Dancing with my mother’s mental illness

“I can stand almost all of the changes,” my dad said, “but the music. I can’t handle the fucking music anymore.”

We were talking on the phone, and I could hear the music, as if his phone was right next to the stereo. It was ‘Lil Jon this time, and I could hear my mom yelling “shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, EVERYBODY!”

“She’s in the other room,” he said, “and this is with the door closed.”

My mother had begun blasting music, to the point that we could hear the music outside the house, or outside her car coming down the half mile-long driveway. What’s worse: it was everything from Pitbull and Ke$ha to Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash to contemporary country to Imagine Dragons. You would think that with so many artists, the music wouldn’t get repetitive.

But it did, because my mom would blare music at least Six. Hours. A. Day.

It didn’t matter what she was doing: getting ready, cooking, driving, working, reading, messing around on her iPad or laptop. The music was there, and it was constant. I know — listening to music during these activities is fairly normal. But my mom had begun to listen to it at deafening volumes from the time she woke up until the time she went to bed. She even bought a $400 portable Bose speaker so she could take the music anywhere.

(Note: This speaker may look deceiving in its capacity to reach high volumes. I’ll just say this: my brother thought we were at a real concert when I sent him a sound clip over text.)

And she sang, too. Any song, no matter what the lyrics:

I’m gon’ ride I’m gon’ ride on you baby, on you lady, all night, all night I’m gon’ take care of your body, I’ll be gentle don’t you scream.

Or, Make love, don’t fight, let’s fuck tonight.

Or, Culo!

Trust me, if six (daily) hours of booming music in never-before-listened genres doesn’t convince you that your mother is having a mental health crisis, seeing her dance in circles yelling “culo” certainly will (and for the uninitiated in Pitbull’s music or Spanish, “culo” means “ass,” and not the donkey kind).

This constant music-blasting became a running joke between my dad and I. I’d text him, “how’s the rave?” or GIFs of Dolly Parton singing, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene Joleeeene or snarky texts just to bother him: if it’s meant to beee it’ll be it’ll be, baby if it’s meant to be.

We didn’t know how to make sense of it any other way.

Then, my mother started taking baths every night to “relax” and have some “much-needed ‘me’ time.” Some of her baths lasted for as long as two to three hours, music blaring the whole time from her portable Bose stereo.

It’s a live concert starring me, she’d say.

The dancing came shortly after. At first, like the music, I only heard about it:

I start every morning with a dance party, my mom told me, helps me start the day off right.

While she occasionally called her friend (more on her some other time), who stayed on the phone while they both danced, my mom was usually the only one at her dance parties.

I didn’t witness the dancing until I visited for Thanksgiving. I had stayed over the previous night and was sleeping in the basement. It was 6 am (6 am!) when I heard the thumping.

I am not a morning person, and my mother, of all people, knows this. In fact, she says that I slept so much after I was born that people checked on me to make sure I was still alive.

Oh, how I wished for such death-like sleep on the morning’s during my mom’s episode.

Mom, I said, what the fuck is going on up here?

She was dancing in circles, shaking her tail, singing some song that I’ve now likely blocked out of my memory.

Loosen up! She said. Come dance with your mother!

She held out her hand. I didn’t take it.

As much as I wanted my mother to be happy, I couldn’t dance with her. I couldn’t sing with her. I couldn’t stand her fucking music. (To this day, if it’s meant to be, it’ll be, it’ll be sends me into a rage quicker than probably any other words in the English language). To me, it seemed like she’d lost it, and, given how she continued to act and still does, she likely has. And I was scared.

My mother has always struggled with mental illness. She’s been diagnosed with OCD, anxiety, and depression. Many of my therapists, while unable to make official diagnoses of people they haven’t met, have suggested that she might have Borderline Personality Disorder and likely bipolar disorder.

I thought, then, that my mother might have been having a manic episode — besides the music, everything else about her changed. She started dressing provocatively — she wore stilettos, low-cut shirts, tight pants, lipstick. She went to see strippers. Don’t tell your dad, she said, but I had three lap dances this weekend! She started talking about sex in ways you just don’t with your child, started reading erotica, started staying up until the early hours of the morning.

None of these things is particularly bad. I’m all for dressing how you want and doing what you need to be happy. It was the combination of all of these things, and the extremity of it that was concerning. My mother had basically done a 180, seemingly overnight. And there was nothing I could do to help.

Nothing any of us could do.

My mother continued these behaviors for three months, and all of it resulted in my parents’ divorce. She had an affair, treated my father abusively, even kicking him so hard one night she left bruises on his leg. She told me she was sick of being a wife and a mother.

She told me she was happy.

I didn’t listen to music until just recently, about three months later. I still drive in silence and sometimes, I ask my friends to shut off or turn down their music. Sometimes, my dad and I still joke about it, with GIFs or snarky texts or sound clips. Now, more than anything, I need quiet.

My mom started seeing a therapist at some point during all of this, and I’m not sure if her therapist has caught whatever it is, yet. It might be a manic episode, or a midlife crisis.

Whatever it is, despite all her flaws, I just want my mom back.

What’s wrong with a live concert starring me? She asks me.

I put in headphones to silence it.

Copywriter, ex-academic, amateur cyclist, literature enthusiast. Hides behind a pen name.

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