in the same way. I was in my early twenties at the time so it wasn’t something I had to deal with immediately; it existed somewhere in the distance like a war fought in a foreign country. In my forties I began to have fleeting concerns. Then my fifties came. I waited. I worried. But nothing happened. My periods stopped. I never experienced a hot flash or other symptoms. Sure, I felt crazed and on the edge, but that was nothing new. Plus during that time I was closing my business of twenty years and under tremendous pressure. After a while I realized I had gone through it; I had crossed that bridge. I didn’t go insane. I survived. Maybe it was all the vitamins, bodywork and therapy I had done over the years. I’ll never know for sure.
Perhaps in some mysterious way my mother went crazy for me. She had the courage to go into the darkness and wrestle with the demons so that I could experience something different. God knows I’ve had my dark nights of the soul, my depression, and my angst yet I always came back; I always came through. A therapist once told me, “Don’t ever think your mother’s life didn’t have meaning. She waved her life like a flag and told you to get out. You made something of yourself. You heled your sister leave. Your mother’s life was not in vain.”