It came to my attention that July is Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. Before it was declared in 2008 by the U.S. House of Representatives, mental health treatment and services needed more attention, as well as public awareness of mental illness in general, especially where minorities are concerned.
I’d never heard of her until today, but I see that Campbell’s body of work, which included eight books, three of which became New York Times best sellers, seems to be almost entirely autobiographical, even her novels. That fact gives me faith that I am also on the right path, and I am inspired by her awards: a 1978 Professional Woman’s Literature Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts Literature grant, received in 1980.
In 2005, the year before her death, she wrote a book called, “Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry,” the story of a young girl who must learn how to cope with her mother’s bipolar illness.
Naturally, my curiosity was piqued. Campbell’s book could have been about anyone in her family, but who? I love a good mystery, but don’t love the thud of an unanswered question. I dug deeper, and was empowered with a few simple clicks. Then my heart exploded when I discovered what seemed like a personal message for me.
Mental hiccup: I wonder if the universe is nothing but a giant maze with clues scattered along the way, and my choice to either take them to heart or disregard them is what writes the story of my life. That theory could make anyone an author. However, I want my story to be anything sad.
My heart beats like a drum for my beautiful teenagers, but my work keeps me from them for several of our waking hours. Sometimes our longest conversation is me telling them to be careful crossing the street before they go out with their friends. Then I pray silently for a minute for their safety, and get back to my work in the silent house.
When the reality of the largely looming bills hits me for the 90th time in the day, I rationalize that we all must have our own lives, even my children, whose baby-botched words still ring in my ears and make me smile. You could say that the love and pain I feel surrounding our whole existence together is in perfect balance.
But can a mother love too much for her own good?
That question comes to mind now that I have solved my little mystery du jour, which has nothing to do with me, though it might if I’m not more mindful of the time I spend with my children going forward.
After reading this segment from Campbell’s book, I drew one possible conclusion.
Some mornings, Annie's mother's smiles are as bright as sunshine as she makes pancakes for breakfast and helps Annie get ready for school.
But other days, her mother doesn't smile at all and gets very angry. Those days Annie has to be a big girl and make her own breakfast, and even put herself to bed at night. But Annie's grandma helps her remember what to do when her mommy isn't well, and her silly friends are there to cheer her up. And no matter what, Annie knows that even when Mommy is angry on the outside, on the inside she never stops loving her.
This synopsis of her novel, “72-hour Hold,” backed up my theory that her family member with bipolar is her daughter, Maia, though I still wasn’t sure.
Trina is eighteen and suffers from bi-polar disorder, making her paranoid, wild, and violent. Frightened by her own child, Keri searches for help, quickly learning that the mental health community can only offer her a seventy-two hour hold. After these three days Trina is off on her own again. Fed up with the bureaucracy and determined to save her daughter by any means necessary, Keri signs on for an illegal intervention known as The Program, launching them both on a terrifying journey.
Following my hunch, I googled Maia Campbell, and made the virtual stumble upon a video of Maia, the former TV star, in her final conversation with her mother, post-mortem. She was on an episode of the reality show, Iyanla: Fix My Life, starring relationship expert, Iyanla Vanzant.
While her mother lay dying with brain cancer, Maia struggled with drug addiction, self-medicating her own pain from childhood.
“Talk to your mother,” urges Iyanla, toward the large photograph of Campbell. “Tell her how you feel.”
Maia calls her Mommy. “I wish I could be everything you wanted me to be. I know I made a lot of mistakes. I just wanted you to pay attention to me. I always wanted your approval, your acceptance. I’m sorry I wasn’t there the nights that you were sick. I just felt like I was gonna be in the way. But you caused me a lot of pain…”
Iyanla says, “Help her understand, Maia, how her baby girl ended up a dope fiend in the streets. She died with that heartbreak….”
With surprising bravery, Maia says, “I was running from a lot of pain that you caused me. I loved you, but I hated you sometimes. You never accepted me as I was and that made me feel lonely and desperate.”
Iyanla says, “You felt distant from her. Tell me about that.”
Maia responds, “…that time she put her work ahead of everything else.”
Iyanla asks her if she’s aware of neglecting her own daughter because of her drug addiction. “She did it to you and now you are doing it to your daughter.”
It is a relief to hear Maia say, “I need to put that behind me so I can continue to grow. I want to forgive you,” she says to her mother’s photograph.
Unfortunately, Campbell was born into a troubled family dynamic. Yet, she still managed to do good work, all the while trying to make sense of the clues in the maze of her own life.
Campbell was co-founder of the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) Urban Los Angeles and the national spokesperson. Understand that Maia’s bipolar played a part in her perspective, too. Maybe Campbell’s logical response to Maia’s illness, rather than her personal response, was to disappear into her work.
Please help me try not to completely filter my personal challenges into my work.
The year before she died, Campbell said in yet another interview while protecting her daughter’s identity, "Once my loved one accepted the diagnosis, healing began for the entire family, but it took too long. It took years. Can't we, as a nation, begin to speed up that process? We need a national campaign to destigmatize mental illness, especially one targeted toward African Americans. The message must go on billboards and in radio and TV public service announcements. It must be preached from pulpits and discussed in community forums. It's not shameful to have a mental illness. Get treatment. Recovery is possible."
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