My mother went mad during menopause. Whatever was holding her together all those years finally collapsed. I always remember her as never really sick but never well either. She would run from one doctor to another but they never found anything wrong with her. They gave her pills to calm down and told her to stop smoking. Of course, that was impossible. She clung to her beloved Lucky Strikes the way a child holds onto a favorite toy -- her only friends in a world she couldn't comprehend.
During the 1950s, when I was growing up, she occasionally worked as a maid or baby-sat. Once she got a job as a cashier in a supermarket in town, but even that was too much for her. She was out of place in the wealthy Jewish community on Long Island's North Shore where we lived. This was a town where women drove pink Cadillacs and wore diamond cocktail rings the size of walnuts. I was deeply ashamed of her. She knew it which only made me feel even worse. I wanted desperately for her to be like other mothers: to wear pretty clothes, go to PTA meeting and bake cookies. Instead she wore mismatched clothes, didn't bake and never signed our report cards. It's not that she didn't love us. I think she was simply overwhelmed. Life was complicated and nobody had taught her the basics.
Did something happen at birth? Was she merely low functioning? Like a flower pressed in a book, she seemed preserved from another time. The simplest tasks seemed to give her difficulty and of course when my father criticized her she became even more confused and helpless. His constant yelling and bullying wore her down. She never became brittle or angry like some women. Instead she withdrew further and further, until like a bar of soap, she disappeared.
My father needed an opponent. My sister at 8 was too young, so he turned his rage on me. I was an easy target. At 16 I was critical and angry and not afraid to stand up to him. We fought constantly. He couldn't be in the same room without attacking me. I remember my mother and sister huddled in the corner like two frightened children while my father chased me around the tiny apartment threatening to kill me.
I left the day after my high-school graduation -- first to New York City, then to Europe where I worked in films as an actress, then later in production. When I returned home three years later, I found my mother's madness had erupted, spilling over the tiny apartment like an explosion. She was no was longer sitting quietly on the old green chair smoking her Lucky Strikes and drinking her endless cups of coffee. Instead she screamed obscenities while her body shook violently as if some inner machinery had gone awry.
My father was no longer the bully. Instead he seemed lost and turned to me for help. The first thing I did was arrange for my sister to live with relatives in the South. Finding the right doctor for my mother wasn't easy in the mid-'60s. Eventually I found a respected psychiatrist in Manhattan who diagnosed her with schizophrenia. There wasn't much he could do, he told me. She was beyond therapy, even shock treatment. He went on to explain that he could prescribe medications which would control her symptoms and allow her to remain at home, providing there was someone to look after her. And so my father became her caretaker and probably cleaned up some karma in the process.
I associated my mother's final breakdown (at age 51) with menopause, and assumed it would destroy me in the same way. In my 20s and 30s it wasn't something I had to deal with. It existed somewhere in the distance like a war in a foreign country. In my 40s, I began to have fleeting concerns. Then came my 50s. I waited and I worried but nothing happened. My periods stopped. I never experienced hot flashes or other symptoms. Sure, I often felt crazed and on the edge, but that was nothing new. Besides, I was closing my business of 20 years and under a lot of stress. After a while I realized I had gone through menopause and survived. Maybe it was all the therapy, vitamins, herbs and body work I did. Or maybe it was something far less tangible.
Perhaps in some mysterious way my mother went crazy for me. I've had my dark nights of the soul, my depression and my angst, yet I always came back. I always came through. But my mother lived in a place I only visited, and she lived there alone, utterly alone. Years later, a therapist told me, "Don't think for a moment that your mother never gave you anything. She waved her life like a flag and told you to get out. You left and made something of yourself. You got your sister out. Her life was not in vain."