The following is an excerpt from my upcoming memoir, BrainStorm: From Bruised to Blessed on the Bipolar Spectrum.
I am six years-old, living in a dark, musty, cape cod cottage. There are weathered gray shingles and a handful of dusty muntin windows that don’t let in the sun. There is green mold growing on the window sills. My brown hair is in pigtails that haven’t been combed in days. I’m wearing a pair of my brother Dan’s cut-off blue jeans that I keep up with a thin nylon rope tied around my waist and a red T-Shirt.
“Mom, I’m hungry.”
“You’ll have to get yourself something to eat.” My mother’s voice is tired, almost lifeless in her struggle with depression.
I use both hands, lean back and open the frig, but don’t see much. There is a bottle of Coke. One cool thing about this house is that it has a bottle opener right on the cabinet and I can reach it. I open the coke and take a swig. It is sweet and cold.
“Can we go to South Beach today?”
I go to the door of her room to see what’s going on. My mother is glued to the bed. My father is working in Boston all week and I have no idea where my brothers and sister are. Just gone. I’m alone with this empty shell of a mother. The lively, pretty, brown-eyed mom who liked to take me shopping for clothes and read me books has disappeared. I don’t know why or when she’ll be back.
Every day, reaching for sunlight, I escape on my blue banana boat bicycle, which big brother Bill had taught me to ride and head for the beach alone. My mom never asks where I am going.
My mother had suffered from her own struggle with depression on and off since I was a baby. I remember them vividly from the time I was about six. She had been on lithium since I was a young teen. When I was twenty-one, still seeking my place in the world separate from parents, she was the woman in the family with mental illness. I defined myself as her opposite. I was the competitive athlete, the liberated woman, the mountain-scaling adventurer. Above all I was upbeat, and never constitutionally negative, as I’d seen her at her worst.
Her father had also been a victim of a debilitating struggle with depression. This was in the 1940s and ‘50s, when no one talked about such things. My mother’s mother had always been upbeat, cheerful, positive, and bright, never giving a hint of what it might have been like to live with a man who was president of his company and a pillar in the community, but so sick with depression that he underwent electric shock treatment. My grandmother maintained her dignity and grace through all this.
From her parents, my mother learned the Yankee way: show no emotion. I referred to her as a “Yankee Jew,” the oxymoron intentional. She was Jewish by identity and heritage, but Yankee by training and practice. Her mother’s side of the family had been in Boston since the late 1800s, long before most European Jews immigrated to the U.S.; her mother had graduated from Wellesley College in 1919. Her father had gone to Harvard. At their home, people did not raise their voices, nor express emotion. Sharp intellect, witty remarks, and steady composure were valued.
After graduation, she’d met my father in New York City, and they’d married the following year. She became an archetypical post-World War II suburban housewife, mother of four baby boomer kids, with a Navy vet husband who worked sixty-hour weeks. As a man of his generation, my father knew only one way to manage his stress: hit the gin.
Like her parents, my mother presented a front of composure and stability, even when her struggle with depression was so debilitating that she couldn’t get out of bed. My father had no way of supporting her emotionally. She displayed a Kennedy-esque image of our family of six; good looking, smart, talented and a model for the community. We were the picture-perfect postcard of enviable health and promise. She never let anyone know she was depressed. She never told any of her friends about her condition. She never revealed it to her own parents and siblings. She had no therapists, no women’s circles, no models for sharing emotional depth. And so she “soldiered on,” as she would say, ever the proud stoic. This standard made her appear brittle and unapproachable to me, especially on matters of the heart.
Although we rarely shared feelings in our family, my mother was always concerned when any of us were sick. In retrospect, understanding more about her personal history with mental illness, I imagine she must have been distraught when she heard about my struggle with depression. She feared the worst: that she had passed on to me the same gene that had taken her and her father down. She made the trip to Providence and took me out to lunch for a rare one-on-one conversation. I made sure we went to a restaurant far from campus where none of my friends would see us. She asked about my mental state.
“How are you feeling?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you depressed?”
“Well, I can’t get out of bed. What would you call it?” I could hear the sarcasm in my voice. A chronic, as yet unexamined, anger towards my mom seethed just below the surface. It came out in curt, passive-aggressive answers to her questions. I was mad for many reasons that I’d not yet worked through: her absence from my life due to her struggle with depression, her inability to stop my dad’s drinking and rage-aholism, her lack of emotional availability, her focus on appearance and elegance over emotional honesty, and her tendency towards quick judgment and dismissal of people who she deemed to be below her social and academic class.
But in this moment, I saw the pain in her eyes as she ignored the sarcasm and pronounced, with sadness and resignation, “I’m afraid you’ve got the family disease. You know, your grandfather had it, too.”
I felt the tension in my neck and heat rising in my throat. “Just because you’re chronically depressed doesn’t mean I’m going to be. I’m nothing like you, Mom. You’ve always acquiesced to those arrogant Harvard doctors and their damn smug diagnoses. But that’s not me!”
I wanted no part of that diagnosis. I would not surrender to it. I would fight it with every ounce of my being. I would not share my mother’s fate. Hadn’t I done everything—sports, math, science, adventure, persistence, discipline—to follow the positive parts of my dad’s trajectory?
This was 1982 and with the dogmatic clarity of a twenty-one-year-old empowered by feminist theory, I believed my mother had been “had” by the male-dominated medical profession and profit-driven pharmaceutical industry. I judged that she’d not done enough of her own “work” to cure herself of the disease. She should have been in therapy, confronted her raging husband, exercised more, eaten right. If she’d done all these things, I reasoned, she wouldn’t need lithium or any other drugs. They were a crutch and I wanted no part of them. The “family disease” was a myth of convenience for my mother’s laziness and I did not have that. I would find my own way to a cure.
And so began my valiant, passionate, persistent-beyond-reason pursuit to conquer my struggle with depression. If it was Everest, I would climb it; if it was the moon, I would reach it; if it was fascism, I would defeat it. I would do anything to prove that I alone was in control of my life. It would take me twenty-five years to discover the futility of this quest.