“She’s dead, okay!?”
This is how I would respond as a kid, when new friends who found out that I was adopted asked, “What happened to your mom?”
I would pause for just a few seconds to see the look of horror on the friend’s face, and before she could manage to sputter out an awkward “sorry,” I would burst out laughing and say, “Just kidding, I don’t care.” And I would redirect our attention to something else.
Sometimes friends would ask where my father was, and I would say, “Well, the last time I saw him, he was holding a gun to my head, so I don’t really keep in touch.” Again, I would relish in the horror, declare that I did not care, and then change the subject.
It was like that throughout my life in any type of painful situation. Humor was the coziest, most stylish coat that I wore, so much cooler than the coats of sadness, anger, or shame.
On my parents tricking me into thinking I was going to Disneyworld, but actually dropping me off at a fundamentalist Christian behavior modification facility for three years: “The lady who picked us up from the airport managed to have the only ‘Jesus’ license plate in all of Santa Rosa County, Florida. That should have been a clue!”
On being outed and publicly punished and humiliated for being in a relationship with a girl in my school and church community: “Her parents named her Johnny* and signed her up for softball. Why were they surprised that she turned out to be a lesbian?”
I could never get through discussing traumatic events without humor. It was perhaps a way to dip a toe into sharing painful, broken pieces of myself, but with one foot out the door, ready to bail if someone looked at me with even the faintest hint of pity or disgust.
When I entered a deep depression in my 30s, I would post jokes about it on Facebook. Humor was not all deflection. The jokes created an opening for people to reach out to me. The jokes were a noncommittal cry for connection, for someone to see me, for someone to help. The jokes helped my people to find me, because they understood the language of depression and humor.
I finally went to therapy after some of these friends who found me insisted on it. Even there, after my therapist would spend a session telling me that I was “awfully hard on” myself, I would post on Facebook afterward that my therapist said “hard on” fourteen times in that session.
Finding absurdity in hardship is a skill, a coping mechanism, and a way to find connection and meaning. And I feel like I have all but lost that ability in the past couple of years.
I went to therapy, Donald Trump got elected president, my daughter began the onset of a severe psychosis disorder. It is challenging to find the humor in any of this, but I have also become more comfortable with wearing sadness and anger, and with describing the ways that I am feeling honestly. But I miss that old coat, humor in hardship. I miss the laughter. I miss feeling as though laughter was a boat carrying me through a sea of despair.
When Kaia** first began exhibiting symptoms, I did think that it was funny, mostly because I had no idea what was happening. I just thought that she had developed some very bizarre new interests, that she was a quirky teenager finding herself. I joked about it with friends. I would come home to the house smelling like sage and a meditative chant called “Cleansing Negative Energy” playing on the TV.
“Are you trying to exorcize evil spirits?” I would ask Kaia.
“Something like that,” she would say, side-eyeing me.
“Oh, I get it, I’m the evil spirit,” I would say, laughing. Kaia would look me up and down, then walk away, saying nothing. I assumed she was just being elaborate about the joke.
I would find trays of crystals left outside in my driveway. “Duh, because they need a sunbath to recharge them,” Kaia said, rolling her eyes at my stupidity.
“Oh, duh,” I responded.
I would find crystals placed around my workstation, in the bath tub, and even under my pillow. “They’re there to help you,” Kaia said.
I tried to be supportive of what I thought were just interests that I did not understand. For Christmas, I got her a Moonbox subscription. Every month, they mailed her a box with crystals, tarot cards, and other “wooey” things. For her birthday, I got her a beautiful handmade rose quartz necklace, after researching the significance of the stone: unconditional love, healing, peace, nourishment, comfort.
One day, I came home and she had guy friend in her room. They were just hanging out, nothing weird. I said hello and went downstairs to make dinner. After he left, Kaia came to the kitchen to see what I was making. “I’m making lamb-lentil stew,” I said. “What is your friend’s name?”
“I don’t know,” she said exasperatedly. “He’s a Cancer.”
“That’s pretty weird that you don’t know his name, but you know his astrological sign, dude,” I said.
“People’s names are the least interesting things about them,” she said, rolling her eyes.
I rolled my eyes too. “Edgy,” I thought.
Later, another guy friend arrived to pick her up. “His name is John, mom,” she said to me as they were leaving. She laughed hysterically and slammed the door.
“What’s his sign?” I yelled after her.
After weeks of telling me stories about how everyone she worked with was against her, she got fired from her job for showing up stoned to work. She insisted that everyone showed up stoned to work, but that certain people at her job had targeted her and were out to get her and that was the real reason she was fired. She told me that she had to smoke weed before work because she was too afraid of interacting with these people and she needed weed to calm her anxiety.
One afternoon, I went outside to pick some herbs from my wine barrel planters. In the planters, I found piles of rotting food waste. I asked my younger daughter, Lu, if she had put the food waste in the planters. She had not. I asked Kaia if she had. “Yes, it’s good for the plants. It gives them nutrients,” she told me.
“You cannot throw food into our backyard,” I responded calmly. “We will get rats and raccoons. Don’t do this anymore.”
Kaia suddenly crouched down on the floor, put her hands over her ears, and started screaming, “You’re scaring me! Stop screaming at me! Don’t hurt me! Somebody help me!” Lu and I stood and stared at her.
My immediate thought was, “Cool, we are now the white trash family on the block.” I told her that she needed to leave and not come back until she could handle being here without screaming and yelling.
I would tell friends about each of these absurd situations and even though I knew in my heart that something was very off, I took comfort in being able to laugh at these events and that others found them amusing as well. Humor was denial.
There would be a lot more screaming and yelling over the next few months, and each time I would make her leave until she could calm down. It has always been important to me that my home be my sanctuary and my safe place. Yelling and screaming at anyone is not allowed. Nevertheless, we solidified our role as the white trash family in the neighborhood. Some days Kaia would cry and tell me how sorry she was. Some days she would ask me what I loved about her. I did not even know her anymore, so it was hard to answer. So I would try to remember what I loved about her before she became someone I did not know. I would tell her that she was very strong and opinionated; she stood up for people; she would never let an underdog stand alone.
And goddamnit, she was so fucking funny. We used to laugh constantly. It has been so long since she was funny. We both have suffered from a lack of humor—or maybe humor kept us suffering silently and everything is falling apart now, I do not know.
Kaia has physically attacked me on four separate occasions now. One time, I had left a Visa giftcard someone had given me for her. I saw that she had found it, and I asked her if she had bought something nice with it. She started screaming at me, “You’re trying to talk about the past, and I’m trying to live in the present!” and then came running at me and tried to punch me. Another time, she wanted to have a “traveling hippie” (read: homeless) couple she met that day spend the night in our living room, and was angry that I said no thanks. The attacks were always very random and unexpected.
I heard loud knocking on my door one night at 3 a.m. When I answered the door, it was Kaia and a police officer. She had been sitting in a neighbor’s backyard six houses down, talking to herself. The family who lived there had called 911 and told them that it looked like someone with a mental illness was confused about where she was. Kaia had insisted to the officer that she lived there. She was able to tell him my address, so he was able to take her home. It was winter, and she had no shoes or socks on. She had lost her purse and phone.
The next day, someone called to let us know that they had found Kaia’s purse. Everything was still in it. We were driving down the street later, when she spotted her socks on the side of the road. She started laughing and made me pull over. She started taking a video of herself talking about how hilarious all of this was. My ability to find humor in it had waned. She could have been killed.
On my 40th birthday, Lu, and I traipsed about town all day to find murals and graffiti. It was a truly lovely day until we encountered Kaia. She had been texting me all day, saying that she was on her way to meet up with us at whatever location we happened to be, but she never showed up. When we got home to get ready for dinner, she was there, and she was combative. She was wanting attention and connection that I could not give to her at the moment because I was getting ready, and then I wanted a bit of down time before going to dinner. But also, it was just generally exhausting talking to her at that point. She wanted to preach spiritual shit to me constantly, and I had grown weary of it. “You’re such an Aquarius, and that’s why you’re [blah blah blah],” she would say. I felt like my birthday was the time to assert boundaries, and that maybe she would respect them because it was my birthday. But she was upset and threatened not to come to dinner. I told her that I wanted her to come to dinner, but that if she could not just be cool and act normal, she could skip it. I told her I wanted to have a nice time and not a bunch of drama.
She ended up coming to dinner, but grew increasingly agitated the entire time we were there. She gave me a gift that was a photo album she had made that—no joke—had about a half a cup of glitter dumped into it randomly, not with glue or anything. Glitter got all over me, the table, and the floor. It was a worst-case scenario for me—we were stuck in a tiny French bistro and I was covered in glitter, knowing that the friend who owned the restaurant and had to clean up later would be cursing my existence. In the album, there were scratched out lottery tickets, receipts, and other bizarre items. I could not contain my annoyance about the glitter. Kaia then became fearful and paranoid because the restaurant was too small, so she left. When we got home, she was not there, and I was glad. Lu and I watchedThe Good Place and This Is Us, and then Kaia got home. She wanted to fight about how mean I was for not appreciating her heartfelt gift, so I decided it was bedtime for me. Through a closed door, she continued to yell incoherent things at me. Lu started crying and Kaia started in on her, demanding to know why she was crying. Lu kept asking Kaia to just leave her alone and let her sleep. Kaia said that maybe she should just kill herself since she makes everyone so unhappy.
Kaia’s 19thbirthday was two weeks after my birthday. She woke up agitated, and I was tired.
“Can I take you to the hospital to get some help?” I asked her. She said yes, and I had this urge to talk her out of it, because no one should spend their birthday in the hospital, but I knew I might not get the chance ever again, so I drove her there.
It was the first day that social workers, nurses, and doctors validated what I knew to be true, the first day I heard people who know what they are talking about use words like “psychosis” and “erratic behavior” and “scattered thought processes.” It was the first day I realized how serious it was that she had assaulted me, and how I could face a Child Protective Services investigation if Kaia did not get help, because Lu was in the home too.
It was the first night that I had slept well in many months. But it was only the beginning. On her second hospital stay, she told the nurse that she thought I had a demon inside of me and that she wanted to kill me, so that triggered an involuntary hold.
I had been joking for months about how Kaia thought I had a demon in me, and maybe the laughter kept me from actually believing she really thought that. If I could laugh about it, maybe it was not real. But there is nothing more real than a doctor telling you that your daughter cannot go home because she wants to kill you.
I mean, it is pretty absurd: You spend nine months not drinking alcohol, you spend a year or more breastfeeding, you read her stories every night and play brain games with her, you get so pissed when her stupid father feeds her Burger King at age two, you spend $50 a bottle for the good vitamins, you send her to Montessori school, you do everything the books and magazines tell you to do—and ultimately, none of it matters. Your child has an illness that takes over her beautiful brain and tells her that you are evil and that she should kill you.
What is more painful than her wanting to kill me is that Kaia genuinely hates me, and I do not enjoy being around her either. We used to be extraordinarily close, and now she does not want to speak to me, which is sad, but also makes my life easier. When she has to come by my house, she often has earphones in so that she does not have to hear me speaking, because my voice triggers her. She tries to get whatever it is that she needs and then leave. When she does speak to me, she tells me that every horrible thing I have ever thought about myself is true. In therapy and my NAMI support group, I have learned that people with severe psychosis disorders often target their main source of support with their paranoia and delusions. I have also learned that their survival skills become so heightened that they know what to say to manipulate people into giving them what they want. When you are honest about their illness and the symptoms they are experiencing, you become the enemy.
For a year after leaving the hospital, Kaia had kept the same job, enrolled in beauty school, and functioned fairly well while living with me, but she became convinced that the problems that existed in her life were because of me, so she convinced her grandparents to help her to move out. Her grandparents do not respect my opinions or expertise as Kaia’s only parent, they desperately want to believe that she is not mentally ill, and they are invested in being seen as the good guys, so they decided to help her. Within a month, Kaia had lost her job, dropped out of school, crashed her car, and had numerous people call the police on her for violent, threatening behavior. None of it is in my hands now. Because of the meddling grandparents, I have no power to help her.
So all I am able to do at this time is process and grieve.
For months after Kaia moved out and I helplessly watched her decline, I was unable to savor any enjoyment in life. I would take Lu on outings, and we would be sitting in the park having a picnic on a sunny day, or hiking in the forest of Powell Butte where the trees smell like home, and I would get so close to a feeling of unblemished happiness, but then I would remember Kaia, and my eyes would fill with tears and I would feel so guilty for allowing myself to be happy.
Humor has felt like I am laughing at her, and I do not want to do that. But I need to find a way to laugh at myself again.
I have often thought of myself as living in a meadow between a forest of grief and the far-off horizon of hope. The daughter I once had is gone, but she is still alive, and while she is alive, there is always hope that she will get treatment one day and return to us. Maybe humor will be the blanket that I lie down on to rest, connect with others, look at the stars, feel the warmth of the sun, gaze into the cool, dark forest, and squint into the distance to hopefully see the sunrise again.
*Name has been changed, but the spirit of the name is there, if that makes sense.
**Name has been changed.