My mom was a great woman. In her life she accomplished things far beyond her education and background. She grew up in a sleepy little Southern town, coming of age during the Great Depression. She had a two year degree in Business Administration, yet by the time she retired she had attained a Director level position; and if she had been 10 years younger would have most likely been a Vice President. In the 1970’s she took an active role in the women’s equality movement, and received many accolades for her accomplishments as a woman of influence.
I also believe she was bipolar.
To my knowledge it was never a formal diagnosis, and it certainly wasn’t debilitating or interfering to what she accomplished. I should probably also say up front that this is an opinion based on my perception and opinions. Perceptions are specific to an individual’s point of view and the interactions that are unique to themselves. And I in no way disagree or judge anyone else for their own perception.
That being said, there were several events in her life that have shaped my opinion that she was bipolar, and have had a profound effect on my own. Probably the most significant event occurred when I was only five years old. Where we lived in was small enough that you could go anywhere in town by walking. There were only two drugstores in town (Only a block apart) and my older sister would walk there to hang out with her friends. Of course, I wanted to be just like my big Sister and walk there too. One summer afternoon my Mom and my Sister and I had been to the drugstore and I decided that I wanted to walk home like a big boy. Even in a town where everyone knew each other, letting a 5 year old walk that far, even with his big Sister was a little too much, and Mom said no. And of course, I kept asking over and over, begging her to let me show everyone how grown up I was. I went on and on bugging her, even as we were driving home, and finally she agreed that she would let us out a couple of hundred yards away from the house, and drive around the block so we could tell my father (who was at the house) that we had walked home by ourselves. So she let us out, and drove off.
That was the last time I would see her for over a month.
My sister and I ran up and told Dad how we had walked all the way from the drugstore, and that Mom should be home right behind us. But she didn’t come. A few minutes turned into an hour; an hour turned into three. We only had the one car (and my Dad didn’t have a driver’s license which is a story in itself) so there was no way we could go out looking for her; We just had to wait. Finally in desperation, my Dad called the police, and my sister and I were picked up by a family friend and taken to their house. I distinctly remember eating watermelon that evening, and (like any self respecting kid in the south) I had my shirt off, and was covered in watermelon juice. We didn’t take baths that night, and I remember being miserable; worried about my Mom, scared to be spending the night away from home, and sticky from all the juice I had gotten all over myself. I was also overwhelmed with guilt, believing that my pestering was somehow to blame for her disappearance.
We went home the next day, and Dad told us that Mom was sick in the hospital. Our neighbor continued to watch us during the week while Dad went to work, but at least we got to spend the night in our own beds. But no one talked about Mom, and we were left to wonder. Finally, weeks later we were carried to a hospital in the big town next to ours for a Sunday afternoon visit. I had never seen this hospital before, and thought it was really strange that we met with Mom outside, and who was fully dressed and moving around just like she always did. My limited experience with hospitals was seeing someone really sick, bedridden and wearing an open backed hospital smocks. Mom wasn’t bedridden, but she looked horrible. Physically she was fine, but her depressed mood and blank stare was upsetting and more than a little frightening. We didn’t visit her again, and in a little over a week she was home. She was home, but there was still something very different about her. Dad was still taking care of us, keeping us fed and clean and doing all the things that Mom usually did. I don’t remember how long this went on, just that over time things went back to normal.
It was much later that I found out what happened. After mom dropped us off by the house, instead of driving around the block she drove herself to the mental hospital and checked herself in. Well, that’s the version I was told but there are other stories I’ve heard over the years that she didn’t drive to the hospital, nor was it a voluntary commitment. Regardless how she got there, she was committed. To my young memory, she appeared to be depressed, but some of the other stories I’ve heard were that she was sent to the hospital by the police after some really strange and out of control behavior. I was also told that while she was hospitalized she had received ECT (Shock) treatments, which could also account for her dull mood and lack of affect. I guess I’ll never know the full truth, and it really doesn’t even matter. My facts remain the same. Mom was hospitalized for a mental condition. Even though I’m an (older) adult and know that I couldn’t have put her there after one bad afternoon, I have carried the guilt that I was responsible for her hospitalization my entire life. And whether you label it bipolar, or depression, anxiety, or any other of the many reasons which could be responsible, she was hospitalized in a mental institution.
Bipolar Disorder is a biological illness. I would have been bipolar regardless of the emotional impact Mom’s issues had on me at such a young age. And as the illness is hereditary and primarily maternal, I think it’s reasonable to believe it was Mom’s struggle as well. I certainly don’t blame my Mom for anything, and my own subsequent hospitalizations over the years have given me the ability to understand that it was nothing she did to me, nor anything I did to her. It was a profound event, but now I have the empathy and insight that she had her own burden.
And now I know just how heavy a burden it is.