I'm Nobody! Who are you?
By Emily Dickinson
I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us — don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
When we are born, we are usually given a name which allows others to identify who we are. It tells people the ancestors we came from and what others call us to differentiate one person from another. It is a label used for the mark that we make on the world. The name Einstein is synonymous with relativity, Mozart is known for music, and Michelangelo's trademark is art. Burdette Colburn is not one of those people. In fact, her name wasn't even Burdette. It was a variation of Burnette that morphed into a new name entirely as paperwork was transferred between lawyers, clerks, secretaries, and psychiatrists. The identity she was born with transmuted into an existence of a paranoid schizophrenic that frequented the now fire ravaged and dilapidated halls of Bryce Mental Institution. This woman was my maternal grandmother.
Old Bryce Hospital in February of 2023
The 1950's generate pictures of a country prospering following World War II. Images of sock hops, drive-ins, diners, suburbs, and perfectly groomed people play in ones head with a soundtrack of Elvis, Fats Domino, or Bobby Darin on repeat in the background. This was about the time my mother was born to a severely mentally ill woman who, when she was well, was able to give the illusion normalcy to others. Throughout my mother's childhood, she had periods with a "mother" who genuinely seemed to love her child to moments with a mad woman who exhibited bizarre behavior that ranged from embarrassing to reckless. Ultimately, Burnette would end up in various mental institutions throughout the country, and my mother decided to abandon the idea of a relationship with Burnette when she pulled out gun and threatened her at the top of a carnival ferris wheel in Alabama. Due to this and a few incidents later, Burnette's final home would be Bryce Mental Institution before she was sent to a hospice to spend her final days of life.
This was one of the many times my grandfather had to bring my grandmother to court.
It is hard for me to imagine the range of emotions my mother endured. The one person that was supposed to have cared for her and nurture her the most was also the one she feared the most. Despite being raised with such a woman, my mother managed to become a very loving person who wanted nothing more than the happiness of her children, but that does not mean she was not impacted. As a child, I remember my mom always being worried of being followed by Burnette. Although my mom always smiled to the outside world, she had a sadness and anxiety that was unseen by most. Sometimes she would outwardly grapple with the meaning behind living. This is understandable because she had no mother to call and ask for advice or give her reassurance in moments when life became hard. Instead, she had a mother that she feared would cause her harm. Without a doubt, my mother had experienced intense emotional trauma.
By the 1980's Burnette had become a ward of the state.
Just like running in a relay, the traumas are knowingly and unknowingly passed to the children. Living with someone who has a mental illness can have a huge impact on who you become. Schemas developed by one generation are oftentimes passed down to another. Unhealed trauma can be felt by their children's children, for I too grapple with anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. It is hard to tell if this is genetic or something learned. I try to work though my problems by writing songs; however, I do sometimes feel that everything I do is in vain and lacks no real meaning or purpose.
Burnette Colburn lost everything and everyone; eventually, she even lost her name. Lying in an unmarked grave in Tuscaloosa, Alabama is another Eleanor Rigby wedged between two complete strangers. I sit and ponder if pieces of the woman who shares the same birthday as me is inside of me. To an outside observer I have so much, I have a decent job, an amazing husband, 2 college degrees, 2 beautiful children, and nice things, but I cannot help but think that I am going to die one day. I too will be forgotten like many before me and many to come. In her moments of sanity, did "Burdette" have the same thoughts as me, and did she know what she would ultimately become? Will I go mad and be intolerable to my own children? Will I too be a Burdette Colburn lying in a cemetery along a busy highway with no headstone to let anyone ever know who I was? Perhaps Emily Dickinson, who also shares a birthday with me and Burnette, is right. Maybe I don't want to be a somebody because, ultimately, it is all pointless.