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Coming to Terms With My Mother’s Mental Illness

As a kid in 1970s Los Angeles, I thought my mother’s behavior was typical. Now I wonder: Could I have helped her sooner?

Marco Greenberg
May 06, 2016
Image courtesy of the author
Image courtesy of the author
Image courtesy of the author
Image courtesy of the author

My mother looked her doctor straight in the eye. “You’ve got to let me out of here,” she said. “I’m building 36 luxury condos in Malibu.”

The doctor nodded his head, excused himself, and called me. “Is it true?” he asked.

It wasn’t. It sounded convincing—my mother is a formidable woman—but can also be deeply delusional, which is how she ended up in a closed ward at UCLA’s hospital.

Her mental state was no news to my sister and me: when we were children, she claimed that she’d been impregnated by an extraterrestrial and that California would soon be falling into the ocean. By the time I started the eighth grade, we moved in with my father as she took off to join a cult in Virginia, giving them a large chunk of her divorce settlement as the price of admission. Mom, my sister and I eventually learned, was schizotypal, a relatively rare personality disorder characterized by ingratiating first impressions, supernatural thinking, and an unshakable belief that they know best how the world is ordered.

Early on, whenever my mother was being oversensitive—whenever she claimed insight into the workings of the universe, whenever she leapt into some fit of anxiety bursting with tears—my sister and I would shrug our shoulders and tell ourselves that all Jewish mothers, as the stereotype goes, were probably like that; that she drove us crazy because that was her innate modus operandi; that all of her irrational behaviors were forgivable, even endearing; that they were explicable parts of a long tradition of mothering we’d seen in movies and television shows and read in books by Philip Roth.

But we were wrong and I’ve been pondering ever since: Could I have helped her sooner?

We frequently heard our late dad describe our mom as “nuttier than a fruit cake,” a perspective he held onto until he died from lung cancer at the age of 55. My sister and I, who were raised mostly by our father and grandparents, couldn’t help but agree with him, but we never dwelled on it. Instead, despite our fears and frustrations, we looked past it and chose to view her as a loving, upbeat, compassionate, stylish and encouraging woman; her grandiosity kept her and us buoyant. And so we echoed the beliefs of those who described her in the less clinical, even euphemistic terms, of a more forgiving era: she was a “character” and totally out there.

Of course mom was crazy, we thought. Weren’t all Jewish mothers in 1970s L.A., where crazy came with the territory?


Mom’s grandparents were hard-working Orthodox immigrants from Belarus who settled in Omaha, described as peasant Jews by my dad reflecting his own German Jewish origins. Her own parents were beloved—blue-collar types who would give the shirts off their backs—and they decamped for Los Angeles during World War II.

Her parents were also what you’d call “characters.” My maternal grandfather was my hero: he started out as a prize fighter, refused a lucrative job offer from the founder of The Nebraska Furniture Mart (later bought by Warren Buffett) who pleaded for him to stay in Omaha, jumped from various vocations and affairs in Southern California, was fun loving and free-wheeling. (In fact, after a final Vegas gambling spree went terribly awry, he was lucky enough to be able to rely on his extended family’s Jewish mafia connections, who forgave all debts but told him to never come back.) He died quickly, at 57, and I still remember my mom’s blood-curtailing scream upon hearing the news. Was it any wonder, my sister and I sometimes asked ourselves, that his daughter, our mother, was a free spirit? And didn’t she balance her adventurous side well by marrying our father, a dashing young architect and the scion of one of then one of L.A.’s most well to do Jewish families?

The older we got in the mid-1970s, however, the stranger mom’s behavior grew. It was entirely common for her to wake up, put on her bathrobe, and send us in a taxi across town to her parents’ house because she didn’t feel she could parent us that day and had made other plans, often with a series of boyfriends. We were also lucky enough to be spirited away by a doting aunt and uncle to Palm Springs, where we would lounge poolside—a respite from the craziness of Venice Beach.

As soon as my sister was a young teenager, she assumed most of the shopping and housekeeping duties my mother wasn’t around to do. Which, of course, was painful for us, but not entirely alarming. Mom, we told ourselves, was just facing her issues, dealing with her own stuff, doing her best.

Soon, as my mother’s behavior became odder and odder, the wool, however forcefully, was lifted from from over my eyes.

Mom self-published books about celestial bodies and aliens who were communicating with her, while always making erratic and peripatetic life choices: Once, she had closed her eyes, pointed to a random spot on the map—it turned out to be Sedona, Arizona—and then moved there. She went on to use her aesthetic flair to build a beautiful home, and then continued flipping houses for three decades and living frugally but always in the best, most sought after motion picture-like locales across the country, from Aspen to Kauai to Greenwich and many places in between, further camouflaging the actual threat to her sanity.

When we confronted her, she laughed it off. “If I were rich,” she said, “you wouldn’t call me crazy. You’d just say I’m eccentric.” My sister and I wanted to believe her very much. We tried to convince her to get a job, told her it would be good for her head and her pocket book, but her savings always kept her barely afloat. I’m reminded by what our late father always said about his ex-wife: “She tried working once, she didn’t like it.”


It took us a long time—well into adulthood—to learn and be ready to admit that mom was actually mentally ill. Her behavior, always erratic, turned delusional, obsessional and self-destructive. She wouldn’t eat for days, arguing that avatars were poisoning her food. Or she would drink so much water she would end up in the hospital—a condition called hyponatremia, or water intoxication. My sister and I realized we had to seek medical attention; when she did, it often left us more bewildered. Mom’s condition, some doctors said, was “undiagnosable,” and while she definitely had abnormal psychiatric symptoms, it wasn’t clear how to classify them, let alone treat them.

As we struggled to find our mother the best care possible, we learned that the prospects of older men and women who were mentally ill were particularly grim. “Geriatric psychiatry,” one therapist friend told me bluntly, “is the bottom of the mental health barrel.”

After seemingly countless tests and evaluations over a dozen years, we finally acceded, about two years ago, to UCLA’s Geriatric Psych Unit’s diagnosis for life-long institutionalization as definitive. It was both a relief, finally confirming that her craziness was never our imagination, and actually provided a brief emotional boost, giving my sister and me the added pride of being survivors thriving with our own families. Yet, that satisfaction wore thin, quickly replaced by dread, as we faced an even more daunting quandary of where to put her, along with assuming all financial and emotional costs that question raised. After several attempts—and several rejections—to find a facility that could give my mother the care she needed, we lucked out at a facility in Los Angeles.

Despite the initial shock of seeing my deteriorating but still vibrant mother share a closed facility with severely impaired patients, many of whom are zombie like suffering from Alzheimers, and despite my guilty conscious at refusing her pleas to check her out of her self described “hell hole,” my mother is doing as well now as she can hope to do. She’s frail and thinning—she’s 77 now, but looks and acts like she is at least a decade older—but the anti-psychotics have kicked in, and while the side effect of this and other drugs are visible and disturbing, she’s finally mellowed into a serene calm.

And she returned back to the Borsht Belt, as her current facility is smack dab in the middle of L.A.’s Jewish ‘hood. It’s a few blocks from where she was once known as the prettiest girl at Fairfax High in the mid-50’s, then almost entirely Jewish, a member of the most popular club, the Tantras, and sporting a new nose job. After decades of avoiding anything that smacked of being too Jewish, Mom now tells me of the cantor who sings to her and the other patients, and prominently displays a picture of her and Bibi outside her room. While her dwindling circle of friends and family members have lost interest or just find it too “depressing to visit,” my mom’s older sister and a handful of her loyal high school girlfriends still come to see her. And, on the rare occasion when she’s accompanied to dine out, you can find her slowing sipping matzah ball soup at Canters Deli, the same favorite spot she went with her family in the 40’s, this little girl from Omaha.