In 1980, after my sophomore year in college at Texas Woman’s University, I waited for the letter that would lead to a pivot point in my life. Some months before, I had applied through the Baptist Student Union to be a summer missionary. I signed up, not out of deep religious conviction but because I did not want to spend the months between semesters living in my mother’s house.
Other students testified they had received God’s call, but I would have hung up in a panic, sure the almighty had a wrong number. I hoped to be sent to some distant exotic location. The recruitment flyer posted in the Baptist Student Union featured pictures of happy, smiling young people wearing shorts and working in places like Brazil or Hawaii. I pictured myself returning from summer vacation with a tan and a suitcase full of coconuts. Instead, I landed in West Texas, at a town called Big Spring. My assignment was to work in the chaplaincy department at the state psychiatric hospital located there.
“I’ll be spending my summer in the state hospital,” I told my friends. The joke always got a laugh as long as I explained that I wouldn’t be going as a patient.
My family never talked about mental illness. The youngest of seven children, I was born on my mother’s 42nd birthday. My older brothers and sisters had all escaped from the house by the time I started school. I remember my amazement that my childhood friends could come in and out of their houses at will.
In our house, when I came inside, I had to stop in the laundry room and take off all my clothes and toss them in the washer. Naked, I walked through the house to the bathroom to shower and then dress in clean clothes. We did not have carpet, instead my mother insisted on covering all the floors with vinyl, so she could mop with the pine cleaner she favored.
Everyday activities, like getting ready to leave to go shopping, involved a complex set of steps that ended with my mother putting on her shoes at the back door. Any interruption, like a ringing phone, required her to start the process over from the beginning. I fell on a piece of metal once, slicing my thumb down to the bone. My mother left me sitting on the front porch clutching a bloody washcloth, for almost an hour, while she went through the compulsive rituals that would allow her to leave and drive me to the emergency room.
“Oh, mom just likes things clean.” This was the closest the other family members came to admitting something was wrong with my mother. I never had a birthday party, never had friends overnight, and rarely invited anyone to come play in my yard—they might ask to come in and use the bathroom, and that would require explaining the whole undressing part. My mother’s obsessive-compulsive disorder required hand washing at the minimum after any physical contact. A hug would have required a scrub down like what might occur at a biological warfare lab with a leaky air filter.
My routine at the chapel in Big Spring did not include leading any prayer sessions or bible studies. Instead of torturing the residents with my singing or praying, I handed out hymnals at the Sunday and Wednesday night services, helped lead a puppet group, and visited with the residents. I would often wonder at the ordinary people who were patients at the hospital.
Until that summer I had been taught that mental illness should be hidden away, like something shameful. On a bookcase in our house there was a bowl made up of ceramic tiles. I dusted that shelf and that bowl for years before I learned my mother put it together during a stay at Terrell State Hospital when I was a toddler. Like her anxiety, depression, and OCD, it was there all the time, in plain sight but disregarded as though it were invisible.
One of my duties as a summer missionary was to give speeches at various churches, summer camps, and bible study groups. I abandoned any traditional speech and instead told about the strange guiding force that must have led me to the place I had denied all my life — an understanding of my mother’s mental illness. It wasn’t too far a stretch to speak of forgiveness and acceptance, and of following those with love.
Terrye is a native Texan who enjoys writing stories set in her home state and other strange places. In her free time Terrye enjoys exploring antique, junk, and thrift stores for inspiration and bargains. She’s had stories published in small print and online journals, and writes short, humorous essays for her blog — https://terryeturpin.com/. Sign up with the link below to follow her newsletter.