My mother kept her battle with mental illness a secret for decades. I suffered too, in silence, but never betrayed her secret
It’s taken me more than three years to write this piece. Every Mother’s Day I promise to put it up. I start. Then stop after a few sentences.
Even now I’m unsure… where do I start, how much do I reveal? And do I have the right to air the skeleton in the closet?
Some of the uncertainty is also because there are two very different narratives to the story and I’ve never been able to reconcile them fully in my head. (As I discovered after I finished writing, they’re related, but not connected.)
So here’s how it goes.
My mother was a terrible cook.
No, that’s not quite true. When my mother cooked, the food was tasty. But she was a book cook; she could only follow recipes and she followed recipes scrupulously. If the recipe called for 15 gm, she would measure out exactly 15 g; if it said, cook on a slow fire for one hour, that is exactly what she would do.
I cook by instinct. I can’t follow a recipe. And I could never cook with her because she would drive me mad with her measurements and exact cooking times.
I have to stop now.
Let me begin with the less painful part of the story.
My mother was a book cook because she learnt to cook only after she got married, and she got married very late in life. She grew up poor. Her father lost his well-paying job and had to move his family and nine children to Mangalore where the living was cheaper. They lived a hand-to-mouth existence, occasionally dependent on charity.
My mother didn’t go to college; I’m not sure if she even finished school. She would often tell me that they couldn’t afford shoes and she went to school barefoot. I thought this was an exaggeration, the kind of story parents tell their children to show them how spoilt they are, but my uncle confirmed that it was true. Even now he finds it difficult to talk about the years when food on the table was never taken for granted.
For five years they were supported by her eldest brother. Matters improved only when her sister and other brothers found jobs. My mother’s family was extremely tight knit; they knew the sacrifices each one had made to keep the rest alive. It also made my mother very compassionate and generous and she would go out of her way to help others. Generosity was enforced on me from a very young age: she would give away my things without asking me, which left me deeply resentful. Even now, I find it difficult to part with my belongings.
My grandmother never taught her to cook Mangalorean food, probably because there was never enough food. By the time she was in her teens, my mother already had a full-time job.
After she got married, she continued working and my grandmother, who moved in with us after I was born, did the cooking. But my mother wanted to learn, so she secretly went to cooking classes and cut out recipes from women’s magazines and newspapers. Amongst her handwritten recipes I found detailed notes, including sketches of the size of the cut of vegetable garnishes and cake decoration designs.
My mother cooked Continental recipes: cauliflower cheese, macaroni cheese, mutton chops with mashed potatoes, some version of a spag bol, chicken a la king, risotto (not the Italian version, an Indianised one, closer to a vegetable pulao, made with long-grain rice, flavoured with a spicy tomato sauce and topped with omelette strips. This was the ’70s) and cakes. She cooked twice or thrice a month. It was a big thing. Later she learned Chinese, Indian and Mughlai.
She also cooked for my birthday parties, always making sure there was an elaborately decorated cake on the table. We weren’t rich, but my parents threw great parties for my birthdays.
That was one thread in the story.
I’ve never got this far before.
And here’s where things get tricky. Where I get stuck. Where I get palpitations and a paralysis takes over. Even now, I’m struggling; my arms are frozen, my hands are curled into tight fists; there’s a tightness in my chest; I’m forcing each word out.
Why, you ask.
I want to say this is none of your business. But I also want to unburden myself.
Like many others with a history similar to mine, I’d like to let my story remain hidden. But I know it needs to be addressed.
My mother was diagnosed as being clinically obsessive-compulsive in her post-menopausal years. This was in the early ‘90s and though she was on medication, she was never cured. There were periods when it was bad, and there were those when it was worse. Apart from three members of the family to whom I turned when a counsellor suggested institutionalization, no one knew.
She was completely normal outside the house. She behaved completely normal around people.
The scrupulousness with which she followed recipes was part of a larger scrupulousness with which she approached personal hygiene, morality and religion. She suffered from what is known as Catholic Guilt, a severe form of obsessive-compulsive behaviour in which she believed she had done, and continued to do, something wrong and was thus in a perpetual state of ‘sin’. She never received communion because she never felt she had finished her confession and was therefore never fully absolved of her sins. My aunt once told me the priests would actually chase her away from the confessional.
I’m not sure when the problem started but she occasionally mentioned that in her twenties she had had a nervous breakdown. The only manifestation of this breakdown that she revealed to me was that she obsessively played cards. She never told me how she recovered from it. But she did and as a young child I have no memory of her exhibiting any sign of illness.
The first cracks appeared when my grandmother passed away. I was 13. At the time, my father had found a job in Sri Lanka and my mother was left alone to raise me and run the house. The same year, our building underwent massive repairs carried out by the government’s Repair Board. Our house was in a shambles and in the middle of all the dust and noise, on a cold February night, my grandmother passed away.
All three of us doted on my grandmother and her death came as a huge blow, but my mother felt it the hardest. Her world collapsed. She stopped cooking. We ordered food in almost every day; then my father’s sister, who stayed close by, ordered us to eat dinner with her when she found out we were eating food from outside.
I was in heaven. I hated home food and I finally got a chance to eat at all the restaurants I had never eaten at before. But she wasn’t careful and by May I got jaundice. My illness forced my mother to get her act together. She still wouldn’t cook daily, so we hired a cook who came in thrice a week. It seemed like things were back to normal. But her behaviour began to change, very subtly.
The dam has broken. There’s no stopping now.
The descent started somewhere in the late ’80’s and she was soon diagnosed with stress-related diabetes. The crash came in the early ’90’s when it was discovered that she was suffering with cervical fibroids. She thought she had cancer and was devastated. She lost the will or ability to look after herself, or me. She moved in with her older sister.
We were never close and by this time we had drifted even further apart. I was never going to be the good son she had always dreamed of; I was too rebellious and questioning. But I was, and remained dutiful. The diabetes worsened; she regularly met a priest counsellor, and later a psychiatrist. She seemed to recover in fits and starts.
My father came down to spend time with her and teach me to manage the house and finances. I didn’t need to be taken care of any more so she spent more time in Sri Lanka with my father. At this point we had three dogs who couldn’t be left alone, so when I spent my college holidays with my father, she came home to look after the house. We didn’t travel together for almost seven years which suited me fine. I loved the independence. I loved having the house to myself. I had a girlfriend which made it even better.
In May 1994, years after doing only solo trips, my mother and I travelled together to Sri Lanka. The previous year I had deeply disappointed my parents by abandoning my hotel management course mid-way. I had decided to take the year off to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.
Two nights before my mother and I were to return to Mumbai, my father passed away. He was my world, my hero, my role model. I was inconsolable. She was calm and composed. In the two days after my father’s death I learnt the meaning of karma. Both my parents had unflinchingly helped anyone in need. Now his colleagues fell at my mother’s feet and at mine, and wept. Help poured in from every corner. A junior engineer got the Director General of Customs to come in on a Sunday afternoon and clear the coffin. The three of us flew back together that night.
A few months later my first dog died. This time, my mother lost her composure and broke down. She stopped taking her insulin and by the end of the year had to hospitalised. She almost lost a leg.
I don’t remember exactly when the wailing started. It is a sound that haunts me to this day, that persistent wail, beseeching all the Catholic deities and saints to forgive her, to intercede with God on her behalf. She did it only when she thought she was alone in the room, which was not quite effective, considering ours is a one-bedroom house. I’d try to get her to stop by entering the room, or turning on the TV. She would then closet herself in the bathroom and wail, but never lock the door – she was terrified of slipping in the bathroom and lying there helpless, with no one being able to rescue her.
So I started avoiding her. I’d get up only after she finished breakfast. Though I was working from home, I’d leave the house as soon as I could and stay out as long as possible.
Outside the house she was absolutely fine. She took care of the street dogs. She went to church every evening, was involved in church activities, helped out with the community, met with friends and even had small parties for them at home. But once she was alone the terror would start. And I bore the brunt of it. I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone but my closest friends.
Towards the end my mother stopped taking care of her diabetes and was once again hospitalised. She almost lost a leg for the second time. By then she was wailing continuously through the day. I finally got her to stop by pretending that I was having a breakdown just being around her. It wasn’t entirely untrue.
I had reached a breaking point; I met with a counsellor who had treated her. He suggested that institutionalising her might help. I turned to my family for help. Except for one uncle, they flatly refused support. In any case, it was too late.
She had her first heart attack soon after and was diagnosed with multiple coronary blockages. She refused to do an angioplasty.
Exactly like my father, two days after she came back from hospital, she had her second attack. Like him, she passed away en route to the hospital.
For twelve years I’ve lived with our secret. My family never knew. Her friends never knew.
No one ever knows, do they?
Postscript: Well, now that you’ve scrolled so far, you’re entitled to know how I managed to write this after struggling for so long.
A few days ago I experienced a brief but intense depressive episode. I don’t want to get into the details so all I’ll say is that not only did it hit me badly, but every other fear, every bit of anxiety that I had fought, jumped into the fray. The pain was visceral. For the first time in my life, I chain-smoked.I drank umpteen cups of coffee. I met friends but didn’t let on about what I was going through. Only one friend caught the quiver in my voice on a call. But I pretended to be busy.
My mailbox was full of Mother’s Day offers and I knew the time was right. I did the only sensible thing – I latched on to the pain and pushed myself forward.