Losing Isaiah – A Mother’s Mental Illness, and Turning Trauma into Comedy

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After watching my mom struggle, I felt like I couldn’t relate to kids my own age as well as I once had. I had zero stability.

I haven’t spoken to my mother in almost a year. During our last phone call, she had to jump off after two minutes because she was at her local church’s yard sale buying a set of bunk beds. Before she could go, I mentioned that I’d been dying to sleep on a bunk bed in my 30s, which made her erupt in laughter. Igniting her mania wasn’t my intention, but I couldn’t deny my mother a laugh. Before she said goodbye she mentioned she was putting together a series of plays at what was once our family’s corn, pumpkin, and Christmas tree hobby farm.

My mother took sole ownership of the farm after a Thanksgiving scuffle she had with my father, leaving her in the looney bin and him in the slammer. I try to speak in slang regarding these two destinations of theirs as it’s less painful. My father lives in a one bedroom apartment with my Uncle Drew, my mother’s brother, while my mother chose to stay on the 140-acre farm all by herself. The plays she had decided to produce were The Sound of MusicAnne of Green Gables, and Fiddler on the Roof. I told her to let me know when the show dates were, and I’d try to make it home for them. And, I meant it. Who would miss a night like that? Sure, Los Angeles puts the movie and television business in the palms of my hands. But live Barn Theatre? New York City doesn’t even have that. As far as I know. Maybe Bushwick, just for the irony.

My mother has struggled with mental illness since I was in 6th grade, battling depression and manic episodes off and on for over two decades. I remember coming home after school one afternoon and noticing that our microwave, once topped with Nesquik, was now loaded up with medications; the bookends of life. Seeing all of the medications while my mother laid in bed was particularly hard on me because I was just wild about my mom. So much so that when I was in kindergarten I faked being sick just to go home to her. When the school nurse put the glass thermometer under my lil’ tongue to take my temperature, I bit down so hard that it shattered into tiny pieces in my mouth, and they had no choice but to call my mom and send me home. We were soul mates. I’d try to lift her spirits during her first depression by offering to cook dinner for the family, or by offering to clean her big walk-in closet that was filled with hats. When neither of those did the trick, I started doing impressions for her, starting with my English teacher or our local doctor. She’d laugh. And so did I. Honestly, I don’t know who needed it more.

I remember coming home after school one afternoon and noticing that our microwave, once topped with Nesquik, was now loaded up with medications; the bookends of life.

One of the methods of treatment for my mom included a slew of electroshock therapies, which tended to affect her memory. I remember one incident in particular that took place while she was driving all of us kids home from school. She pulled our big conversion van over to the side of the road and broke down saying she forgot where we lived and what my brother Josh looked like. In her defense, he was away at his first year of college and she wasn’t seeing him on a regular basis anymore. The remaining eight of us kids, hovered around her, put our little paws on her shoulder and said, “It’s okay, Mom, memory is all ego.” We were old souls that’s for sure.

My younger sister, Monica, crawled into the front seat and drove us home, and the rest of us comforted our mom, while trying not to be too vocal about how jealous we were that Monica got to drive the van home. Monica couldn’t have been older than 12. Losing a parent to mental illness is a type of grief I can’t explain. I know I can’t get too excited when she’s well because I’m aware of the pattern… devastation and agony soon follow. And, then I’m left to figure out how to bring her back to “life.” What a responsibility for a youngster, right? Between that and my weekend jobs, at 14 years old, I felt like I had a full time job. That explains my work-a-holism. But I couldn’t help myself when she was “well.” I loved her. She was charming and dynamic and my soul felt alive when we were connected. As Eckhart Tolle says, we really only have the Power of Now.

After watching my mom struggle, I felt like I couldn’t relate to kids my own age as well as I once had. I had zero stability.

After watching my mom struggle, I felt like I couldn’t relate to kids my own age as well as I once had. I had zero stability. My Reebok Classic tennis shoes were the sole object I was clinging to. I remember my friend, Kelly, invited me over to spend the night once, and she dropped her makeup foundation on the carpet and gasped, “This is the worst day of my life.” This was hard for me to swallow, as I’d just shaved my mom’s legs over a bucket in the kitchen the week before. Sure, that was my choice, as I noticed her leg hair was getting longer, and that’s just the type of after-school activity I was looking to get into. You know, to balance out my soccer, track, and basketball hobbies. But I’m really grateful I had that grooming experience because it taught me deep compassion early on in life. And also how to shave another person’s legs, which I feel will serve my partner well in our later years. Yes, I’m gay. But, you know, after a phone conversation with an Ohio-based shaman, in which he guided me on a journey of plant therapy, and then later asking John Lithgow for nuggets of wisdom and called on my spirit animal…the Koala Bear, I’ve realized I’m not much into labeling and prefer to just think we fall in love with the person. Either way, I’m ready for senior shaving.

Yes, I’m gay. But, you know, after a phone conversation with an Ohio-based shaman, in which he guided me on a journey of plant therapy, and then later asking John Lithgow for nuggets of wisdom and called on my spirit animal…the Koala Bear, I’ve realized I’m not much into labeling and prefer to just think we fall in love with the person. Either way, I’m ready for senior shaving.

While my peers were discovering soaps at Bath & Body Works, I discovered the movie Losing Isaiah, starring Jessica Lange and Halle Berry. It was about a crack addict, played by Halle, who put her newborn baby in a dumpster because she was too high to deal with the baby’s crying. Two garbage men (as in that was their job) saved the child, Isaiah, and brought him to the hospital where a social worker, played by Jessica Lange, ended up adopting Isaiah. When Halle’s character got clean, she, of course, wanted her baby back, but Jessica wasn’t gonna give Isaiah back without a fight. I watched this movie every Tuesday. When 4 pm hit, the tape went into the VCR and I hit “Play,” like clockwork. That movie became my parental guardian as mine was currently out of commision. There was a scene in the bathroom courtroom between the Academy Award-winning actresses that was particularly riveting, so, naturally, I rewinded it until I had memorized both parts. I talked my sister Marta into rehearsing it with me, and she soon became my Halle Berry.

“What exactly are you sorry for? That you threw your baby in the trash or your dragging my family through hell?

“No, I just want my son back”

To this day, I still have the scene memorized. It’s like memorizing your childhood address or family landline. It just sticks with you.

Occasionally, my brother Jeremiah would come in the living room and sit next to me with a bowl of heated up nacho cheese and a plate of tortilla chips for dunking. If I scrounged up enough loose quarters around the house I’d bring some Twizzler Pull N’ Peels into the viewing party. I’m not sure if the loss of my mother resulted in my Jessica Lange obsession, or if I was discovering my dormant sexuality, or if I really just loved her acting. Maybe it was a combination of all three.

I’m not sure if the loss of my mother resulted in my Jessica Lange obsession, or if I was discovering my dormant sexuality, or if I really just loved her acting. Maybe it was a combination of all three.

There were nine children in my family. Same two parents. No sets of twins. No Mormon faith. Just the no birth control, Catholic mentality. Being in a big family where you are the oldest girl, clothing is sparse and there is no control over how to get it. I wasn’t old enough to hold a job at that point so I just had to accept what I was given. I had my Catholic school uniform which consisted of two white blouses, a plaid jumper, and knee high socks.That uniform didn’t offer much freedom for expression. I remember, one day in 6th grade, I rolled up my matronly Catholic skirt to show off my freshly tanned legs that I had just shaved with my Gillette Sensor for sensitive skin. I was no doubt trying to impress Andrew Smetana, the Zack Morris of our school. He was physically the closest human I could find to a sexy lesbian. My mom looked at my eager to be objected face, and replied, “Mollie… The law of modesty.” I had no idea there was a law on it, but apparently the Catholics had invented one.

That was the last and only attempt I made at trying to make the uniform my own. Anyway, I also had one very colorful pair of plaid shorts, a Yankee’s baseball team tank top, and a track uniform of short electric blue shorts and a tank top with a thick gold, blue, and white stripe. Those two “outfits” were my summer wardrobe. I don’t even remember having a winter one so it must’ve just been my school uniform. I didn’t know my limited wardrobe was odd until I left the house and went to basketball sleepaway camp.

My mom was a basketball star at the University of Maryland and she’d been a guest speaker at the camp previously so I got in on sheer scholarship. Quite frankly we needed the child care. Girls’ games usually end in scores of 20–24, which in hindsight is pretty cute they let us keep playing. Now women’s college teams have games that run 50–62. Proving, we all can improve over time. One night, after a long day of shooting hoops, we headed to the arcade and pool hall. As I aimed my pool stick at the eight ball, corner pocket, sure enough, I felt a major tear down below. My plaid shorts had finally split from overuse. I was so humiliated I ran back to the dorm, called my dad on the payphone, and begged him to bring me my only other pair of shorts my electric blue track short shorts. The shorts were so short that coupled with my complimentary, oversized camp t-shirt, it looked like I was playing basketball in a little dress. A fashion statement for sure, but also mortifying when you’re not Gigi or Bella Hadid. I needed clothes and I needed to figure out how to get them… fast.

After basketball camp wrapped up, my Dad told us we would be picking corn as a summer job. I had finally found my golden ticket and that cornfield was my chocolate factory! Each morning I’d wake up with my brothers Josh, Jake, and Jeremiah and pick my little heart out. We would pick 80–100 dozen ears a day. Then put the corn on a buggy that my father painted “Merkel’s Corn Buggy” on the top. The money from each dozen we sold went into a Crisco can with a slot cut out of the top lid. One thing my father knew how to reuse was condiment containers. Another time, I’ll tell you about the “cats and dog dish” he crafted out of a Country Crock container that he used to feed all of the farm (read: stray) cats. This was before recycling was a thing. I guess you could say he was the Billie Jean King of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

The corn money was split four ways between me and my brothers. And, when I’d gathered enough savings, I decided how I wanted to spend it. I had become obsessed with the company Guess jeans, so I used all my money to buy as many colors in the denim as I could. That and Guess t-shirts. After a long week of picking corn, I dragged my brother Jeremiah to a Burlington Coat Factory.

He yelled, “Mollie I found the pair!” And I yelled back, “Does it have the triangle?” The triangle was the stamp of authenticity, indicating that it was in fact a true pair of Guess jeans. Authenticity and quality really mattered to me as this was my first taste of having a belonging. It needed to be good.

This was the beginning of my never-ending compulsion and neurosis with clothing particulars. In psychology, a neurosis stems from trying to cover up something about yourself. I think I was, and will forever be, trying to cover up the feeling of shame over being disheveled. Clothing was comforting to me. In not having stability, clothing soothed me. It literally covers you up. The truth is, I never had a mom to be there for me in that way. To help me pick out clothes and teach me how to do my hair and makeup. But then, I also never had a mom to force her styling choices on me eitherAs my good friend Sean and I say, “Eventually you have to be your own mother.”

In psychology, a neurosis stems from trying to cover up something about yourself. I think I was, and will forever be, trying to cover up the feeling of shame over being disheveled. Clothing was comforting to me. In not having stability, clothing soothed me. It literally covers you up.

My mom taught me lessons that were far more valuable than fashion. She taught me what a classic artist was by exposing me to Emmylou Harris albums as she cooked or baked in the kitchen. She taught me how to appreciate a character by marrying one… my father. She taught me to try to see the good in everyone instead of their flaws. She taught me how to enjoy performing. She was and will always be my best audience. The way she just sort of got what ignites someone’s soul by encouraging them to dress up like a nun and sing the entire Sister Act album. She may have not taught me the importance of a proper bedtime but I’ve since discovered Terri Gross, and she has a podcast episode on the science of sleep, so I’m good.

They say via reincarnation you pick your parents to learn your lessons. I believe I chose a mother that lived in extremes so I could understand the depths of sadness, the heights of joy, and that bunk beds are quite fun actually. They save space. They give you privacy. There are choices. Bottom or top. They remind you of your inner child. Ironically I’ve started to believe more in the concept of bunk beds and less in the idea of labeling people mentally ill. After seeing someone diagnosed mentally ill for decades and only given prescription drugs and electroshock therapy and not getting well you start to question the creativity of it all.

Ironically, I’ve started to believe more in the concept of bunk beds and less in the idea of labeling people mentally ill. After seeing someone diagnosed mentally ill for decades and only given prescription drugs and electroshock therapy and not getting well you start to question the creativity of it all.

Did my mom’s episodes come out due to unresolved trauma? Witnessing an abusive alcoholic father? The hormonal change of having 9 children? Being isolated on a farm. Not putting on her plays all those years when its what she was so clearly yearning for. Who knows what would have happened if my mother was curating Fiddler on the Roof, getting weekly reflexology appointments and going to healers to get her karmic and ancestral energy cords cut. For all we know, she could have still ended up with a set of bunk beds. You can either turn your trauma into drama or comedy. I chose the latter, and as far as bunk beds go, if Jessica Lange is asking…I’ll have what she’s having.


Growing up on a farm where it wasn’t okay to be who I was, I started to develop fantasies about older successful Hollywood Actresses. They were my window into emotions, sexuality, and freedom. And in my imagination, I thought it would be fun to experiment with them wanting a grounded experience that diverted from this big strange Hollywood world where they were maybe not able to be their true selves.