Life with an Insane Parent – Part 1

Lily Vanlaw, my mother, circa 1943. One year before her breakdown.
Lily Vanlaw, my mother, circa 1943. One year before her breakdown.

In 1944 my mother suffered a severe emotional breakdown, and was committed to a mental hospital in Compton, CA.

Although released seven months later, she never fully recovered.

But it would be another 50 years before she finally allowed me into her secret nether world, the place into which she frequently retreated after she returned home.

That was in 1993, when I began writing down her diabolical descriptions. It was the only way I could follow the incredibly complex inner world that she created as her sanctuary.

These conversations continued periodically for the next four years.

I had a difficult time trying to decide whether or not to make public something this personal. But finally I opted to put them out there, hoping that they might help some of you who are living through similar situations. Plus, it might help me gain more insight into how and why this all happened to my mother.


From My Notes

Dad has been suffering from senile dementia, and Mom has been trying to care for him, a difficult task for anyone. But even more so in her unstable condition.

As usual, being with her is like dealing with two people: one, a bright, smiling, vivacious person, who loves books and listening to her record collection, and still quite able to cope with the world around her. But the other is a frightened shell, suddenly retreating, without warning, into her dark place, whispering to unseen voices inside her head.

Lately she’s been been quite lucid and still appears to be competent in running the household. But I have some questions regarding her care for Dad.

Mom and Dad circa 1993
Mom and Dad circa 1993

Last weekend, the drama returned over Dad’s feet and swollen ankles. They’ve been like that for nearly two years. Not a good sign.

Back then she made a terrible scene when I asked her about it. So, I didn’t pursue it.

But now Dad’s been complaining that his feet really hurt, and he started wearing slippers, rather than his usual soft running shoes.

Once again I suggested to Mom that Dad needs to see a doctor, because he seems to be getting worse. But again she reacted as if I’d threatened her, and retreated into that space behind her eyes, looking as if she was about to cry.

Apparently my question was too much to bear. So, she shut down and began whispering to herself.  I sat in silence for a few minutes, until I couldn’t stand it any longer.

“I must have said something that is causing you great pain”, I finally said with a tinge of sarcasm.

First she refused to respond, as if she either didn’t hear me or didn’t understand the question. But when I repeated it, she just stared into space and began wailing, “I can’t talk about it….I can’t talk about it”.

When I asked, “Why?”, she said, “It will all come out when I’m dead….!.”  And with that, she burst into tears and fled from the room. Her version of “Fight or Flight”.

I’ve lived through these mini dramas ever since I was 10 years old. Still I was really pissed, and told her that it wasn’t healthy for me to continue our visit as long as she’s going to behave this way. But she pleaded with me to be patient with her. So reluctantly I stayed.

Somehow my decision not to leave unlocked something within her and she began to describe for me the demons within her mind. I was astounded. Now she felt safe enough to tell me what she’d hidden from the outside world for fifty years, but had been too petrified to confide in anyone, for fear that people would think she was insane.

But before I get into her revelations, you need a little back story:

In 1944 after her release from “Compton”, while still under the care of a psychiatrist, and after only a couple of visits, she climbed out the bathroom window to escape his office.

17 years later in 1961, I saw little change in her behavior. It was still unnerving to have her  start whispering to herself while I’m in the middle of talking to her – only to have her turn her back on me and suddenly walk away. If I asked her what she just said, she would deny that she said anything.  Or, refuse to talk about it.

Attentive, then gone. An illustration of her sudden mood changes.
Attentive at  first, then gone. An illustration of her sudden mood changes.

At that time I tried to get Dad to get help for her. But he refused, feeling she was still too frightened of therapists to get her to go to one – fearing a repeat of her bathroom window escapade, I guess.

Inside Her Tortured Mind

My first realization was that the scenarios she created in her tortured mind were far worse and more complex than I ever imagined. It was so difficult to follow the convoluted web of intrigue that she created for herself that I needed to write it all down. While I was unable to help her, maybe it could help me understand what caused her mental illness, and what’s continuing to cause her dramatic flights from the “here & now”.

In part, it appears that shame, guilt and paranoia are so overwhelming to her that she needs to split off from reality, whenever she feels threatened, and retreat into her safer world, inhabited by voices that she can deal with – some friendly and some not.

Religion and betrayal enter into the mix, as does anti semitism and psychiatry.  And like a wrestling match, there are heroes and villains.

I’m convinced that some of her guilt and shame goes all the way back to 1933, and the suicide of her mother-in-law.

The “Good Guys!”

Her unlikely heroes are Dr. Chester Denim, a Science of Mind practitioner, and a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Von Hagen who may have treated Mom while she was confined in “Compton”.

But the scenario begins to get creepy when she includes two other women who were there with her….maybe: One, ostensibly the wife of Dr. Von Hagen, and the other, her sister (Mrs. Von Hagen’s).

And finally, there’s a great aunt, Dora Meininger, who emigrated to the midwest circa 1872. But in my mother’s tortured mind Aunt Dora becomes interchangeable with Dr. Van Hagen’s wife, and/or her sister.

I know very little about Dr. Denham, but I believe he was a lay therapist, who spun off from the Science of Mind Church in Hollywood, where my folks had been regular members. He was a disciple of Dr. Ernest Holmes, the founder of the Church of Religious Science.

Dr. Denham would hold small weekly group meetings in the homes and apartments of various followers around the San Fernando Valley. He also had office hours, and Mom was one of his patients.

As a result, Dad held Dr. Denham responsible for causing her breakdown. So he should have been one of her villiains. But Mom felt tremendous gratitude toward him, because he provided information about her ancestors that she never knew.

Whatever it was obviously had a detrimental impact on her, releasing all kinds of feelings, which she couldn’t handle. Yet, in her mind he was one of her heroes.

It is true that Mom’s great Aunt Dora, who’s history Denham allegedly discovered, left Germany at a young age, to seek a new life in America. She did end up in the midwest and may have married a Gentile, only to be disenfranchised by her father for doing so.

The fact that Dora Meininger emigrated to America and that her father never spoke of her again is documented in his Last Will & Testament. But anything beyond that is all in Mom’s head. And how Dr. Denham ever found that information – if he ever did – remains an enigma.

For Mom to choose Dr. von Hagen as another of one her heroes is another strange choice, because as her psychiatrist, he was probably the doctor that Mom escaped from when she climbed out the bathroom window.

But now her scenario really gets bizarre because she claims that Von Hagen’s wife was also institutionalized in Compton. But it was because she felt she was not good enough for her husband. And her sister for similar reasons.

These were not exactly committable diagnoses, but they obviously met Mom’s requirements.

Furthermore she and the two sisters became close friends at the institution. And she still speaks to them, suggesting that they remain in contact with her telepathically.

To further complicate this tortured maze, Mom is convinced that the Gentile, who Aunt Dora allegedly married in the 19th Century, was the grandfather of her psychiatrist, Dr. Von Hagen!!!

We’ll get to her villains in Part 2. Beyond that, there are even more astounding revelations from the depths of her diabolical nether world.


8 thoughts on “ Life with an Insane Parent – Part 1”

  1. I read your second post after I’d commented here, and somehow I hadn’t picked up in this post that your notes were from several years ago and your mom has passed on. Having read the second part it’s obvious your mother went through such a lot.

    If you haven’t come across Eleanor Longden before, I recommend her to you. You’ll get a great talk if you google her name and Ted talk. She hears voices, but having been through mental illness is completely sane. She gives much of the credit for her recovery to a psychiatrist who, on hearing her list what was wrong with her, said, “Don’t tell me what’s wrong with you, tell me what happened to you.” Reading what your mother went through, reminded me of that.
    What you say about your mother splitting off her shame and guilt saving her life is very interesting. I think the mind does try to protect us, the only way it knows how.
    Thank you for writing about this in such a sensitive way. I think it’s so important that people’s stories are told with understanding and care, and it’s clear you had both for your parents.

    • Yvonne, once again thank you for you second reply, your extremely kind words, your sharp insight and for recommending Eleanor Longden. But I had to reread a couple of times your description of Longden giving credit to her psychiatrist for not wanting to deal with what she thought was wrong with her, but rather what happened to her. That’s when I realized it’s what any ethical shrink would or should do. A good therapist has to treat the history of the patient, not what the patient thinks his or her symptoms are. BTW, I read some of your blogs and very much appreciate what you’re doing for non-writer-writers like me, and am signing on.

  2. Pete, I feel sure you did a great thing for your mother by saying, “I must have said something that is causing you great pain,” and by staying with her. That she opened up to you in this way must be of benefit to her in some way, of that I’m sure. How painful it must be for all of you to live with this.
    I have a sister diagnosed with paranoid psychosis, and so I know how hard it can be to communicate sometimes. It can be so painful trying to find the words that can create a connection.
    I found it interesting that you cite shame and guilt as two probable causes of her illness – I see this in my sister too, the splitting off of what feels unbearable. The things she feels most guilty about she attributes to someone else or “malevolent forces.”
    How I wish we could just reach those locked in mental illness and help them heal, but that’s easier said than done. I can say is I wish you and your mom and dad well.

    • Yvonne, I appreciate you taking the time to comment because this is not an issue that everyone has experienced, and for those who have denial is a far easier way to deal with it. I’m certain that’s how my father dealt with it for the fifty years he lived with my mother after her breakdown. But as I mentioned in Part 2, I’m convinced now that her ability to split off her shame and guilt by putting the blame on others prevented her from taking her own life, as her mother-in-law did and for which she was blamed. Surprisingly, both my parents lived into their 90s.

  3. Joy, yes that thin line is a good way to describe what happens with the human mind. In my mother’s case, you could see her cross that line in the middle of a conversation. Until I learned better, my immediate thought was something I said or had done wrong to cause it.

  4. Her swing of moods only goes to explain the tiny and sometimes invisible line that separates life from death, and that separates virtually everything in life, even sanity and insanity. I am looking forward for the second part.


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