Ellen was an exotic beauty with black hair and deep dark brown eyes that seemed to be flirtatious and mischievous even when she was engaged in a mundane conversation. In her younger days she boasted a perfect hour glass figure but even as she aged and carried extra weight she was still utterly attractive. Her mind was keen and few were ever able to outsmart her. When she smiled she warmed an entire room. People quite naturally loved her. She didn’t have to expend extra energy to entice them but she always did. She was known for her generous spirit and empathy, always the first not just to notice pain and suffering but to respond with kindness. She was a sprite, a free spirit undefined by societal norms. Her confidence was such that she would have treated a famous dignitary exactly the same way that she did a homeless soul. She was one of a kind, a rare individual so blessed with beauty and brains and a bold outlook on life that she stood out even in a crowded room.
Ellen was my mother and she was larger than life in every imaginable way. She was the rock on which the foundation of our family was built, particularly after our father died when she was only thirty years old and we were small children. The trauma of our daddy’s death marked the first time that I saw her flounder. It was frightening for me to watch her grief explode so publicly. For a time she appeared to be a stranger with a faraway look in her eyes. She was not present for anyone. We might have burned down the house and she would barely have noticed. A slow transformation was beginning inside her mind that would alter her. It was not of her own making. It was not who she really was. It was the product of a mental illness that would from time to time overtake her in ways that seemed to destroy her very essence.
At first we barely noticed what was happening. Somehow she willed herself to return to her normal state. She had important work to do. She was now the mother and the father in our family. She had to provide and nurture. She could ill afford to drown in her tears or spend much time in a sorrowful state. She donned a mask that announced to the world that she was back, her old self ready to tackle any challenges that came her way. For a time she did a remarkable job of convincing all of us that her heart was a bit dented but not badly damaged. Still there were signs of her slow deterioration that we did not see. We hardly noticed how easily her feelings were often hurt, something that had not been part of her personality in the past. She appeared to get sick more often, sometimes staying in bed for days. We would see signs that she had been crying but then she would smile to reassure us and we forgot to consider that she might still be in pain. She shouldered so much hurt and responsibility without ever speaking of it. Perhaps we all expected perfection when we should have known that she was only human.
Ellen attempted to be all things in all situations but the stress ate away at her. She was teaching school, attending college, paying bills, keeping the home in order, caring for her aging mother, and always being a kind of super mom. After ten years of courageous effort her facade cracked wide open and the bipolar disorder that had been smoldering inside her brain became full blown. Her transformation into the world of mental illness was complete and it was as frightening as anything she or we had ever experienced.
She closed the windows and the blinds and turned off the air conditioner even though it was the hottest part of the summer. She took to her bed and openly cried almost continuously. She whispered her fears which were paranoid to the extreme. She believed that our family was under attack from a nameless group bound to the idea of ruining us. She was certain that we would be put away into some jail without a trial. She worried that all of the food in her home had been poisoned. Her eyes were dull and darted around the room in fear. Her hands shook continuously and her breathing was labored. She would not eat and could not sleep. She was certain that she was going to die or that she may have already done so. Her dark and tiny world was filled with enemies and intrigue. She trusted no one. She was paralyzed in a state of panic from which she saw no escape. She had been transformed into a stranger who did not resemble my mother in any way.
I underwent my own transformation in that time. I had to vanquish my youth and accept responsibility for my mother and my younger brothers. I could no longer afford to be shy and backward. I had to quickly learn how to assert myself. I became a voice for our family. I assumed the mantle that had been thrust upon me. It felt uncomfortable and I disliked having to take control of the situation. It meant that I had to make difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions. I had no idea back then that this would become part of my destiny or that my mother would suffer from her disease for the rest of her life. Her illness would become the backdrop for our family for the next forty four years. It never went away and it was painful to watch.
There were moments when my charismatic mother reemerged in all of her glory and magnificence. Those were the best of times but they never lasted for long. Again and again the fearful broken woman would replace her and my brothers and I would battle to save her mind. We settled into a routine of vigilance that mostly worked but each time that we believed the impossible, namely that she was cured, we would be proven wrong. We learned that her illness was chronic and that it could be controlled but only so much. Medications would work for a time and then their effectiveness would lessen or they would produce serious side effects that precluded their use.
She gained weight from the chemicals coursing through her body. She felt fuzzy. It was not a state that she enjoyed. She would rebel from time to time, hiding her medications under sofas and beds, pretending to swallow them when they were tucked under her tongue. She argued that she did not need the treatments that we forced on her. Our relationship was often tense and confusing. She was supposed to be the beloved matriarch but she often felt like the child. None of us liked the situation but we understood what the consequences of ignoring our duties to her would be. We had seen what happened whenever we became complacent.
Somehow the transformation of my mother and our family had its positive effects as well. We became closer than we might have been. We celebrated and appreciated her moments of good health with more gusto than we might otherwise have done. We worked together and learned what is most important in life. We never took each other for granted. The curse of mental illness that had descended on our world turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It made us all better individuals. We learned to value people and to understand them. We became more observant and noticed when those around us were suffering. All in all we were much nicer than we had been before.
Mental illness stalks its victims with a vengeance but we learned that it need not win. Our mother’s life was more painful that it should have been but she managed to accomplish great things in spite of the disorder that lurked inside her brain. It slowed her down but it did not cripple her. It reshaped our family but not always in bad ways. Our transformation made us strong and resilient.
Ellen died at the age of eighty four. On her final days there was no sign of her mental illness. She was once again restored to the perfection of spirit that had so defined her. In her final transformation she was ready to meet God and reunite with our father. The circle was complete for her and for us.