The mother of all feeling
Reprinted from "Parenting" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2(2), pp. 20-21
When I was a teenager I blamed my mother for a lot of things: my big ears, my geeky highschool reputation, my lack of fashion sense to name a few. But my mental illness wasn't one of them. This did not, however, exempt my mom from feeling the mother of all feelings: guilt. In 1992, I had my first psychotic episode. Over the next three years, I had two further episodes, both landing me in the psych ward, alternating with suicidal depressions and manic highs. The eventual verdict: rapid cycling, mixed state, bipolar disorder with mild temporal lobe epilepsy and generalized anxiety disorder. But even after the fourth and final psychosis (where police found me running gleefully naked in West Point Grey), I refused to accept the label of a mental illness.
My parents were very familiar with the ups and downs of bipolar disorder. In the mid 1970's, after years of yo-yoing emotions and chronic anxiety, my mother was diagnosed with what was then called manic-depression. When I landed in the hospital, things started to make sense for my parents. The confusing puzzle pieces of my moody adolescence and university years fell into place and they realized what I had been fighting. For me though, I thought my flights into excitement and enthusiasm (a euphemism at best) and spirals into despair were none other than true dramatic 'charm' and talent. I was an actress at the time.
Take medication? For a mental illness? Hell, this was my gift. Agree to any label of pathology and my artistic ability would vanish. Or so I thought. What I didn't understand was if I didn't accept the mantle of mental illness, my career and life would quickly crash and burn. And so it did. With techno-colored detail.
"I felt guilty. Tremendously guilty," my mother says, when asked how she felt when I was first diagnosed. "Mental illness is partly genetic."
Depression and bipolar disorder run on both sides of the family. But I never thought to blame my parents for the affliction. I was furious at them for other reasons. The helping hand they extended, I saw as only parental meddling and intrusiveness. Yes, as I was an only child, my folks overprotected me; but after my hospitalizations when I was living in a rooming house, with a hot plate, on welfare, and devastatingly depressed, you can't really say their concern was unwarranted.
"I felt so helpless. I didn't want to leave you alone. And nothing I did seemed to help," my mother tells me, "and you were an adult, so we couldn't force you to do anything."
My family, like most others, was far from perfect. But my mother and father offered me something I know has been and still is essential to my mental health and sadly lacking for many others in their struggle with psychiatric disorders: compassion, empathy and unconditional support.
I know many whose families disowned them once they were diagnosed with a mental disorder. 'Not in this family' is the motto. Abandonment and rejection can be lethal - literally. When I worked as a mental health worker at the Kettle Friendship Society on the Downtown Eastside, it was not the drugs and alcohol I saw take the most toll, but the lack of support, family or otherwise. I also know people who fought, hard, to get a family member off the streets, but found it impossible. In order to save their own sanity, they were forced to keep a safe distance.
Growing up in a home with a mother not yet diagnosed with manic-depression, was no easy road. But I was fortunate: my mom was finally and properly assessed by the time I was nine years old.
My mom's illness ironically played a largely healing role in my life. She knew intimately what I meant when I said 'not only did I not want to get up in the morning, but could not get up: that it seemed I no longer had a choice'. My mother would listen, nod and say two of the most curative words there are: 'I understand'. And she did.
"If I hadn't had bipolar disorder myself," my mom explains, "I wouldn't have accepted your diagnosis as easily. My own illness helped me understand what you were going through."
Empathy and validation cannot be underestimated. Phrases such as: 'it makes sense you don't want to talk to anyone when you feel this hopeless' or 'it must hard to even take a shower' have implicit acceptance and immeasurable therapeutic power. Hearing: 'tell me more about what it feels like?' is a restorative balm both my mother and father applied to my soul.
My mother went through many depressions and manias. My father went through it with her. Psychosis? That they never went through. Until me.
'It was so scary. I was afraid you'd never 'come back'; that we'd lost you forever. You were rambling, making no sense at all. I had never seen anything like it. I didn't know what to do.'
Still she and my father had only love for me. Okay, and the occasional swear word and slamming door when I pushed them too far.
When my mom had to be admitted to the hospital for severe depression and I was only eight years old, my dad kindly explained she was very tired and needed help to get healthy again.
We're walking down a hallway. Pale cream painted walls, shadows of nurses and the smell of stale air. It's quiet. Very quiet. Except for the swoosh-swoosh of a patient's slippers on the hospital floor outside my mother's room. A woman I don't know is sleeping on her side, curled up in blankets in a near-by bed.
My mother with a tight smile is propped up by pillows. She's very thin, pale. Green hospital gowns don't look good on anyone though. I start to cry warm tears and hug her.
I don't regret my father took me to see her. I think I only went once. My father worried it upset me too much. But I was happy to see her, no matter how or where she was. At nine, it doesn't matter how often someone tells you your mom is okay. I needed to see for myself.
Over the next couple years my mother and father worked together to find the right treatment and medication. She never went into the hospital again. I admire her and my dad for accepting her diagnosis so readily. Denial of my mom's disorder would have been far more damaging to me.
"To have a better life, I needed to accept I had a mental illness. I never told anyone, except the immediate family. It was a secret. There was such stigma. There still is, of course." My mother sighs. "When I think back to what I put you through, it must have been awful," my mom, smiles a sad smile, then with a laugh, "but you got us back good, didn't you?"
"Yeah," I pipe back, "Thank goodness I didn't run naked around the block when I lived with you and Dad, huh?"
"Am I ever glad!"
My father and mother's signature humour is also hereditary.
About the author
Victoria Maxwell is the owner of Crazy for Life Co., a company specializing in keynotes, workshops and performances for corporations and conferences on a range of mental health topics. Her one-person show, Crazy for Life, her true-lie story of overcoming bipolar disorder, tours throughout North America and Europe. Victoria welcomes inquiries and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
*BFA: Bachelor of Fine Arts / BPP: Bi-Polar Princess