Over the Top

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Each year for sixty four years I have faced the anniversary of my father’s untimely death in 1957 that so drastically changed life for me and my mother and brothers. I remember that morning as vividly as my wedding day and the birth of my daughters. What should have been a sunny holiday spent at the beach with my cousins turned into a nightmare as soon as I arose from my sleep and heard my mom talking with someone on the phone using the past tense when she spoke of my father. I did not have to hear the horrible news from my aunt when I found her in our kitchen puttering away her nervousness. Even at the age of eight I had an intuitive nature and already understood that an earth shattering event had occurred. 

My mother had always been as steady as a rock and as delightfully happy as anyone I ever knew. On that day she was so bereft that she could hardly pull herself from her bed and she uncharacteristically left the care of me and my brothers to her siblings who quickly began to gather in our living room. As I quietly assessed the situation I somehow realized that I would have to rise to the occasion and muster a strength that I did not know I had to make sure that my mother and brothers would be okay. Psychologically I matured from eight to thirty in a single moment. I set aside the frivolities of childhood and adopted a seriousness that would mark the sense of responsibility that I was feeling. 

I suppose that my mother descended into a state of deep depression and perhaps even hopelessness that left her in a state of mind so unlike the person I had always known. It would be weeks before she would emerge from her tears and faraway looks. To say that it was frightening would be an understatement but somehow I understood how difficult the future looked to her and I felt confident that she would pull herself together, which she ultimately did. 

For the next ten years Mama returned to a revised version of her general optimism and courage. She kept us together and made a life without daddy feel safe and secure. She only had moments here and there when her emotions would spill over the top and feel out of control. Mostly she was our stalwart and source of unconditional love and wisdom. I was in awe of the woman she was and continued quietly being as trouble free for her as possible because I knew that she had more on her plate than most people would ever be able to handle. 

When I was in my first year of college my mother began to behave in ways so unlike herself. She experienced more and more periods of depression that would last for a couple of days and then seemingly go away. Her temper would sometimes flare up unexpectedly and in cruel ways that I had never before seen. She was a kind and loving person and her outbursts frightened me. She also developed irrational fears that I tried to laugh away but when I saw her clinging to them I worried that something was more amiss than just a roller coaster of emotions. 

Eventually Mama would have a complete mental breakdown. She closed the windows tightly, drew the blinds and drapes and locked herself into her darkened bedroom even as the temperature soared in the unairconditioned house. She cried constantly and with eyes darting like an animal running for its life from a predator she would speak of being watched by law enforcement for some unknown crime. She even believed that her sisters who came to help her were attempting to poison her. When she watched television she heard messages from the programs that were not part of the script. I was terrified. 

I learned that my mother had a mental illness that would stalk her for the next forty years. When she was sick, which was several times each year, our roles would reverse. I would be her caretaker and she would be like my confused child. It would take years before we had an accurate diagnosis of her condition which was bipolar disorder. 

With great regularity, usually in March, July and October my mother would travel through a cycle of emotions brought on by her illness. Almost always her symptoms began with sadness that prompted unending tears and isolation from the world. If I was able to convince her to see her doctor quickly enough the worst effects would never happen but when she was adamant that nothing was wrong and refused medical help she would descend into an emotional hell. the next phase was mania and that is when she became most unrecognizable. She talked constantly, often spewing vile anger and insults. She was unable to sleep and her the thoughts that raced through her head were filled with paranoid ideation. Eventually she would experience a psychotic break entirely. 

It was alway painful to see her that way. It felt so unfair that such a brilliant, wise, stalwart, and compassionate woman would be laid so low by some chemical flaw inside her brain. My brothers and I worried constantly that she would get herself into trouble but somehow she was blessed to have neighbors and coworkers who watched over her and alerted us whenever they saw signs of her mental illness rearing its ugly head. 

I always loved the interludes during which my mother was herself again. They were like a precious gift that I knew we had to enjoy with gusto because the never ending cycle of her bipolar disorder would inevitably return again and again to steal away her beautiful soul and replace it with a tortured turn of the mind. 

I still advocate for the mentally ill but realize that they are often relegated to neglect in favor of other more understandable problems in our world. There is still so much to be learned about how the brain works and why is sometimes goes awry. The suffering that good people endure along with their families leaves them misunderstood and sidelined from the roles that they might otherwise have enjoyed. We have such a long way to go in our knowledge and compassion and investment in time and money for mental illness. I truly believe that if we were to pour as much effort into understanding why a beautiful mind can become so infected we would actually solve many of the world’s problems. I suspect that much of the negative behavior that we witness is actually the result of a mental defect that might easily be repaired just as we do with hearts. Helping people who struggle with psychological issues will be my goal as long as I have breath to spread the word about their needs. A mind really is a terrible thing to waste and right now we condemn far too many to the dumpster. It’s long past time for finding real and lasting solutions for diseases of the brain.