Where do I start when I talk about my mentally-ill mother?

Plush, stuffed animals

I could start with the first time she was hospitalized, in what was supposed to be my last year of college. In the hospital, she greeted me in her nightgown with one of my stuffed animals, a mouse, in her hand. In her room were the rest of stuffed animals of my childhood.

Or maybe the first time I was with her during an episode. I walked in, hearing the television playing a Spanish language station at half volume. She doesn’t understand Spanish. “Don’t worry. It’s just a time stamp,” she said. I stayed up with her for two days while she talked the most terrifying nonsense. The police came to the door in the early third morning after I’d fallen asleep, after finding her walking on the side of the highway. The poor officer, he seemed to expect something more from me, like I’d want to go see her right away. She was safe. I went to bed.

I could start with my brother’s death at 28. How she was hospitalized a few months later and was never quite well again. She went back east on disability. Here’s where I first heard one of her made-up terms. “They were playing ‘lock me in, lock you out.'” Here’s where everyday objects and events created great complexity in her mind. She stopped entertaining other explanations.

Do I start with her achievements, her intellect, her humor, her insightfulness? Or how after years of not being quite right she lost insight into her illness and went off of her medications, saying she wasn’t ill at all.

Shall I start where I would visit with her only for the length of time we could talk about things in our shared reality?

People began breaking into her house. Poison gas came through the drain of her sink. Invisible weapons and robotic animals took hold in her. The voices she hears are the voices of her torturers. She kept the windows open all winter.

Maybe I start later, when she disappeared the first time, leaving two weeks of newspapers pilled up at her down and folders full of letters to a “Joe” I never met. How she comes back after two days thinking nothing is wrong. Maybe I’ll start where my feelings started not to count.

The longest time she disappeared, I would see her on the streets in someone’s gray hair. I gave money to everyone on the street, without requiring a story, every time they asked. My stepmother called me a “soft touch.”

While she was gone those years, a stranger befriended my mother and called me when she found out my mother had a daughter. She called me about becoming a client while I was my last day visiting back east. By the time I returned her call the next day, she posted negative reviews of my company and called clients to complain about me.

“How could you let your mother live on the street?!” she said, as if it was up to me.

I could talk about how she was when I met her again. How I cried to see how devastated she was. When she mentioned that, I told her I was crying was because I was happy to see her.

I could start at any number of places. There are so many entry points to this story. Trying to decide is like trying to pick the one worst day of my life. Wherever I start, the story is still so big to me it could blot out the sky.