Good Days, Bad Days: Growing Up with Mental Illness
By Jean Martinez
Long before I was seventeen I learned my mother’s first choice would be a Vodka straight...
My mother was German, English and Welsh, a Protestant and a Republican. She was an Ohioan, born in the year 1915 before women in this country had the right to vote ratified. My father was first generation Mexican-American, a Catholic, and a Democrat born in Kansas; his birth year was 1924. I was raised in the Coachella Valley among my father’s family.
Under the shared roof of my family home, I was an eye and ear-witness to a constant plethora of viewpoints. I found this to be simultaneously stimulating, stressful, and a certain comfort. Often the polarized discussions and deliberations yielded only to daylight when sleep muffled any cognitive clarity to persist in debate. Growing up I found it to be as close an invitation to a Socratic environment as I have ever since encountered.
Both my parents worked when the social norm was that a woman would stay home exclusively and raise “the children.” That was the expectation and to do otherwise set a woman up for unkind criticism. My mother was a nurse while my father was a sheet metal journeyman. My mother had a high school education and trained for her nursing license at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. My father had about a third grade education and understandably found reading very difficult. I remember he would bring home the design plans for what he had to build during the week and my mother would carefully go over the reading so he could memorize all of it to do his job. My father was a very capable man and he was able to demonstrate his expertise in the field, but I know he regularly went to extraordinary lengths to maintain his own personal level of excellence.
High School was a very dark time for me. I say that easily now because now there is a distance of time well over forty years. My mother drank socially as many did and do today. She also drank privately. We did not know then that mental health illnesses could be masked by attempts to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.
Every day I did not know what I would find when I came home from school. My mother’s mental illness was like a storm. It might start off soft like a light rain and finish in a torrent with the echoes of thunder and lightning cracking the sky in unpredictable bursts.
On those days I would tell my father how I found her. His face would fill with sorrow. “Have patience; she is having a bad day,” he would say. “Everyone has good days and everyone has bad days.”
Finally one afternoon I came home and she was gone. She had left a note saying she had gone to pick flowers with her sister Marce. This was ominous since my Aunt Marce had lived in Ohio and died long ago. I left to look for mom and found her wandering in a desert lot a few blocks from our home and I persuaded her to come home with me. I say persuaded because that day she was not exactly sure who I was.
My father agreed we needed help for her; he understood and accepted she was not safe. Still, this was a difficult decision for him because the stigma of mental illness was and is nearly insurmountable for some families to get past to seek help.
Some might find it remarkable, but I did well in school; I could be my personal best there. Perhaps the assignments provided respite. I read a lot and wrote; those two things helped me sort things out then and now. Most importantly I did not feel bound by the turns in my mother’s life. I believed my life was very much my own. I never saw her experience as something that predicted how my life would be and I could just love her...however I found her.
Jean Martinez is a retired Respiratory Therapist who received an Associate of Science degree from College of the Desert. She is active in the City of Coachella’s My Brother’s Keeper, Interfaith Alliance, Ad-hoc Committee for a New Library, and CVHS Parents as Partners. She is a member of the Coachella Valley Mexican American Pioneers, Herman Granados American Legion Auxiliary chairing Girls State, parishioner at Our Lady of Soledad, participant in Consejo de Federaciones Mexicanas en Norteamérica (COFEM) at Bobby Duke, Family Involvement Action Team (FIAT) for Cahuilla Desert Academy, and she LOVES, LOVES to read. She reads non-fiction most of the time.
|Jean Martinez (left) with "Food for Thought" bookclub friends.|
Jean’s Current Reads: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Our Kids and Bowling Alone, both by Robert D. Putnam, and Hope Dies Last by Studs Terkel—a favorite author.
Jean's Recommended Reads: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by linguist Daniel L. Everett, The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe, Autobiography of an Execution by David R. Dow, and Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King and Germinal by Emile Zola.