Big Judy's Joy
(by Mahogany Reynolds)
Losing my mom five years ago was the hardest experience of my adult life. We had a rather unique relationship, filled with both joy and drama. My mom was a force of nature. She was tall, bold, beautiful, and could put any Hollywood diva to shame with her ample curves and sassy attitude. Her family nickname was “Big Judy.” When I was a little girl, I’d marvel at my mom’s round hips and lavish personality. She was a lot to take in. And a lot to handle.
When she got older, she still had that sass, but the years started to slow her down. She became dependent on a wheelchair, and she hated it. She resented not being able to get up and shake those hips to her favorite Motown tunes—the music of Detroit, Michigan, where she was born and raised.
Our time together was a mixture of laughter and tears. Dancing and drama. Support and disagreements. It felt like a roller coaster. Up and down. Twist and turn. Forward and backward. There was a medical explanation, but her bipolar disorder was something I never fully understood until I was a freshman in college. Up to that point, whenever my mom was having a manic episode, members of my family would just say, “Your mom’s sick, and she has to go to the hospital for a little while.” As a child, I thought “sick” meant a sore throat or a stuffy nose. I didn’t understand why they opted to use that word to describe my mom’s mental health challenge. Looking back, I’ve come to realize it was out of both shame and fear.
Mental illness is still something that’s a source of shame in our society. So many families are fearful and uncomfortable with addressing, discussing, sharing, and supporting mental illness. Too many young people struggle in isolation, just like my mom did when she was a young woman.
Once I started college, I made it my quest to educate myself about my mom’s periodic “sickness,” the way she could go from uber-happy to uber-sad in seconds. I enrolled in a psychology class that opened my eyes and softened my heart towards my mother’s condition, and I took that knowledge back to my family: “My mom is not sick. She has bipolar disorder. Some people call it manic-depression. So stop calling her sick and show her some damn support.” I inherited my mom’s gusto, so speaking boldly comes naturally to me. Here I was, a college freshman, and some of my family thought I had a lot of nerve telling them, grown folks, what they should and should not do. But I didn't back down.
That was a turning point in my relationship with my mom. She was not present when I confronted my family because I knew the topic would be much too sensitive for her. But later, I went to visit her, and she said tearfully, "Thank you. You are the only one who understands me." From that point on, I did my best to empathize rather than criticize my mom for her wondrously complicated personality. Ultimately I became her advocate. And I came to understand that it was a role I’d played since I was five or six years old: sticking up for my mommy.
Looking back on those times, I am reminded of the days in our one-bedroom apartment in Detroit, when my mom would make my favorite after-school snack: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Simple, yet delightful. I would sit at the kitchen table, and she’d bring the yummy sandwich with a glass of milk and two slices of orange. These were some of the happiest moments of my childhood.
Peanut butter and jelly is, in fact, a unique combination. There’s an extreme contrast in the ingredients—different textures, flavors, and colors—but when put together, they create something marvelous. Similarly, my mom’s bipolar disorder worked together with her gusto. She was in fact, the ultimate peanut butter and jelly joy.
Mahogany Reynolds is an actress, coach, writer, producer, director, and founder of Just Be You Performing Arts, a mentoring and enrichment program. She lives in the metro New York area. She can be found at www.mahoganyreynolds.com, on