Living in fear: Being raised by a mentally ill mom was like walking on eggshells

Part 1 of 4: It was when her voice was devoid of emotion that I feared her the most

BY SUEANN JACKSON-LAND — I didn’t know when it started. I still don’t, and probably never will know. My mother changed. Around other people she was cheery, always a bubbly personality. Being the offspring of a master chameleon, I’ve adapted that same mask. I can smile at you with bright blue-gray eyes twinkling, when inside, my heart is in night terrors.

When I was small I wanted to know how I could just have one peaceful day. At one point I took ballet, tap, jazz, acrobatics, piano and violin. I was a Brownie then a Girl Scout. My mother did all the things that showed a mother’s love for her daughter, at least to the neighbors, anyway. Behind closed doors, when my father wasn’t home, was another matter altogether.

I can remember having makeup smeared across my lips and cheeks like a clown because I wouldn’t hold still while she was “making me up” for a ballet recital. Made garish, I watched my tears create streaks in the red rouge on my cheeks.

Or there was the time when I went to McDonald’s and my underwear touched the lip of the commode, as I perilously squatted trying not to fall in the toilet or on my face. I came out of the stall and whispered to my waiting mother what had happened because I knew it was bad. I was soundly spanked until I cried and wasn’t allowed to put “that dirty underwear” back on. I walked around all day, posing for pictures and smiling, being “Doris’ little SueAnn” with no underwear on.

Or there was the time we, my mother and I, spent the entire morning making hand-decorated Easter eggs. She would stain the eggshells with red onions, then we would take a needle and carve out designs on the shell. The last step was to put a pinhole in the top and the bottom of the egg and “blow out” the yolk.

“Careful with those eggs, SueAnn,” my mother instructed. We lived in a split-level white brick house in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. I was 6 or 7 or 8 years old. My feet padded down the stairs on the olive green shag carpet. Down the first set of stairs that lead from the living room to the foyer, I just about tiptoed across the slate floor in the foyer to the carpet of the family room.

“Yiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!!!!!” My foot slid out from under me and I watched, in slow motion, as the carton carrying the most precious eggs fell to the floor. There was a dull crunch. My mind raced. Run? No. She’ll catch me and then it will be worse. Run out the front door to Rhonda’s house. No, Rhonda’s mother will ask questions…

Then I heard footsteps coming down the stairs, and I looked up at my mother’s face. She was frowning. Oh, no, look at her eyes. When my mother got mad her eyes were frightening. She set her jaw and I knew that there wasn’t anywhere to run.

“I’m sorry, Mommy. I didn’t mean it. My foot slipped,” I stammered, trying not to cry. Here it all was. All of that work she went to, and I let her down again. She spent all that time with me and we made something beautiful for Gramam Geshan or Aunt Renie or Ruby and I had screwed it up again. Bad SueAnn. Very, very bad SueAnn.

“Go downstairs in the basement and take those miserable things with you.” Her voice was flat. It was when her voice was devoid of emotion that I feared her the most. Feared her like a trapped animal.

I picked up the open egg carton and the pieces of the eggs, the flakes, that had scattered like shattered memories on the slate floor. I could feel her staring at the back of my neck and I hunched my shoulders to shield myself against the oncoming slap. It didn’t come. I wanted it to come. “Go ahead, hit me,” I thought to myself. “It’ll be over once you hit me.”


I got up from the floor very slowly, thinking that lightning was going to strike at any minute. I walked over to the basement stairs and I opened the door. Below me were six cement stairs and the gray cement floor of our basement. It was a small basement and it was where we kept my pets. I had two pet turtles and a pet guinea pig down there. They would keep me company when the lights went off. The sunlight would come in through the half windows until it got dark outside. Then it would be a scary place.

The lock clicked behind me and Easter was over.


salsm.jpgSueAnn Jackson-Land is a writer living in Sudbury, Ontario. She would like to be a chaplain, but is mostly just grateful to still be breathing, to be given the opportunity to learn, to forgive (and be forgiven) and go on.

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26 Responses to “Living in fear: Being raised by a mentally ill mom was like walking on eggshells”

  1. All these things that happened to you, however terrible and hurtful, are the very things that helped make you so beloved and appreciated now. What was once evil done to you, has been turned on its head and re-made into these wonderful abilities, excellent writing, creativity, vision, love and compassion. You took yourself back and changed it all. You’ve become the sword of the samurai, thrust into the fire over and over, hammered and shaped, hammered and shaped, and become excellence.

  2. What an incredibly moving story. I can hardly imagine what part 2 and 3 will be like. Thank you for sharing your pain and your wisdom (great writing too!)

  3. brave woman, i hope that you are planning on writing a book in the near future!

  4. Lots of love here for you now dear lady. You are very special. And a heck of a writer.

  5. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. You have pushed through into a better place. Congratulations on the publication!

  6. We’ve all had bad or sad stories from our childhood. I remember when my grandmother died 8 days before my 10th birthday. She was supposed to host my birthday party that year. I always loved going to see Nana and Papa at their house on Connaught Ave in Sudbury. I was heartbroken when Nana died and I’ve never forgotten how I felt at that time.

    There are others among us who have experienced true horrors in their childhood. I don’t know how people were able to endure some of the things done to them. We don’t know what strengths we have until they are stretched to the breaking point. Writing about it in a frank and open way is a way that we can be healed. I look forward to the other stories in the series.

  7. Thank you for writing again.

    I can’t wait to read the next part.

  8. The ghosts of childhood that we carry in ourselves for what seems to be ever are just that. Ghosts. Shadows of what we were and what we experienced. The truth is in how we have transformed those experiences. Some have floundered and repeated patterns, some have succumbed to their taunts and misery, and others…others have decided to enter a journey of re-discovery, despite the ghosts and shadows. Others have yearned love and have allowed it to trump all else, and there is so much power in that. Thank you for sharing your shadows.

  9. Hearing memories of overcoming childhood terrors seems to come to light more often than not these days. It’s a sad world we live in but I am proud to see that you have battled your way into a positive life as well as becoming an accomplished writer and person of faith. I will look for your 2nd and 3rd part of your story. Thank you for sharing your innermost thoughts. Forgiveness is truly part of being a Christian. Be strong my friend. God envelopes you with his love. If life has not been good to us in the past, we must change things to help others to not have to endure the atrocities that behold them.

  10. Too often it takes nearly a lifetime for the light of truth to chase away the evils of the darkness. Thank you, dear lady, for your courage to turn on your flashlight and bring the truth out into the open. Your words touch many… they always have. This new level of reaching out to the little SueAnns of the world who have yet to find the courage and strength to let go of the rocks of the past and float down the river to a new life is a gift beyond measure. I applaud you… and will continue to ask God to bless you and give you strength to be of service to others. I’m looking forward to parts 2 & 3, even though I already know the story!!! You are a wordsmith and a beautiful soul, my friend. I’m so grateful to have known you and been a part of your life! xoxoxo

  11. Now the years they melt away
    And she’s still living day by day
    And every night she thanks her lucky star
    She’s got an Angel riding high, she’s still learning how to fly
    She never thought she’d ever get this far….

    You’ve have come so far Sueannie… and still a lifetime to go. Keep growing. The drought is over and the rain has come. It’s time to flower….db

  12. SueAnn; I grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, 3 hours west of where you currently live, and I thank you for sharing your talent — and the courage and vividness of your early experiences.

    I lived a childhood with parallel experiences to yours — and on that note, thank you for your moving comments that You shared, about what I shared:

    With sharing, there is a power of letting go. You are held here, and honored. This is a sanctuary where this sharing is safe. And blessed, and healed. Paul Kaihla

  13. Thank you, Paul, for giving me the opportunity ***to be here.*** Yesterday was such a strange feeling. First — elation and then sadness. I think it is the letting go. When I read your story I had to catch my breath a couple of times because I know. I’m sure there are a lot more of us out there who know what it is to both love someone and fear them. And then to find our balance in this world. A large part of my early theology was blame, not forgiveness… and I pray with all of my being that the remaining days stay in forgiveness. And I pray that the world outside of the inner will also find that we can stay in terror — or we can choose to move on.

    I wanted to say thank you to the people who have written here, my family, my friends… and tell you that there’s more to come. I made a promise I have to keep.


  14. So very few, if any, know what goes on behind closed (basement)doors. But now we do. Thanks SueAnn. Mothers and fathers everywhere should take note of your moving story. Keep writing. Ken,Brampton Ontario

  15. SueAnn, you have that most precious of gifts, one that some writers desperately need/want but never attain, you write to people and not at people. It sounds so simple written down like that, but only writers of stature can achieve it.
    Your work moves, it is never static, it comes from your heart and heads straight to your reader exactly as you intend.
    Thank you and well done you,


  16. Hi SueAnn,
    thanks for writing this. One good thing about the internet for me is that, hopefully, one day, I will feel that i am not the only person who was terrorised as a child by a mentally ill parent.

    The HARDEST thing for me is to have shared the same space, mentally and emotionally, with my mother, and to not be able to explain to others why I feel disturbed by that experience. As a child, my mum was frequently in a rage, and would mainly speak in a tone of blame or demand. She was unable to express kindness in her voice to me, or show any emotional warmth. It effected my family a lot, but throughout it, we didn’t find a way of overcoming her fundamental rule, that love should not survive in our house. Because of how she treats others, I feel it is not safe or acceptable to show love in our house. Thankfully I no longer live with her, and that is NATURALLY resulting in healing for me as I can begin to feel normal about myself in relation to the world of people, instead of living with criticism and being stared at constantly. My mother’s eyes were very penetrating and since my teens especially I have felt like my body consisted of thin air, or that people could see all of my thoughts and feelings and I have no where to run or hide from others minds. I can’t explain any of these thoughts or feelings to anyone. I don’t even know what it is myself. All I knew at the time was that I felt out of control of my own mind around my mum, as if I wasn’t a “real” person. Her staring at me led to me feeling there was something wrong with me and that I wasn’t a person like everyone else. She seemed to be communicating this to me through her eyes. That is how it felt anyway.

    When I was at home, she would “move me” constantly, so I could not sit still for a moment comfortably without her expressing the need for me to do something. I would be knocked out of myself when she called my name, although I was not sure why this was. I lost control of leaving my body. I would do it automatically when she said my name or looked at me.

    I am now an adult and suffer from not believing that I am a person.

    If I could have chosen the course my life took, I wish that I was taken from my mother as a child so i would not have had to try to relate to a psychotic person during my growing years, blamed for her every mood, stared at constantly, and used by my family as the person having “something intrinsically wrong” with them.

    Throughout my life, i have had to hide my feelings and emotions from my mum in case they were used to prove I was a bad or useless person. I had the courage to tell my this year some truths and also demand to not be psychologically used in the family as a “bad person” when in fact, I had suffered from being abused by her, including being denied food (as a punishment) and love as a child.

    During one of these phone calls, she said that I was “born defective”, whatever that means. And the last time I spoke to her, she said that she was not Schizophrenic, but “manic depressive”, which is odd considering that she is on medication for psychosis, and has had numerous psychotic breakdowns before and after I was born. She has doesn’t experience emotions in the same ways as others, but has been “flat” for many years probably due to medication.

    I also found the lack of emotion hard to explain in its effect on my soul. The truth was, there was no one to explain it too. The illness, whatever it was, was the status quo. If anything or anyone was “wrong”….it was ME. My mother was unable to take criticism, unable to be responsive to anothers emotions or life-story, and totally neglected to tell me about my father….it was as if I didn’t have a dad. My mum just didn’t have any concept of what it was to be family.

    At the age of 9 she told me I was disturbed, as if I was an adult, responsible for every trait of personality. She didn’t mother me, but speak to me like an adult.

    At the age of 12 onwards, she expressed her desire for me to leave home. I never understood why my mum didn’t like me, God knows I tried to please her. Then again, I also hated her and lived in fear of her. It felt as though I was thinking about her and what her moods were all the time, or just generally feeling disturbed by her behavior – sitting in a chair all day smoking.

    Living with a mentally ill parent is (potentially) hell, make no mistake. And throw away remarks by people who DO NOT know what it is like piss me off.

    There is no way of describing what it is like to be terrorised by your mother’s emotional, mental and physical violence, and then blamed somehow for it, by everyone around you as if it were “your fault” or you are intrinsically “faulty”.

    Of course I am not “normal” now. But it pisses me off that everytime I meet my older sister, she says I have a character trait. That I have no humour, or take life too seriously etc. Apparently, feeling bad about having a mentally ill parent, according to her view means I am a VERY SELFISH PERSON.

    The repercussions of having a mentally ill person, or narcissistic person at the head of the family is far fetching, effecting all the children and their relationships with each other and sometimes, the wider social community.

    It is hard for me to forgive the people who allowed my mother – suffering from psychotic anxiety – to continue to raise me. My mother was emotionally unresponsive to my being sexually abused. It never occured to her that she may have had responsibility as a parent to guard me from sexual abuse. She was just “there”, watching me growing passively, perhaps standing in my way now and again, to critise me or hide food from me behind her chair – something she joked about with my younger sister.

    • The silver lining here is that psycho bitch probably isn’t going to try hunting you down, if she doesn’t “like” you. My crazy mother on the other hand “loves” me, and will stop at nothing to “help” me, in whatever way makes sense in her fucked-up brain at the moment.

      I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic, what you’ve been through sounds horrific. But at least you’re free of that horrible bitch.

  17. Rozanne,

    I hear your frustration, your anger and your grief. And it’s all out there — written, and no doubt, 15 minutes after you read your words it’s not your sister telling you that you are selfish or your mother blaming you for her issues — but it is your own mind questioning if any of them were right.

    The hardest thing about living with someone that was mentally ill is that became my normal. The hardest thing later on about learning normal was to let all of my ideas of what that normal was — go. And when you live in constant turmoil, expectations are all you have as your control. The anger is fear… and the fear can be resolved within Rozanne. My mother will forever be exactly who she was — living or dead, it was her mental illness, not mine. No matter the blame, no matter the chaos — all is stilled by putting one foot in front of the other and continuing on in peace… in stolid determination.

    Thank you for your sharing.

  18. SueAnn, Have I told you lately that I love you? As one of your “mothers”, I want you to know that I am so proud of the strong, wise, loving, beautiful and accomplished woman you have become. Oh yeah, and your writin’ ain’t half bad either!


  19. Thank you for sharing your personal and poignant story. Unfortunately, I can all too well relate to your childhood. I am the eldest of five daughters. On the outside, my mother appears cheery, helpful, and seemingly like a total people person.

    Our family knows much different. Please know that this is not coming from a place of judging, yet a place of taking stock of my life. There has always been a sort of weird dynamic with my mother. She maintains some sort of obsession that my father was molesting me. She used to proselytize to my childhood friends, and once during a slumber party, she had a notion that I was making fun of her. She punched me squarely in the nose as a corrective measure.

    I hid under the bed, while my friends played, none the wiser, in the living room. That was the first time that I felt extreme coldness. This coldness is a sensation that I still fight feeling to this very day.

    I am 36 years old, and as I type this I am reeling from yet another episode with my mother. Today, on Christmas Eve no less, my mother took offense to Lord knows what and had a meltdown of epic proportions. She stood in my face, hand posed for as slap, and demanded that I enter her house saying “Thank You.” The bewildered look on my face must have been most inflammatory because she proceed to backhand me. I blocked the slap, and my sisters tried to restrain her, as I was in total defense mode and about to have a meltdown of my own.

    As my father swept the carpet, the house erupted in sad, sorry chaos. Truth be told, I’ve not moved far away from the event to fully explain it.

    In my online search for “raised by mother with mental illness,” I came across this page. By divine Providence I’ve been able to have a healthy family life, though we’re not devoid of our own struggles, we are blessed to have peace in our home.

    It’s so sad to think that there are many others going through the same sadness, the coldness. Please, whoever may be reading this, be encouraged and DO FORGIVE. It’s the only way to move on. No one says that we have to forget. It’s how we fight the cold. In spite of it all,

    Happy Holidays and Best Wishes

  20. Thanks for writing this. I just found out 45 years too late that my parents were both mentally ill. And, in my searches, I’m only finding articles sympathetic to the parents–not the children whose lives were destroyed. I hope I can find your Parts 2, 3, and 4 of this blog.

  21. Thank you for your time dedicated to write this. You are not the only one that has a chameleon type of mother. My mom is a double sided person and always makes other people feel bad for her about having to deal with [me]. Until I live out by myself and without her I don’t believe I can escape her grasp. My best solution is to avoid her as much as possible. And indefinably keep your kids away from her.

  22. thank you for sharing this story. i too live with a mentally ill mother who is so pleasant to the outside world, but a horrible hateful bitter person in my home. she screams, cusses, hits, throws things, and literally has me mentally beaten down all the time. she calls me fat ugly and a b. the only reason i am sticking around isto get my college degree in fire safety and to get the heck out of here and never look back. i see people and friends who have the “best friend” relationship with their mom, i so wish i could have that. but how do you help someone who refuses to believe they have a problem. thank you for sharing, glad to know someone knows what i am going through.

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  24. It was very refreshing to read this. My own mother was the same way. Perfect in public, a psycho in private. The worst is that everyone I know seems to want to piss and moan about how their mommy didn’t “love” them enough (whatever the hell that means), so I will never get any sympathy for my own mommy issues; I’m supposed to be “grateful” for all the attention the nut gave me. I’m 27 and living a city away from her and still can’t shake the fear that she’s around the next room, about to slide in and sabotage whatever I’m doing.