The truth that nobody talks about
Mokita, the unreliable internet tells me, is a word meaning “the truth everybody knows but nobody talks about”. So, the elephant in the room, but more elegantly expressed. I need to talk to you about an elephant.
My mother died two years ago. Cause of death was probably ovarian cancer, but it was mental illness that killed her. That’s why I say “probably”: she refused to see a doctor for so long that by the time she was finally admitted to hospital, she was too weak for a biopsy (never mind treatment), and died within about a week. Suspicion and resentment of medical professionals was one of her “things”; just part of her intractable, irrational, unreasonable personality.
Part of her illness.
She was never properly diagnosed, but she was hospitalised, more than once, for her mental health problems. She attempted suicide, more than once, and very nearly succeeded. The best unofficial description I can offer, with the benefit of distance, is that she was a bit borderline, a bit depressed, sometimes (rarely) a bit psychotic. And yet, we – the family – never really put it in those terms. Marie-Jeanne “had a loose connection with reality”, we’d say. She was “difficult”. We all knew “what she was like”, but the work of living with and around her was so utterly draining, it didn’t seem to leave any air for looking at the bigger picture. Or maybe there was just no point.
Mom herself well knew that things were not okay in her head. “I get things wrong,” she’d say. But acknowledging that was the great taboo. No matter what happened, one could never “use that against her", never point out that her current perspective might not be entirely accurate. One could really, really never suggest that she seek help. Doing so would put you on her blacklist. For life.
Her funeral was attended by maybe a dozen people, most of whom were profoundly relieved that it was over at last. Yet if everyone who had loved and admired her in her life had been there, no room could have held them all. She was enormously gifted, charming, lovable. She had the deepest friendships; she changed people’s lives. And sooner or later she hurt every one of them just as deeply.
After her death I read a packet of letters from one of those former friends. The love and pain of those letters was so familiar. In one of them, this friend described my mother (a gardener of almost magical talent) as being like a garden with rich, fertile soil; soil almost too rich, with flourishing weeds threatening to overwhelm the rest. It was a perfect image. There was so much life and beauty in her, but also… the weeds. And the weeds won.
I don’t know, I can’t know, where her horror of doctors came from. I do know that mental illness stigma is pervasive, and I believe that her parents, in particular, from the start resisted acknowledging just how deep her problems ran. I believe that her life and her relationships could have been very different, if she hadn’t been so scared of looking directly at the problem. If she had invited someone in to deal with those strangling weeds.
I made her a shawl once, in colours she found particularly meaningful. I always meant to publish the design but until now, I never did. After she died, I retrieved that shawl and started making a new version, with silver beads that look like tears.
It took a long, long, long time to knit this. There’s just one stitch pattern, very rhythmic; complex but repeating, very meditative. Knitting it kept me thinking of my mother, all the complexities of her life and my feelings for her. She gave me so much – including a love of knitting – and finally, by the end of all this knitting and meditating, the balance seemed to have shifted. I remember the flowers in the garden, not just the weeds. As a mourning shawl, it did a pretty good job. As a comfort shawl, the aran version is particularly cozy.
I’m publishing Mokita in honour of my mother and in support of Mind, which is doing the much-needed work of not just providing support, but building understanding, of mental illness. For all the Marie-Jeannes and all the weeds. Every cent of the sale price will go to Mind. Because it’s past time to talk about those elephants.