At 6 years old, Antoine Jackson knew his mother was different
Jackson believes his personal experience with mental illness motivated him to lead a life of service
Editor’s Note: Antoine Jackson is the corporate development director with Special Olympics Michigan, a minister at Greater Mitchell Temple of Detroit and a father. He has also self-published several books including his most recent, “Flip the Switch.” In honor of mental health awareness month, he shares his personal experience of living with a mother diagnosed with schizophrenia. The opinions in this article are those of the author.
At 6 years old, I knew my mom was different.
On most mornings, during our two-block walk to school, she talked to herself, usually uttering obscenities. I was a little embarrassed and noticed other parents and children kept a “healthy distance” from us.
Although I didn’t quite understand the severity of my mother’s difference, I did know she was my mom and I loved her.
Loving her came with a price. In elementary school, I was ridiculed.
My classmates would say, “That’s the boy with the crazy momma.” Angrily, I would respond, “She’s not crazy, just sick.”
We lived in a predominantly African-American community where access to quality health care was limited and a stigma around mental illness prevailed. Having a mentally ill parent wasn’t something anyone talked about.
It wasn’t until I overheard a conversation between my grandmother and an insurance agent that I learned what my mom suffered from. The agent said, “A life insurance policy will be quite expensive for her … because of her schizophrenia.”
There it was. My mom was schizophrenic.
The illness made life with my mother unpredictable. It was like riding a roller coaster blindfolded: You didn’t see the twists and turns ahead.
She couldn’t perform basic day-to-day responsibilities. She struggled with paying bills, shopping for groceries, making breakfast and getting me and my siblings ready for school.
As the condition of our home deteriorated, my grandmother stepped in and took control. She became a source of stability in our unsteady situation. She did her best to shield us from the ugliness of the disease, but she could not protect us completely.
One of the most challenging aspects of growing up with my mother’s mental illness was her very public outbursts. My family and I would watch in panic as my mom brandished knives, threw bricks and broke windows when she had severe hallucinations. The outbursts would end when the police were called to transport her to the local crisis center.
I felt helpless against the disease.
I struggled to understand and make peace with the illness. What helped me was a loving reminder from my grandmother. She said, “Your mother has schizophrenia, schizophrenia does not have her.” And, despite everything, she is still my mom: a fun-loving, caring and beautiful woman who loves her children the best she can.
Those words helped me realize my mother’s disease did not lessen my love for her, but elevate it. After I graduated from high school, I became her caregiver and, eventually, her legal guardian.
Growing up with schizophrenia has taught me invaluable life lessons.
I value people for who they are and not for what they have. I have also learned that respect and love are powerful, life-changing agents.
It is also because of my mother that I live a life driven by service. As a director at Special Olympics Michigan, I develop donor support for year-round sports training and athletic competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Prior to that, I developed strategic partnerships to increase volunteer mentors for at-risk youth through the Detroit affiliate of Big Brothers Big Sisters. I’m also a minister within my local church and a community mentor.
Today, my mother lives in an adult foster care facility and is doing well. Seeing her bright smile during our visits is what keeps me going.
She is 64, vibrant and the most resilient person I know. She enjoys time with her children, grandchildren and sisters. She is stable and continuously makes strides toward independence and self-sufficiency.
The support, love and encouragement of family, friends and mental health professionals have made my mother and family stronger.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 Americans will be affected by a mental health condition. By sharing my family’s story, I hope to combat the stigma associated with mental disorders and increase support for the people and families who courageously battle these diseases every day.
I will always honor and respect my mom, no matter how different she may be.