87: Finding Strength in Love

87: Finding Strength in Love

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: For Mom, with Love

Finding Strength in Love

You have to be brave with your life so that others can be brave with theirs.

~Katherine Center, The Gifts of Imperfection

My mother was my hero when I was a child. She was tiny in stature, but I looked up to her in so many ways. She was beautiful. It wasn’t just the dusting of freckles across her button nose, or the curls that I loved to brush that smelled like powder when I kissed the top of her head. It wasn’t just her shining blue eyes or the contagious smile that spread wide across her face that she bestowed upon everyone with whom she came in contact. She always called me “babe” and held my hand in the car. I never felt as special as when I got to spend time alone with her, without my brothers.

My mother is the kindest person I know. She is humble to a fault, and she has lived her life taking care of those she loves, even when she needs to find a way to take care of herself.

I don’t know how old I was when I first realized that my mother was ill. Nobody came out and told me she had bipolar disorder, but I started to notice her mood swings. By then, she was single, working multiple jobs, and our trailer home was in shambles. My older brother was in charge of us more and more, and my special one-on-one time with my mom dwindled as she struggled to keep us afloat. But she made time to read to all of us, huddled on a mattress in the living room where she slept. Her voice made everything seem okay.

One morning, I woke up to find she had painted our entire kitchen pink. Another time, during an argument between her and us kids, she passed out. We panicked as she lay on the floor, not sure what to do. I slapped her across the face to wake her up. Her symptoms seemed to be escalating, and I knew no way to help.

Sometime after, we left our tiny farm and moved into a small house “in town.” A friend of hers lived next door and helped to parent us while my mother started to work on getting better. She started college and seemed more stable and attentive. But with the move, the confusion of her illness, and the onset of teenage hormones, I was left angry and I lashed out at my mother with hurtful words and actions. We fought often, and I struggled with my own depression in silence, not wanting to admit that I might be ill in the same way as she. But though my mother had so much on her plate, she put me in counseling, showed up at my school for meetings and made sure my brother and I got fitted with the braces we needed.

On “Take Your Daughter to Work” day she allowed me to attend classes by her side. I sat quietly, proud to be included in this new world my mother had bravely entered to reclaim a life of her creation. I never had the ability to tell her what this meant to me.

When I was nineteen, I found myself single and pregnant. My mother moved 2,500 miles to be near me and help me raise my son. And though I had accepted this journey of single motherhood thinking I would be on my own, I knew I was capable because of how much my mother believed in me. Because of my mother’s love, I was never once alone. She stood behind me through a series of misguided choices and failed relationships. She encouraged me to pursue a path of personal growth and to find my place in the world. Because of her example, I have monitored my mental health closely and learned to seek help without shame or apology.

A few years ago, my mother decided she wanted to train to be a Mental Health Peer Counselor. With the help of a close friend, she mapped out a plan to achieve this goal. She ventured out of town despite her social anxiety to attend courses. I was never more proud. More recently, she earned her college degree, the first in our family to graduate from college. It took her twenty years.

I will never forget when my mother told me she had become part of NAMI, the National Alliance of Mental Health. I felt joy in my heart that she had found a place where she could positively influence the course of others who faced challenges such as hers. The woman who once avoided crowds at all costs called me to ask for assistance setting up for a benefit concert, saying that she was the volunteer coordinator for the event. I enlisted my son to help take down chairs after the show. We enjoyed the concert and my mom even danced with my son for a bit. I smiled inside, overcome with emotion and thinking about how far she had come. When they called the members of the committee up to the stage for introductions, I was shocked to hear that my mother was Vice President. I had no idea.

I never knew all the struggles my mother faced as I was growing up. But I know it took courage and strength for her to power through her illness. She fought fiercely and chose to be the author of her own adventure. This is why my mother will forever be a hero to me.

~Holly Wilkinson

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