She appears eminently sane. Logical. Cognizant.

But she’s not.

She would never be certified as insane. Personality disorders don’t define her. She’s certainly not bi-polar, schizophrenic, ADHD, etc.

But she’s definitely not quite sane.

She’s spent her life flirting with the fine edge of insanity.

I first noticed that something was wrong with my mother when my sister, Dwyn, was five years old. As we older siblings played, we could hear Mam’s voice rising and falling in the background, yelling at Dwyn. What could she possible have done, we wondered. Our sweet little sister was rarely naughty or disobedient. Yet, the yelling lasted for at least thirty minutes. Later, through her sobs, Dwyn told me, “My friend gave me a cookie and I ate it.” That was Dwyn’s crime.

Born two months premature, Dwyn spent her first month in Critical Care. While we older siblings enjoyed fairly normal childhoods, Dwyn (now healthy) was haunted by our mother who became increasingly over-protective and paranoiac until the rest of us privately wondered if Mam was even sane anymore.

Mam yelled. A lot. Dwyn cried. A lot. That was the pattern.

Anything could set her off. Something Dwyn said at school. Mild childish naughtiness. Kids bullying Dwyn for being the shortest child at school. All of it infuriated Mam who lashed out at Dwyn.

But what upset her most was germs. She had a pathological horror of germs. A whacked-out cleanliness regimen Dwyn was supposed to flawlessly follow (at school) for avoiding germs. Microbes. Infections. Creepy crawlies.

Running germs a close second was Mam’s groundless paranoia that her husband was straying. Da was the soul of fidelity, straight as an arrow. But Mam never stopped suspecting him, accusing him, interrogating him. When my sisters and I went through puberty, Mam became convinced we had sexual designs on our own father. From lingerie to feminine hygiene products, and even menstrual blood, she convinced herself we were flaunting it all to get our father into our beds. It’s a belief she’s never gotten over.

The root of Mam’s near insanity was her shear, pathological fear. Fear of life. Fear of bereavement. Fear of widowhood. Fear of germs. Fear of illness. Fear of danger. Fear of car accidents. Fear of rape. Fear of bankruptcy. Fear of meddlers. Fear of Peeping Toms. Fear of ‘leaving a paper trail’. Fear of gossip. Fear of abandonment. Fear of death.

We’re all afraid. Life is tough and there are zero guarantees. We live with that fear, day in and day out, bearing up, ignoring it, doing our best, planning for the future, reaching out for help when necessary. But Mam gave in to her fears a long time ago, even though none of them have actually come true. She lives in her fears, entertains them, basks in them, preaches them to anyone who will listen.

Thus the curtains at our windows became heavier, darker, lest anyone see into the house. Fighting germs became a full-time job. No one was allowed professional haircuts lest they catch lice. Journals in ‘Dear Diary’ had to immediately torn up, lest we leave a paper trail for anyone to read about our family. After awhile, Mam stopped going anywhere, even refusing to step outside to pick up the post. One time we came home to find her hot, flushed and triumphant from burning all of her important papers, believing them to be infested with bugs.

To survive, she forced Da, my two sisters, my brother and I to take care of her. To be her emissaries to the outside world. To buy her clothes and deliver her food. To earn the money for her existence.

To our shame, we humoured her. Were at her beck and call. We facilitated her insanity. Made it possible, even comfortable. She, in return, tried to assuage her conscience by making her insanity ‘normal.’ How did she do this?

By forcing it on us. She preached fear and danger. Censured us for taking risks. Tried to force her lifestyle upon us, expecting us to be at home most of time with exceptions for making money and purchasing essentials. One by one, we escaped her clutches, choosing living life over a living death in her Miss Havisham-esque home. Dwyn was the last to leave. Mam fought Dwyn having a life of her own tooth and nail, sometimes with rage, sometimes with tears. Even after Da had died and we’d all grown-up, we still took care of our Mam.

Then we made one of the hardest decisions we’ve ever made: we abandoned our mother.

Rather than play her game and cater to her paranoia, we did the hardest yet the most loving thing we could do. We abandoned her to sink or swim independently. We stopped delivering food from the supermarket. Stopped buying her new clothes or giving her our hand-me-downs. Stopped driving her to the doctor. We left our Miss Havisham to sink or swim alone. She’d done it once when we were young. We knew she could do it again.

And guess what!?!

She swam!

The woman who once refused to leave her home, now does her own shopping.

The woman who was a shut-in, terrified of the rapists and dogs she was sure were lurking everywhere, now takes strolls in her neighborhood and pets the local pooches.

She’s even got a boyfriend!

I’m not saying she’s the poster child for mental health, but she’s better.

My point is that we did our mother no favors by catering to her borderline insanity, by pandering to her paranoia. No! We inadvertently played right into her mental illness. When we stopped living in her cockeyed world, she stopped living in it too.

There is hope for those who flirt with the fine edge of insanity, but sometimes love must be terribly tough. It’s the only way they can be cured.