The following is an excerpt from my upcoming memoir, BrainStorm: From Broken to Blessed on the Bipolar Spectrum.
I am nothing like my mother—I am a big achiever. I excel at math and sports and friends. I am a serious competitor and have no patience for people who can’t keep up. Teachers and coaches smile on me. Despite the fact that I love math, my favorite high school teacher is the English teacher Margaret Metzger. I love her because she is young and feisty. She is the only adult I know who asks questions with genuine curiosity and encourages us to write and talk about taboo subjects like sex and romance and religion and politics. Mrs. Metzger says to me, “Sara, everything you touch turns to gold.” She muses that my parents must be stellar. I don’t reveal the truth about my home life, that my father—though a handsome, successful CEO—is an alcoholic, and my mother was so depressed during my early childhood that she stayed in bed for weeks at a time. I just smile.
Actually, my mother is doing well these days. She finished her degree, is working as a geriatric social worker, part-time. She and my father look dazzling again, all glitter and gold when they go out on the town, and she is witty and engaging in conversations with friends. She writes letters to the editor of the Boston Globe on progressive causes and they get published. She is the attractive Wellesley College intellect once again, and she revels in it.
One day after hockey practice, I use the shower in my parents’ bathroom because the water pressure there is better. I find my mother’s new pills on the sink. The bottle is wide and clear this time and the prescription says “lithium.”
I call to her, “What are these for, Mom?”
“Oh, that’s just something I take to keep me from getting depressed.”
Maybe these are why she’s healthy.
My feelings about my mother’s depressions are confused. When it comes time to write a high school senior honors paper for Madeline Morris’ class, I decide to do some research into what this “lithium” is for. I learn that lithium works for people with manic-depression disease, and conversely, if lithium works for you, that is diagnostic of being a manic-depressive. I report this to her one afternoon, thinking this will be of some comfort. There is a name for what she has and a cure.
“Mom, the scientists have proven that if lithium is a cure for your depression, that means you have Manic-Depression.” I think this is pretty cool—to have a definition and a cure. But my mom takes the label as an accusation.
“I am NOT manic and definitely DON’T have manic-depression.” Her face gets tight and she is emphatic. There is no room to argue with this tone. I get that she accepts the idea of her clinical depression. Yet not the stigma of insanity that goes with the term “manic.” And I do agree, she’s never shown any signs of mania. I wonder why lithium works.
“Mom, when did you start taking these things?
“Since you were about fifteen.”
That must explains why she’s been well since then.
“How does it work?”
“No one seems to know. But thank goodness it does.”
I begin to put some pieces together, and realize that when she is on lithium, she is stable, happy, capable; without it, she is a train wreck. When she felt fine, she reasoned that she didn’t need the medicine anymore, it might have long-term side effects and who wants to take pills anyway. So she’d take herself off it. And begin a rapid free fall to mental catastrophe and inability to function.
Our first open conversations about our family history of depression followed. I am almost off to college—she must think I’m old enough to know. I knew my grandfather, her father, Lewis, had been a pillar in his community, president of his company, president of his synagogue and chairman of numerous charities in the proud New England city of Worcester. He was the father of three accomplished children and ten grandchildren, several Ivy Leaguers among them. An immigrant’s son, he had gone to Harvard on scholarship when the university still maintained a quota for Jews. But he had been in the depths of a cruel depression when he had died, in his early eighties, of cancer the year before, leaving this world with a self-assessment, painfully distorted by the disease, that his life had been worthless.
“Mom, what happened to Grandpa?” I knew that he’d been through electric shock in the 1950s. But families didn’t talk about these things then, appearances were kept up and the illusion of his invulnerability had been carefully maintained.
“He had a devastating depression after your aunt and uncle, and I were all grown.” My mom looked off into the distance, sadness in her voice. “Electric shock was the treatment of choice at the time. It was horrible, but it gave him his life back.”
“So he suffered with depression even back then? Not just recently?”
“Yes, I’m sorry to say. He had the family disease.”