What’s wrong with Mom?
Sharon Hansen says she survived her mother’s erratic behavior due to bipolar disorder thanks to the support of a “village” of friends and family members.
WARNING: This story contains material that may be upsetting to some readers. Please exercise good judgment and self-care in choosing whether to read it. If you or a loved one need help, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text Crisis Text Line at 741741.
Listen to Sharon’s Story
It was 1973 and the nation was reeling in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Sharon Hansen, then 7 years old and on a family trip to Seattle, remembers sitting in the hotel room she was sharing with her five-years-older brother, John, listening simultaneously to the TV broadcasting the Richard Nixon impeachment hearings and, in the adjacent room, the voice of her mother – the mother she knew as musical and creative and loving – screaming hysterically at her father.
“I remember this feeling of, ‘I have no idea what’s going on,’ a feeling of ‘OK, my whole world is tilting,’” recalls Hansen who, nearly 50 years later, is a nurse, mother of four and grandmother of three living in Tacoma, Washington. “In my perception, that’s when things started to unravel, to come apart.”
Hansen no longer remembers anything else about that trip, least of all how her overwhelmed father, who was clueless as to the origin of his wife’s behavior, got them all packed in the car the next day and drove them back to their Minnesota home. But she recalls how dramatically her life changed after her mother was subsequently admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with schizoaffective and bipolar disorder.
For the next several years, in a repetitive cycle, her mother would be hospitalized for a month or two, then deposited back home “with nothing to ease the transition and nothing to help us understand what was happening.”
To a young child, it was bewildering, frustrating and frightening. One day her mother would regale her with the promise of an upcoming family trip to Norway. Then she’d go through an ECT (eclectro convulsive therapy) treatment and forget such a trip had ever been mentioned. Or she’d gleefully take her children for a car ride and, hours later, hopelessly lost, search for a pay phone to call Hansen’s father to come rescue them.
The unstable situation at home — relieved only during the summers, which Hansen spent at her grandmother’s lake house — was soon reflected in her juvenile behaviors. She began to do poorly in school and struggled with relationships. She felt constantly confused, loving her mother but often distrustful of, frightened and embarrassed by her. After a while, when she sensed her mother’s illness was escalating, she would intentionally “push her buttons,” trying to “get this over with” so she could seek refuge at a neighbor’s home, designated as a “safe” space.
“On the surface I seemed OK, but I look back and shudder at how I treated some of the kids in my neighborhood or where I sought affection and validation that was not healthy,” Hansen says. “I don’t know what my childhood mind believed, but I was just eight shades of pissed off. Though my mother never threatened me physically, I just knew I didn’t feel safe.”
Throughout fifth and sixth grade, Hansen repeatedly sought refuge in the school nurse’s office, where she would sit on the lap of a school counselor and “just sob.” Even the summers at her father’s mother’s home came at a cost. Though she attributes getting through school to her grandmother’s requirements that she spend time each day on academics and practicing her flute, “there was always a bit of a cost.” Her grandmother loved her “fiercely, but she also wanted absolute devotion in return.”
Though Hansen’s father tried his best to protect the children from the worst of his wife’s illness, he was ill equipped, knowing very little about mental illness himself and trying to manage his own trauma while attempting to hold the family together. When Hansen was in sixth grade, he arranged for the whole family to meet with a counselor. It was their first therapy session together – and their last.
“It was awful,” Hansen recalls. “My own defense was to be obnoxious and verbal. I probably did not stop talking because, here, at last, was someone who was going to listen. I remember them asking me to stop and I said, ‘Fine, I will never talk again.’ I was just so angry.”
Her final poignant memory is of turning to look at her father as she and her brother headed to the car to drive home with their mother after the session ended badly. He had his head in his hands and an air of “I just can’t do this anymore,” she recalls.
Due to fears that the children might be taken from the home, Hansen’s parents divorced when she was 11. The children remained in their father’s custody; their mother was sent to a relative’s farm in Wisconsin. Hansen admits “This sounds awful,” but the overriding feeling she felt at the time was a sense of relief to see her go. That in turn left a lingering guilt.
“After she left, I remember having this recurring nightmare of being caught in a web, kind of like the Matrix movie, with all these different levels and a feeling of ‘I don’t know which way to turn,” Hansen says. “’If I go this way, this bad thing will happen and if I go that way…that bad thing.’ That’s how I felt.”
Thereafter, Hansen would have limited contact. When her mother came to visit the children, their pastor acted as go-between, but Hansen’s behavior remained uncooperative and defiant. Later, after her mother had returned to Minneapolis and received the kind of sustained support and treatment that allowed her to live independently (though still frequently hospitalized), Hansen would make uneasy trips with John to visit her.
“I didn’t have the tools to do more,” she admits. “Nobody goes to the kids and says, ‘This is what we’re dealing with and what do you need in order to communicate? There was just nothing. You got dropped in without any resources or abilities. So I just remember feeling unsure and embarrassed.”
Eventually, she also began worrying about what her mother’s illness might meant for her own mental health and future. In the ensuing years, Hansen would struggle with bulimia and anorexia and. not infrequently, contemplate suicide. The thought that “I don’t want to do this to my Dad” was often the only thing that kept her from following through.
After she entered nursing school and began to understand the genetic component of mental illness, she developed a fear that “I was going to be just like my Mom.” She sabotaged several relationships with “great guys” because “I was so afraid of screwing up their lives like how I felt my Mom screwed up my Dad’s life.”
But ultimately, several things came together that would change Hansen’s outlook. She joined a new church and developed a couple of close relationships with friends who “sort of nailed my butt to the wall and held me accountable.” And she started dating the man who would become her husband, who “wasn’t weirded out that my Mom was mentally ill.”
“There was a sense of being accepted and once that happened, I could start letting go of a lot of my ‘stuff,’” Hansen says. “What’s helped me walk through this has been my community of friends and my community of faith, this sense of being surrounded by amazing friends and family.”
Indeed, she says if there is one thing she’d like others who have a family member struggling with mental illness to understand it is the inestimable value of having a reliable support system.
“Mental illness is not something to be afraid of and it’s not something to be faced by yourself,” she says. “So, who is your village? The important thing when you have a child who has a parent who is mentally ill is that they have somebody safe to vent to. Maybe not someone to fix things and not to replace a counselor. But someone they can say, ‘This is what I’m feeling.’ Having someone safe for that child to talk to or have a tantrum with or just play really hard with is so vital.”
Since marrying more than 30 years ago, Hansen has periodically sought counseling to work through specific issues she felt were still holding her back. Being able to lend support to patients she cares for who have mental health challenges has also been therapeutic, increasing her understanding, sensitivity and empathy. Discovering that some of the medical professionals she works alongside also share her mother’s diagnosis has shown her that no one should be “defined by their mental illness.”
“They’re amazing and they’re wonderful, as my mother was, and, oh by the way, they shared that they also struggle with mania and depression,” she says. “Being able now, as an adult, to be a friend to somebody who has walked the journey of bipolar has done more for my healing than really anything else.”
She has come a long way from the defiant, angry young girl who blamed her mother for destroying the family and ruining her life. In fact, when asked if she has forgiven her mother, who died in 2009, she says she didn’t really have anything to forgive.
“I am fully cognizant this was not something Mom chose,” she says. “I can’t imagine losing your family and everything you love the way she did. I think in a lot of ways my anger was replaced by empathy and a call to do what I can to walk alongside others facing the same journey.
“I also know there’s nothing in your life that doesn’t go unused. Everything I experienced growing I’ve been able to use in other ways. So, in a lot of ways, even the story I have is a blessing.”