My mom has curly hair twice the size of her head and a mole on her right cheek that I will never let her get removed, because it’s adorable. She is short and busty and she exercises when she can because it makes her feel good. Mom let “shit” slip when I was a kid, and taught me that its sole purpose was for use when you spill boiling lamb juice on yourself and no other situations ever. When we saw Elf, mom laughed before Buddy even finished burping, and loud enough that the entire theater felt uncomfortable. Mom has suffered from major depressive disorder her whole life. She loves Diet Coke and going to the movies and dark chocolate almond bark and the guy from Friday Night Lights and all she wants is a house down the shore.
Mom’s real name, her full name, is Joanne Carol Marie O’Mara Hennessey. “Joanne” is after her maternal grandparents, Joseph and Angelina. “Carol” is a mystery, in that no one quite remembers where it came from. “Marie” is her confirmation name—after Mary, but prettier. “O’Mara” is her Irish-ass maiden name, which she was cursed with the day her paternal grandfather, Vincent Falzone died tragically young. He died underneath a car he was fixing with his friend when something in the support system went wrong and the car fell on top of him. The same friend, Freddy O’Mara, later married Vincent’s widow and adopted his three-year-old son, my grandfather. (There were rumors that Freddy had been in love with Mrs. Falzone all along, and loosened some screws on the car that Vincent had been working on. But the general consensus was that he felt terrible about the accident as it was, and married her to take care of her and Vincent Jr. They never had any other children.) Vinnie Falzone Jr. became Vinnie O’Mara after that, despite being Italian to the bone, and he grew up and married Frances LoBello, who was also Italian to the bone. And they had five Italian-Italian children, the third of which grew up saying that she couldn’t wait to get married so that she could drop her stupid Irish-ass last name. She grew up and married into the Hennessey family.
Joanne became Josey in college, an artist in a practical way, a photographer, a graphic designer. She would always tell us that art school made her stupid, whenever she was unable to help us on our homework. But she was never really trying to be the smartest of anything. She was trying to be something worthwhile. She created where others might have analyzed. She drew herself up from scratch.
I was scared to write about mom, and she knew that before we started. I could have written about anything—I could have written about our road trips home or something. It would have been easy. But mom has told me since I was a kid that you have to do the best you can do and then a little better than that before you’re finished. I’ve always struggled with that concept. I expected her to be scared to talk to me, scared to put her decades in my hands and give me the responsibility of telling them right. I expected to have to persuade her, but she was glad about it. She said “You’re goddamn right my life is interesting!” But she knew I was scared to write about depression. She was four hundred miles away and she spoke to me over terrible reception, but she held my hand through it because she’s my mom. And she herself could not afford to be afraid of the illness at this point in her life.
Mom was born in Bloomfield, New Jersey in 1959. At this point in time, research for depressive disorder and other mental illnesses focused mainly on their causes. Some depression is neurotic, which is what happens when your husband dies or you lose your job or plenty of things that happen to good people who might have had a sense of control beforehand. Other depression is endogenous, which means there isn’t any catalyst, there certainly isn’t any reason for it to be there, but God knows it is there. As far as treatment, electroconvulsive therapy was used in the fifties and sixties, and the few people that the medically induced seizures worked for insured that they would continue using it for those who didn’t feel its benefits as much as its electricity. But that was a method mostly exclusive for those patients who were not responding to drugs. The medicine they started producing around this time was a rudimentary and riddled-with-side-effects version of the medicine mom takes today. It targeted levels of norepinephrine, which increases heart rate and oxygen levels in the brain and helps you make decisions and focus. They didn’t target dopamine levels. Dopamine is the chemical in your brain that makes your stomach churn and somersault with that giddy feeling that pushes a grin onto your face, so you’d think this would be the focus of creating antidepressants. Only it isn’t. But I imagine it wouldn’t feel real to be happy for no reason. At least, not as real as it feels to be sad for no reason.
Of course, as these drugs were coming out of their experimental stages, mom was only a baby. So they had time to develop (while she did) before anyone ever knew she would need them.
She grew up with two older siblings, Kathy and Vincent, and two younger siblings, Janice and Paul. The first four of them were a year apart each, and Paul came along five years after Janice. They all grew up as well as they were meant to in a household of parents that smoked sometimes and separated sometimes. But as parents, they were always there for their children when it mattered. Even still, Mom felt estranged from a young age. She was marked by a number of small details that separated her from her siblings and her friends in ways that shouldn’t have mattered: her curly short hair, her buck teeth, her left-handedness. And she decided that if she was going to be different, she would be different on her own terms. She wouldn’t go about her life the way everyone else did.
As mom grew up, things shifted. She felt different in ways that were out of her control, and attributed it to different circumstances as the years went on. Sometimes it was external, like her parents putting her through mandolin lessons as a child. They recognized her artistic ability early on, but she, being called in from outside for lessons before everyone else, felt she was being punished. Throughout middle school and early high school, she had the notion that many girls of her age had, that she would never find a boyfriend, that she would never fit in like her sister Janice, who smoked and shoplifted and wore glitter nail polish. Standing out became less appealing when it wasn’t on her own terms. She dated a few boys before Nicky, and nothing ever came of it. Boys that liked her, and boys with girlfriends, and boys that sat with her while she had the mumps, but nothing stuck before Nicky.
Nicky Matarazzo was two years older than mom. He was the captain of the basketball team and every seventies stereotype that came with the title, denim cutoffs included. They drove each other up-the-wall-crazy in the ways that are romanticized and the ways that shouldn’t be. She admitted that her terrible self-esteem caused her to constantly seek validation from him. He constantly assured her that she would be socially irrelevant without him, which did not help her self-esteem. Her failing relationship became the revolving point of her life until her first years in college.
They broke up when she was at Trenton State (now the College of New Jersey), and her poor self-esteem did not disappear, but rather took the more pervasive form of weight paranoia. Food became the enemy, and the elated feeling that came with looking good in a bathing suit became the only happy feeling at all. Which meant that feeling happy happened for three months out of an increasingly long twelve-month year. After she transferred to and graduated from the School of Visual Arts, she entered the graphic design workforce. Living off her own earnings, she was buying into ads for every and any weight loss solution there was, like trying to disappear pound-by-pound. She was seeing specialist after specialist, until she found one who was more interested in treating her mind than her body, and in this way, she says, she tricked herself into therapy.
Mom’s first doctors treated her for Seasonal Depressive Disorder, with a giant, special UV lamp that she had to sit in front of for a couple hours every morning, as if the brain can be tricked like that: close your eyes, it’s just like the sun. She visited a number of doctors before she started taking medicine for anything. Around then there was a shift in depression treatment research from cause to effect. Studies were conducted on what are called neurovegetative signs, which are the effects of depression that don’t have to do with your mood or negative thought patterns. Essentially, meds started to deal with how depression affects the body as well as the brain. Because it can take everything down if you let it. Sufficient energy levels, functioning sleeping patterns, a healthy appetite, all sucked up like the imbalance of chemicals created a black hole bigger than reason. The new wave of anti-depressants focused on treating these symptoms as well as targeting levels of norepinephrine and serotonin. Prozac appeared on the market around then, and mom was one of the first in line. Prozac was prescribed for depressive disorder as well as to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, and a number of other mental disorders with common side effects, similar to other multi-purpose anti-depressants on the market. The meds that doctors gave you depended on their diagnosis. But in regards to mental illness at least, everything was used to treat everything.
Prozac was mom’s first medication, and it helped for a while, but she switched prescriptions as she switched doctors. Throughout the years, the doctors treated her for an array of mental disorders, but disorder is mostly what it was. There were meds that made her fat, and meds that made her tired, and sometimes there were even meds that made her feel better. There were doctors who yelled at her, and doctors who carelessly wrote prescriptions, and doctors who did nothing at all.
One of her attempts to feel better included a week-long seminar intended to teach participants how to take control of your life and be happy, recommended by one of her friends. After about an hour of trust falls and mingling exercises, she knew this wasn’t her crowd, but she stayed to the end of the week for the sake of committing. This is where she met my dad—or who would later become my dad—who was at that time a twenty-something also desperate for direction in life. He had wanted to go out with her for weeks while they became a part of an established group of friends, who encouraged the relationship from the get go. Mom conceded with the idea of starting a family in mind, ignoring a gut feeling that nothing was there, and determined to break the cycle of dating the kind of guy that fed off poor self-esteem. They got married a few years later in a nice church wedding down the shore.
When mom became pregnant with Macklin, she got off antidepressants without too much issue. She returned to medication two years later, sometime after I was born. However when she became pregnant the third and final time, four years later, she found herself affected by being off her medicine. There was an edge: a dark shade that made everything seem less worth getting up in the morning. She was back on anti-depressants as soon as baby Roarkey finished breastfeeding. She took Tobamax, which was actually designed for epilepsy, but combatted the same symptoms (outside of seizures) that she herself experienced. It helped her lose the weight she had gained on her last prescription and last pregnancy, and helped her feel functioning, at least. And the next five years were a good period for her. And then we left New Jersey.
Around 2002 mom decided that she wanted to leave my father. The holes missing had never filled in. After talking about it, they decided to give it more time. Then my father was offered a position near Atlanta. The pay was higher and the cost of living was lower, and the money they saved could be put toward owning a beach house. If Mom left him then, he wouldn’t accept what she knew was a great opportunity for him. She didn’t want to take that away from him, and the thought of a better marriage in a new environment was enough. So they stayed together, uprooted, and moved away from their families, their friends, and their home. Mack at eleven, Roarke at five, and myself, nine, followed along in tears. We all were leaving the only place we’d ever really known, and mom was marooning herself into her marriage.
The move didn’t help. Everyone told her it would take five years to settle in. It was like a different country down there, sure, but it would take five years to settle in. Sure, she hadn’t lived anywhere outside of north New Jersey and New York City any time in her life, but in five years, she’d be fine.
And in five years, she hit rock bottom. One of her doctors tried to take her off her meds for an entire week and she couldn’t go anywhere. She had no friends, she had no comforts, she had a series of odd jobs that were nothing like her history in magazine publishing and ad design. She got dogs. She got new floors. But nothing changed. She got to the point she couldn’t leave her room. She couldn’t get out of bed. She started to research psychiatric hospitals in the area. She couldn’t stand going back and forth to her doctors trying a rainbow of prescriptions that weren’t working.
Eight years before this happened, Sandra Bullock starred in a movie called 28 Days, where she attended a rehab facility for twenty-eight days and she stayed in a garden and roamed around freely while she learned about her addiction. My mom found out that Sandra Bullock had done her research at a specific hospital in Atlanta, and mom looked into it herself. The website promised an individualized track of care for each patient, who are each put in the hands of specialized doctors and well-trained, kind-hearted staff. Following her die-hard faith in Hollywood, she checked herself in.
I was fourteen, and I remember this time as the only period of my life that I couldn’t talk to my mother. Mom and I got very close some time after this happened, as I was just coming into my love of cinema. We would go to movies together because I wasn’t old enough to see all the good ones. This formed a bond with us that grew into every other part of our lives. Although it had not fully formed the year that she went to the hospital, she was at this point still a constant in my life that I never undervalued, and her absence was nothing short of horrifying.
It was up to Dad to explain this absence. He couldn’t tell us everything, so he resorted to telling us nothing. He told us that she was sick, that she would be in the hospital for a few days, and that we didn’t need to worry. I worried, because I always worry. And I cried in my room for the five days she was gone, imagining IVs and blood tests and MRI machines. My mother, my visionary, monumental mother did not belong in any building with white walls. But what I was imagining was nothing compared to what she experienced.
Dad drove her there, and they checked in and filled out the paperwork together. As soon as he left, they stripped her naked and took from her anything that she might have used to harm herself in any outlandishly creative way. They gave her a uniform, and sheets, and they walked her past halls of other people that may not have belonged there, or people that may have had nowhere else to go, halls of addiction and schizophrenia, halls that were filled with screaming and garbage and mattresses for the patients marked as at-risk for suicide. Her own room, while comfortable and well-furnished, was empty of any actual comfort. She wasn’t allowed to have anything sharp, but she had a photo of my brothers and me, and a sock monkey that Roarke slept with as a baby. The patients were allowed outside twice everyday into a courtyard that was fogged over with smoke from the addiction patients who took advantage of the time. Mom, who had been raised in a fog of smoke, could never tolerate it for more than a minute. Mom, who had thrived in sunshine, stayed inside for five days. There was a chair next to a window that she could only sit in with her face in the sun for ten minutes before a nurse would tell her to do something: “you’re never going to get better just sitting around.”
It was a day and a half before she spoke with a doctor. He prescribed her things without asking at all about her life, her feelings, what had and had not worked for her in the past. The first thing he said to her was, “You better stop crying right now or I can keep you here forever.” And my mother’s faith in Hollywood that checked her into 28 Days had now dropped her into the middle of Girl, Interrupted. The fear being that the more you insist that you’re not crazy and that you don’t belong there, the more they tell you you’re crazy; the more you start to question whether you might belong there after all. She had to pretend she was feeling better; she had to smile when they talked to her like she was crazy; she had to tell them that things were looking up for her. They released her after what she described as the worst week of her life.
After that, she did not design, she did not paint, she did not take pictures that weren’t of Mack at prom, or our dogs eating ice cream. She had to attend group sessions at the hospital for three hours a few times a week. She hated the meetings, but she kept up her façade that things were fine, fed by her fear of re-admittance. Upon her unaddressed disappearances during these meetings, I had the terrible habit of convincing myself that she had gotten into a car accident, or something else awful. I would try to tell myself that I was overreacting, but I would cry in my room until she answered the phone.
After another year or two, she found medicine that helped her. She started working out, and slowly, she pulled herself out of her clinically-induced rut and kept moving. She had to do what she could for herself, since no one else would. She still wasn’t happy with my father, although he was extremely supportive during her time in and getting out of the psychiatric hospital. Her oldest sister (divorced after her husband and father of two came out) had told her that she would never feel better until she left her marriage. So she promised herself that if she still felt discontent by the time she turned fifty, she would make some changes, regardless of the fear that she still felt at not having a support system so far away from her friends and family.
In 2009, mom turned fifty (gracefully, I might add). The plans were put in motion to move back to New Jersey, to two different houses. She wanted to go home, get her life back, take care of her own finances, and us, and herself most of all.
When mom had originally moved to Georgia, she started seeing the cycle of therapists and taking their cycle of medications in order to find something effective. More modern research for depression treatment is focusing on non-pharmacological strategies, like something mom looked into for a while called transcranial electromagnetic stimulation, which seems to be a more humane cousin of electroconvulsive therapy. There is also more of an emphasis on therapy and verbal healing. Mom, who had been verbally abused at the hands of some psychiatrists, and well taken care of by others, was not on board for going through that search again. Anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, anti-seizures, anti-terrible-things pills were still being manufactured and prescribed like body guards or insecticide. By 2009, dealing with the stress of getting the house on the market, separating from dad, and living in our basement, mom was taking a handful of prescribed medications for a handful of different disorders, and none of it seemed to be helping. Although, she was never quite sure whether it was her own chemical imbalance or her situational turmoil stopping the meds from working and stopping her from feeling better.
In the midst of a terrible market for selling houses, we sold our modest ranch-style home to a couple who wanted to move in with the woman’s mother, because the large basement allowed her to have her own living space. We were set to move home in the fall. However, the old woman hurt her back sometime around April, and with her unable to climb the stairs, they backed out of the deal. My parents decided after a hard four months of trying to sell the house again that we would stay in Georgia. The house sold the next day, but the decision was made.
Mom rented a three bedroom townhouse in the school district as Mack went off to college. Roarke and I settled in with her while Dad went to live with a friend for a while. He got his own townhouse around the corner within a year.
Mom and I only got closer after this. Our ritual of going to the movies on the weekends became only more sacred as Mack left for school and Roarke locked himself in his room every night and my own graduation was only a couple of rapidly approaching years off. Through my senior year, she would always joke around about sending applications to community college for me and sabotaging my apps to my actual schools so that I wouldn’t ever leave her. When I eventually did, I moved four hundred miles north, and cried through the first few weeks because I was afraid that no one would take care of her—but I’ve never really given her the credit she deserves.
When I called her to write about her, I was scared. Depression has been in the background of my own life long enough for me to feel its shadow. A CDC census from 2010 said one in ten adults have experienced chronic depression. As I’ve experienced it—through a mother, a baby brother, a best friend or two, an ex-boyfriend, and my own history of severe anxiety—it has created the thorough fear that one day I’ll wake up and won’t have anywhere to run from that shadow. I was scared to immerse myself in mom’s struggles and see any reflections of my own, which haven’t been disruptive enough that I’ve seen anyone or taken anything. I tell myself they’re not disruptive, at least. Sometimes I’m afraid I’m wrong. Sometimes I’m afraid her strength eluded me. But talking to mom is not conducive to fear. She makes me laugh regardless of what we’re talking about. And talking through decades of her history, she only really hesitated when telling me about her stay at the hospital. She didn’t want to upset me. But eventually we were laughing together over the phone, scrolling through the hospital’s website. “This is all bullshit, Daron... did I just see the word ‘compassion’? Must have been a typo.”
When we were going through our goodbyes, promises to send pictures of the dogs, promises of updates on schoolwork and job applications, plans to see a live production of a Disney movie like we used to when I was younger; I told her I was scared that I was writing something important. She told me that she loved me and of course she trusted me. “And anyway, I’ve always wanted someone to write a book about me.” Things never get completely better. But mom knows that what’s actually going to happen doesn’t matter. It’s what you expect for yourself, and what you do for yourself. Mom is currently working as “Miss Josey” at a ritzy, if cruelly understaffed pre-school, changing diapers under the pretense of teaching art. But she works with people she likes. Mom is squirming her way into the dating pool to find someone to go the movies with in my absence. Mom applied to and honestly filled out a questionnaire for eHarmony, including information about her history with mental illness. She received an immediate response about there being no matches for her on this website, nothing to do with your real-life-date-ability, it just didn’t happen, sorry, have a nice day. Mom is dating anyway, and her new friend doesn’t seem to mind. Mom is in the process of writing a book, and starting her own line of toys and puzzles geared toward teaching art to children, called “Art-Ed,” after the gallery that she’s owned in jokes and daydreams since we were kids, “Who Arted?” Mom is moving forward because it’s what she knows how to do best. She lives her life for us, for bad puns, for chocolate, for good movies, and for getting herself her beach house.
Mom will live in a house no more than a block from the ocean. She will live in Surf City, Long Beach Island, off the coast of New Jersey, where she spent her summers as a child and every summer since, without fail, for every year she’s been alive. Her house will be a small house, and she will live in it all year long, and never leave the island unless she has to. The winters will be cold—but the traffic lights on the Boulevard will be turned off, and we will bundle up and drive out to Barnegat Light. In the spring it will rain, but we will go to the movies. (They’ll re-build the little theater on the island that got wrecked during Hurricane Sandy.) Her house will have enough room for herself and my brothers and me, and maybe a room for one or two visiting family members or friends at a time—the rest can stay with Janice in her lavish bayside vacation house a few blocks down. Mom will have a small fenced yard with grass for the dogs to spend the days in the summer, and at night she will walk them along the shore so they won’t be afraid of the ocean anymore. Her house will have windows all over and plenty of natural light. In the summer the windows will be open, and she will smell the ocean every day. Her house will be every color that it needs to be—purples and blues, mostly—and it will be covered floor to ceiling in her elbow grease, her paintings, her photographs, her collected art. And mom will not stop making it better until the house is so undeniably hers that no one will ever be able to tell the difference between human and home.
Daron Hennessey is a junior at Virginia Tech from Atlanta, Georgia. Studying both creative writing and mulitmedia journalism, she spends most of her time writing--either for class, the Collegiate Times, or for fun. After graduation she will pursue a career in writing and producing television. This is her first publication.