The Doc Project·PERSONAL ESSAY

I discovered my mom's erratic behaviour is due to mental illness. Now I want to understand her

Ever since Ash was a little girl, her mother has behaved oddly. Now Ash wants to find out what's wrong with her, and what, if anything, she can do to help.

Ash Abraham’s mom denies her condition and refuses the diagnosis and treatment

Ash with her Ma (left) before Ash's wedding rehearsal in Rockport, Ont. 2011. Ash's mother has untreated schizoaffective disorder with psychosis. (Ash Abraham)

On a recent Zoom call with friends someone asked about my mom. It was supposed to be an easy question. One where you answer, "She's fine, thanks," and move to the next subject — like what's good on Netflix. 

But I accidentally answered the question honestly.

"I haven't heard from her in weeks, so I asked the police to do a wellness check," I said. "They told me she's OK." 

(Awkward silence.) 

"Anyways, who's seen season four of The Crown?" I continued.

My mom, or "Ma," has schizoaffective disorder with psychosis, a relatively rare but serious mental health condition that's similar to schizophrenia, though she was only diagnosed two years ago. People with the illness often have false and fixed delusions, hallucinations and extreme shifts in mood. 

For years we didn't know what was wrong, just that things were not quite right with Ma. From a young age, family members taught me to speak about her in a whisper. And it's because of that secrecy, I was determined to find out what was really happening in her head — and how to help her. 

When things went sideways

I grew up in Nashville in the early '90s. On Sundays, Ma teased our hair up to the heavens for church, because like our patron saint Dolly Parton said, "The higher the hair, the closer to God." 

Ma taught Sunday school to preschoolers, and after a day filled with hosannas and hunger pangs, we'd rush home, sit around the kitchen table and eat together. We didn't watch TV on Sundays, unless it was a program that God authorized, which left us with football, 60 Minutes and Touched by an Angel. So we had heaps of time to tell stories.

Laughing together at that kitchen table is the last memory I have of Ma being herself, before things went sideways. 

Ash Abraham and her Ma before church in Nashville, Tenn., in 1994. (Ash Abraham)

I was in Grade 2 when one morning before school, Ma didn't get out of bed. Days turned into weeks — and when she finally got up, it was like she was someone else. 

Some days her energy was endless. She'd go on massive shopping sprees. I pity the salespeople who encountered Ma's wrath when her credit card was declined.

My sister and I knew Ma wasn't well, and we'd beg her to see a doctor. But that would tick her off, because she didn't believe she was sick.

Shannon Wallace grew up with me in Nashville and saw things unravel.

"You went from a mother who was fully present, fully involved and attentive, to a mother who was vacant and often clearly in another place that we couldn't access," Wallace said about Ma.

Ash Abraham and her childhood friend, Shannon Wallace, in 2005. (Ash Abraham)
 

As Ma's moods became more erratic, she lost her job as a dental hygienist. And when she stopped making payments on her car, I drove it to Shannon's house to hide it from the lenders.

Shortly after that, I discovered an eviction notice under a stack of unpaid bills. We had one week to vacate Ma's apartment. 

Ma moved in with her sister and brother-in-law across the country, and I stayed with my Dad before heading off to university. Eventually Ma settled in my uncle's vacation home in Florida. 

We've lived apart for nearly 15 years now, communicating mainly through emails and cards in the mail to mark every holiday.

Getting a diagnosis

In 2019, my uncle called saying he wasn't sure how much longer he could support Ma. I flew down to Florida with a heavy sense of responsibility and fear. 

When I met Ma at the airport, it was worse than I thought. Ma told me bizarre and untrue stories, like being held at gunpoint over a million dollar cheque, and being married to her former publisher from when she wrote books. 

Ma helps Ash get ready for her wedding in Brockville, Ont., in 2011. (Kristin Olinyk)

I called the police, thinking maybe they could help me get her to the hospital. But after an officer and paramedics came to the house and met Ma, they told me since she wasn't suicidal or homicidal, there was nothing they could do.

Over the next week, I went into overdrive, phoning up shelters, charities, government agencies, and driving to mental health clinics to explain Ma's situation in person.

They'd all say Ma would need a mental health assessment before they could intervene. I began to panic.

Then one social worker suggested — off the record — that I play into Ma's delusions to convince her to see a doctor. 

So I hatched a scheme. I asked a friend from Nashville to call Ma and pretend to be her old publisher. She told Ma the million dollar check could be released, pending psychiatric evaluation.

The ruse worked. The next day, I took her to see a doctor, and we got an assessment: Ma had schizoaffective disorder with psychosis. 

The road map for getting Ma help would involve medication and therapy, but Ma refused. She also refused government assistance, saying she didn't want any "government money." 

We were back to square one. 

Understanding Ma's disorder

Eighteen months after that trip to Florida, I found myself draped over my laptop searching "schizoaffective disorder" on the internet in Ottawa. 

Ma still lives with my uncle, though understandably, he'd like to see her move out and take care of herself. 

I felt totally powerless. I couldn't change her, but I wanted to understand her. And I thought maybe if I knew more about her condition, then I could anticipate what's coming down the road.

After some googling, I came across Anita Manley. She has schizoaffective disorder with psychosis, just like Ma. But unlike Ma, she has her life back.  

Anita Manley is a peer support worker at the Royal Mental Health Centre in Ottawa. (Ash Abraham)

Coincidentally, Anita lives just a few kilometres away from me, so I phoned her up. As we talked about Ma, we were both in awe of how much Anita and my mom have in common.

Anita said it took her years to stop the self-stigma and accept her schizoaffective diagnosis. 

"I was homeless, living in my car, and I was estranged from everyone. I lost my cat and I lost all of my possessions. I had nothing but the clothes on my back," Anita told me. 

Like Ma, Anita also suffered from serious delusions. 

"I believed there were cameras in my house. I believed there were cameras everywhere," she said. 

Anita said I should show Ma empathy, instead of trying to correct her delusions. 

Ash Abraham met Anita Manley from two-metres apart during the pandemic. (Ash Abraham)

I asked Anita what motivated her to get help. 

"My psychiatrist said, 'Do you ever want to see your children again?' And it was like a knife to my heart. I desperately wanted to see my children again," said Anita. 

The psychiatrist told her she'd have to start going to therapy and take medication, and she agreed. After that, Anita's life completely turned around, and she told me what I could do for Ma now. 

"Even if she doesn't feel hope at the moment, you and your sister can hold on to hope for her," she said.

After years of estrangement, Anita reconnected with her daughters. 

Meeting Anita gave me so much hope. If she could find her way back to this world, then so could Ma, if only we can find the key.

Ma's still in there

The last time I spoke with Ma was about two months ago. I haven't been able to get through to her since.

I updated her on things going in my life. I'm never really sure if she's processing what I am saying, so it's a bit like writing in a journal. 

That day, I told her about how I was upset by something a friend said to me. I didn't even think Ma was listening, but then out of the blue she said: "Don't let anyone steal your joy."

She's still in there somewhere, even if it's hard to see. And she's still teaching me new things, because she's still my Ma.

About the Producer 

Ash Abraham is part of CBC Ottawa's Current Affairs Radio and Content Diversification team. She has reported in South Korea and Tanzania, and she gets especially jazzed sharing stories with sound and animation.

This documentary was produced with, and edited by, Alison Cook, and made through the Doc Mentorship Program.

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