The death of the life of the party
Melonie Mack’s mother was brilliant, creative, empathetic and loving. Except when she wasn’t
Melonie Mack grew up hearing people say the same thing over and over about her mother, Michaela “Mickey” Shaddock. “Your mom is so much fun!” Mickey’s such a hoot.” “She’s a real firecracker!” As a remedial reading teacher, Shaddock’s vivacity, generosity and contagious creative spark altered the lives of the children of Spanish-speaking migrant workers she taught in and around Buffalo, New York. And her spontaneity, fearlessness and self assurance taught her only child to embrace life with pluck and feistiness.
“My mom was really fun, active, creative,” says Mack, a casting director in New York City and the founder of the Mel Mack Acting Studio. “We were always doing something different, exploring. I never had any boundaries as a kid. I tried everything and anything because my Mom said, ‘You can do whatever you want. Just try it. If you don’t like it, that’s OK.”
Though Shaddock was “strong and powerful and intelligent and smart,” Mack believes she was also frustrated to find herself in an era where her choices were “to be a nurse, a teacher or a housewife,” choices that didn’t allow her inherent assets to blossom. Her mother’s quirky and unpredictable behaviors frequently embarrassed her, but they still shared a close bond and spent most of their time together, especially after her parents divorced when Mack was 2
When summer vacations arrived, they’d drive to Mack’s paternal grandparents’ home in West Virginia in a convertible Chevy, “which was always on the verge of breaking down,” the radio blasting John Denver all the way. Then Shaddock would “disappear” Mack recalls, “and I would be spoiled all summer long, making mud pies and riding my Big Wheel.” She never equated her mother’s absence with illness; she looked forward to the yearly ritual of the drive because it was “just so much fun.”
When Mack was 8, her mother remarried a man with two older children and the family moved to a small farm town outside Buffalo. Her stepfather was a prominent lawyer who served on the board of the school where Shaddock taught. His new wife’s eccentricities – mowing the lawn in her bikini, building an igloo in the back yard where Mack slept for several nights and giving the metaphorical finger to the town’s more conservative residents — set him on edge and the town abuzz.
“He’d say, ‘You can’t do that!’ and she would be like, ‘I’m doing whatever I want. Tell those people to get a life!” Mack remembers. “’Tell them to get a life!’ — that was always her thing. I think she felt like she was being caged in, that nobody understood her. And her rage against the machine unfolded behind closed doors at home. Behind those doors she just pushed buttons like you wouldn’t believe.”
What that meant for her daughter was a “Jeckyl and Hyde” parent, where “you never knew what you were going to get.” Her mother could be angry, violent and physically abusive one day, and solicitously offer a back rub or a special treat the next. On the worst days, she might slap her daughter full across the face in the grocery store, or cause a gash that required stitches but went untreated because, (with her father’s status in town) Mack feared reporting it. Alienated from the considerably older stepsiblings her mother had pitted her against, bewildered and angered that no one was intervening to help her, Mack learned to do whatever was necessary to hold her ground.
“I never felt protected, so I felt like I had to learn how to handle it through anger and fear and bullying to defend myself,” she says. “I was very angry all the time. I lied a lot, I stole back from her when she stole from me. I started to learn how to fight back just so she would leave me alone.”
Mack’s coping mechanisms were to get involved in as many activities as possible that took her away from home – band, cheerleading, field hockey – and to use food for comfort. She overate and overexercised and in eighth grade —following her mother’s example — became bulimic. The mother of a neighboring family sometimes provided a brief nurturing respite: Mack remembers the woman washing her hair, something Shaddock, for whom hygiene was not a priority, would neglect to do. But Mack was too frightened to confess the truth of her nightmarish homelife to anyone.
“I didn’t understand why she was so mean and never apologized,” she says. “I thought that was just the way she was. So I grew up with a sense that I wasn’t worth anything.”
After graduating from high school, Mack “couldn’t wait to get out,” but under pressure from her mother, ended up at a nearby college, where her stepfather served on the board. Shaddock continued to lead (as Mack’s grandmother used to say) “a Champagne lifestyle on a beer budget,” while sinking further into paranoid suspicions, delusions, hoarding and, eventually, extramarital affairs.
One day while she was in college, Mack called home and reached her stepfather. After 17 years of marriage, he casually told her “Your mother and I are getting divorced. She’s moved out.” Her mother, on the other hand, told her there had been a fire that destroyed their home. (There was no such fire.) Mack never returned to that house again.
After her parents’ divorce, Shaddock moved to Florida to be nearer her own mother and after college graduation, Mack moved to California “to get as far away as possible.” That’s when things “really started to go downhill,” she says. At annual family reunions in Florida with her mother’s five brothers and “a bazillion cousins,” Shaddock would exhibit increasingly bizarre behaviors – showing up late in a plumbing truck with a “nice guy” she’d just met, or appearing inappropriately dressed — or entirely naked.
But it wasn’t until Mack visited her grandmother in Florida while in her mid-20s and learned her mother was in the psych ward of a local hospital, that she began to understand the severity and nature of her mother’s illness. Visiting her in the hospital, Mack was torn between “feeling like I needed to do something about this and being so angry I felt like she deserved it.”
Her mother, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, continued to careen from charismatic to cruel. On another visit, Mack found her mother in a wildly manic state and went along on one of her epic marathon shopping sprees. As they waited in line, Mack was appalled to realize her mother had begun defecating in her sweatpants. When she tried to guide Shaddock to a bathroom to help her clean up, her mother slapped her hard across the face and screamed “Shut the **** up! This is my life, don’t tell me what to do!” in front of a line of horrified shoppers. Hurt, embarrassed and furious, Mack resolved she’d never put herself at the receiving end of such behavior again.
“I just wanted to get away from that and here it was again,” Mack recalls. “I was so mad at myself for allowing it to happen again and allowing her to suck me into her world. I felt so manipulated.”
Returning to California, Mack rejected the letters and care packages her mother regularly sent and “tried to get as much distance as possible.” When the Florida police called one day to say her mother was in custody outside a 24-hour store — naked except for a man’s blazer and laceless tennis shoes, after trying to buy $2,800 worth of shrimp — Mack responded with “Sorry lady, you’re on your own.” Likewise, when Shaddock subsequently filed suit against Mack’s grandmother, claiming she’d stolen from her, and the courts threatened to place Shaddock in the state psychiatric hospital, Mack remained “on the fringe,” refusing to become involved in the ongoing saga.
“I was like, ‘You made this bed, you have to lie in it,’” she says. “I just didn’t know because I didn’t want to know. It hurt too much and it made me feel like I wasn’t a supportive, loving daughter.”
Back in California, Mack met a friend in her acting class who had a brother with schizophrenia. Andrea, a “gorgeous model” who was helping train police to better handle encounters with people who were mentally ill, introduced her to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Andrea was the first person Mack had ever met who was not only patient and kind and supportive of her ill family member, but not afraid to speak out about and advocate for the mentally ill. Motivated less by her own altruism and more by admiration for her friend, Mack took NAMI’s “Family-to-Family” course and began to get her first insights into her mother’s illness.
After relocating to New York, Mack, a Buddhist, decided to go to Vietnam and become an English language teacher, leaving her beloved dog in her mother’s care. When she returned to the U.S. earlier than anticipated — nearly broke but excited about putting together her acting studio — her mother began haranguing her with phone calls, demanding money. A disastrous phone fight ended with Mack, who could find no other way to draw the line, hanging up on Shaddock.
When she tried to call her back several days later, there was no answer. After being unable to reach her mother for almost two weeks, Mack, now deeply worried, called her biological father, with whom she’d had almost no contact for decades. (When she turned 40, they’d reconnected; she was startled to learn he was a psychiatrist.) He recommended she have police perform a welfare check and Mack, who had learned through NAMI just exactly what that meant, put in a call to authorities.
Less than half an hour later, she received a call from an officer who said, “like it was nothing,” Mack recalls, “We just did a welfare check. Your mother is dead.”
A coroner later concluded her mother had likely died nearly two weeks earlier, from a heart attack in her sleep (that’s the one bit of solace Mack took away from the tragedy). The blur of the aftermath of her mother’s death haunts her still. She and her biological father traveled to Florida to make arrangements for her Shaddock’s cremation and to deal with her apartment, which was stuffed to the ceiling with antiques and other hoarded objects.
Mack remembers the flies and rat feces in the apartment and the “unbelievable smell,” and her feeling of disgust at the media when she turned on the news and saw her mother’s body carried out of the building “in a neighborhood that was so marginalized nobody even cared.”
Later, she would discover a stash of the dozens of video tapes her mother had taken over many years. They made her remember how irritated she’d been when her mother kept insisting on recording even the most mundane events during her childhood; now she realized it was likely Shaddock’s way of “keeping those memories for herself because she couldn’t remember things.”
Until its battery and obsolete charger died, Mack would frequently call Shaddock’s cell phone, just to hear her voice again. Even now, 11 years after her mother’s death, “it feels like yesterday” Mack says. When she hears something funny she often whispers, “Can you believe that Mom?” When she pulls out a faded greeting old card she never acknowledged, she might say, “That was a good one, Mom. I’m sorry I never acknowledged it.”
“I talk to her all the time, it’s my way to stay connected to her,” Mack admits. “I think for me to survive, I’ve had to find the humor in all of it. But sometimes that was at her expense. Instead of involving her in the joke, I made her the joke.”
Mack says she suffers from “a lot of guilt” and wishes she “could have been a better daughter.”
“I wish I would have been more equipped,” she says. “I wish somebody had told me what was going on. It would have been great to have more of a support system and a family willing to help her, versus just shutting her out because it’s the easier thing to do because she’s embarrassing. It’s interesting how our ego gets in there and we leave out the loved one who is suffering.”
After Mack spoke at a NAMI event, a pre-teen girl came up to thank her, saying, “I thought I was the only one.” The only one what? Mack asked.
“I thought I was the only one who was beat up, who was not given food for three days or locked out of the house and made to sleep outside,” the girl said. When she asked Mack what she should do, Mack replied, “You’re doing it. You’re in a place that will help give you the tools to handle it.”
But Mack knows that’s easier said than done.
“As the child of a mentally ill parent, I think it’s so important that kids know they’re worthy and that it’s dangerous and scary,” she says. “You love your parent because they’re so vibrant and vivacious and creative, but the flip side is just terrifying and damaging and traumatic. First and foremost, they need to know it’s not their fault. They need to find a safe space to process their emotions in a healthy way and they need to ask for help. But all of these things are so hard. I don’t know how a 6-year-old could do that.”
Because she doesn’t wish any child to suffer the silence and confusion she endured — and, at the same time, because she hopes to bring more understanding and empathy to people who are mentally unwell – Mack is at work on a triptych of children’s books she began writing in Vietnam about living with a parent who is mentally ill. It’s up to each of us, she believes, to accept the responsibility to change the way our society has traditionally responded to someone with mental illness.
“’They’re going to be fine.’ ‘They’re just going through a phase.’ ‘I’ve got my own way to handle it,” she quotes. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard those things. My wish is that people would be more open and curious about the loved one who is suffering, enough so they get involved with an organization or some platform where they can be supported.
“Because it’s not about you. There is nothing wrong with you if you married someone who is this way, or birthed someone who is this way, or have a parent who is this way. It’s not easy to set boundaries and still be empathetic and patient and caring. That takes training. Instead of distancing, we need to find a way to close that gap that’s healthy for us all.”