Love NOLA: The words of a mother who has lost her family to mental illness
To hear Brett Will Taylor's New Orleans take on mental health on WWNO radio, click here.
Today's Love NOLA is a little different. Rather than my words, it contains mainly the words of Eleanor Chapman. Eleanor is the mother of Chelsea Thornton, the bipolar schizophrenic woman who killed her two young children, Kelsey and Kendell, last October. Eleanor and I have gotten to know each other since through that tragedy. A few weeks ago, she and I caught up at the annual Tuba Fats Tuesday celebration. It was a little more than a week before Mother’s Day. It was a classic New Orleans moment. Sitting on the hood of old red Chevrolet, drinking Heinekens out of bottles wrapped in brown paper bags, I mostly listened as Eleanor talked…really talked…about her life since that terrible day.
There are times when a writer needs to interpret words, and then, there are times when you just get out of the way and let the words stand raw and bare...and speak for themselves.
What’s Mother’s Day going to be like? It’s going to be hard. But every day is hard. Chelsea’s locked up. She’s my only child. Kelsey and Kendell are dead. They’re my only grandbabies. They’re not coming back. None of them.
And that’s hard. Because I’m the mama. You ask any mother, she’ll tell you, there’s a bond with your child that nothing can break. It never weakens. You’ll do anything for your child. Anything at all. To keep them safe. To make them happy. And, then, when it’s your grandbabies, well that’s a special kind of bond. I never felt anything like it.
That’s why, when it was Kelsey’s birthday and when it was Kendell’s birthday, I got up and took cupcakes to their daycare. You know, for their friends. And then I’d go and take balloons to their graves. And cry.
A few weeks ago, when it started getting warmer, I took Chelsea her summer clothes. Up at the hospital. She asked me how her babies were. She doesn’t know what she did.
I just told her they’re fine. Why would I tell my daughter that she killed her babies? Why would any mother do that?
Chelsea loved her children. You ask anybody. They were always clean and dressed and well-behaved. They were happy. Chelsea would never have hurt them if she were in her right mind. What mother would? Those are your babies.
She wasn’t a bad mother. She was in a bad system.
And we did everything we could to make that system work. Everything. I remember days when we only had enough money for a one-way bus ticket to the clinic in Central City. We’d take the bus, all of us, and then we would walk---hand-in-hand--all he way back. Because we didn’t have any money. We didn’t have any other way.
But it wasn’t enough. The system wouldn’t let her get what she needed to stay well.
And so, here I am. It hurts. It takes everything I have to get up and just get dressed. I’m only here today because I knew my cousins would be here. But it hurts. Even right now, talking to you. It just hurts.
That’s my family. Those are my babies. And they’re gone.
It hurts, but I get up most days. One of the reasons why is so nobody has to go through what my family has. Ever since what happened with Chelsea and my grandbabies, people call me when they're in trouble. They want me to come sit with them or something. I tell them I will but that me sitting with them ain't going to change things. They need help. So I tell them to call the crisis number*, I've even called for them sometimes.
I know they can help. They helped Chelsea before, but just not enough people know about it. But if they call, they can help.
*May is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you’re looking for one thing you can do to honor Chelsea and the nearly 58 million—yes, million—American adults who will have a mental illness this year, please put 504-826-2675 in your speed dial. That's the number to the 24/7 crisis team offered by the state-run Metropolitan Human Services District. It's not the police, rather it's a team of specially trained professionals who can counsel and assess over the phone, who will even come to your house if need be. They will stay with you until the crisis is resolved (be it a matter of hours or weeks).
Today’s column is dedicated to Kendall Adams, Kelsey Adams, Chelsea Thornton…and Eleanor Chapman.
Brett Will Taylor is a southern storyteller whose previous column, Love NOLA, appeared weekly on NolaVie. The Diving Board Chronicles are Will’s occasional check-ins and observations from his indefinite road trip to indeterminate places west. Follow him @bwtshaman.