By Nicole Hennessy
As a small child, Anika Francis knew her mother “had a sickness of the mind,” but she didn’t yet understand exactly what mental illness was.
A former homecoming queen, daughter of a respected middle class family and a college graduate, her mother, Sakeenah Francis, began experiencing symptoms related to paranoid schizophrenia in her midtwenties.
She started cutting people out of her life, hallucinating and hearing voices.
And “voices do not tell you good things; they tell you bad things,” she explained.
But Sakeenah, like many people with mental illness, didn’t realize she was sick. These developments in her life were just as real to her as trips to the grocery store and family dinners.
Soon, her husband left her and she was taken to the first of many mental hospitals, where she experienced convulsions due to improper medication and restraints for breaking rules as simple as not going to bed by 11 p.m.
At other hospitals she’d find herself in padded cells for days at a time, with nothing but the floor to eat and sleep on.
Recalling the moment of her diagnosis, she wrote in a letter to her daughter, “I was 25 years old and I thought the world was mine. To say I was upset about being locked up for the first time is an understatement. I was mortified, angry and confused.
“The windows were black-tinted so the patients couldn’t look outside, a good thing for me since I thought cloud formations were God-directed.”
After being successfully treated for a few years, the voices came back, telling Sakeenah to go to Connecticut.
So she and Anika went, staying with friends who ended up kicking them out two weeks later.
Homeless for the night, they slept on the steps of a church.
Then, in the morning, Sakeenah was taken to another hospital, where she was forced into a straightjacket. Anika, not even 5 years old at the time, screaming as she took in the scene, with less than 20 cents her mother had given her rattling around in her pocket, waited for her grandparents to take her back to Cleveland.
After being on and off medicine and through the constantly revolving doors of hospitals for much of the 1980s and 1990s, Sakeenah began to realize the importance of staying on her medicine, no matter how “off” it made her feel. Since then she has begun rebuilding her life, volunteering at various mental health organizations and speaking to others struggling with illnesses.
Prompted by her National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) group to write speeches and read them at hospitals, Sakeenah began sending what she wrote to Anika, who told her, “Mom, you ought to write a book.”
Five years later, this past February, “Love’s All That Makes Sense” – a mother-daughter memoir written by both women – was published.
Alternating between their points of view, the book begins with Anika asking, “Have you ever been cruising through life on autopilot, barely paying attention to the road, when you hit something that jolts you awake?”
“Well, that’s how it was for me when my mother’s first letter arrived.”
Going on to describe Sakeenah’s usually lighthearted letters she’d grown so used to, as she read this letter, she realized her mother “was no longer willing to take her secrets to the grave.”
“Dear, Anika,” chapters begin, whole portions of decades following, memories of family bonds and dark, lonely times. Every small detail of her life – the personal stories that separate women from mothers in the eyes of their children – adolescent rebellion and early married life, for example.
“My life was like Cinderella’s in reverse,” Sakeenah explains on page eight.
In longtime recovery, she uses these stories to encourage others to push past their own illnesses and seek out a healthy future, speaking nationally since publishing her memoir.
“You plan for things in life and some things you don’t plan for,” she said. “And I didn’t plan for mental illness.”
SIDE BAR: Sakeenah Francis will be reading from her memoir, “Love Is All That Makes Sense,” at the Lakewood Public Library tomorrow beginning at 7 p.m., where the book will be for sale. The event is free and open to the public.