“Though stigma is shared and learned, it is internalized individually.”
The last time I saw my mother, we spent two weeks together in a hotel room in Dallas, a city where neither of us live. She was there to be operated on by a world-renowned neurosurgeon she’d read about. “He’s a miracle worker, supposed to be one of the best in the biz,” she’d told me excitedly. He was to remove a cyst from near her spine.
We all have aging parents and must deal with their ailments as they come, trying not to think too far ahead in fear of whatever challenge will come next. I’d long written my situation off as a little more complicated than that of other children of baby boomers because of my mother’s bipolar disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 5.7 million Americans have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. My mother was diagnosed decades ago when doctors still called it manic depression.
The best way I can describe this mental illness to someone who hasn’t lived around it is that the sufferer often within the confines of their own extremes, euphoric highs that feel both exciting and joyfully scary, and pit-of-stomach lows that feel so unrelenting that there’s seemingly no way to crawl out from that hole in the ground. I feel in-the-know enough to say this, having sat in the front row of this show for so long.
In fact, I would argue that the ups and downs one feels as a child of someone with bipolar disorder can sometimes feel just as ground-shaking as the illness itself. When you notice the water retreating before your parent’s next big wave, you’re left looking for solid things to hold onto. You brace yourself for the impending, grabbing onto the arms of aunts, uncles, even friends’ parents. You look to their faces for consolation, asking, “Is this normal?” and “Will I be?”
My mother’s surgery went swimmingly. The cyst was successfully removed. I brought her back to the hotel where she would recover for a week or so before seeing the surgeon again for a follow-up. Doctor’s orders: she couldn’t fly until she’d healed for at least a week more.
I worked at the kitchenette table in our mini suite, taking Skype calls with co-workers here and there. My mother was getting restless being all cooped up; a bit lonely too when she’d realized I’d be occupied from nine-to-five. She suggested we visit a nearby lake for a picnic, said her doctor would never know. “He told you to rest, Mom. Short walks if anything,” I’d replied, putting to bed the idea that this trip was some kind of vacation. I knew that’s what she’d hoped it to be.
A few days later my mother started to squeeze in sharp discussions about the fact that we were best friends when I was a little girl, and what had changed? Snowballing quickly, harmless comments evolved into suspicions of why I’d moved to California in the first place. It must be because of her. I must not love her. No actually, I was, in fact, a quite selfish human being. I must be if I could put her into a box on a shelf in a closet back East, where no one else could see. Yeah, that’s right… She grew more excited, cried. She didn’t like me. I’d hardly said a word at first, but when I did speak, what I said came out loud.
I ate dinner sitting next to her that night, yet mentally I was a million miles away. I know this doesn’t seem all too different than conversations you may have had with your own family members, it’s just part of the child-parent dynamic especially around the holidays when the bustle is fast and it’s easy to emotionally relapse. But in my defense, bipolar disorder can turn a comment into an attack, a pushpin into a nail.
During visits with my mother, these snowballing moments often happen and there’s always a point where I either choose to engage (the fight) or step away. I watched myself closely this time around. When I felt my shoulders and face stiffen, I’d thought to myself, I’m too old to teenage-explode.
That night, I called the hotel’s front desk to let them know we’d moved our flight up and would be checking out a little earlier than expected. The voice of a young lady with a subtle southern drawl, which I recognized from the day before, picked up, told me no problem, and asked for our room number. I said rushingly, “208.”
“Is your mom the blonde lady with the glasses? She is just the sweetest woman. Are you her daughter?” I’d answered yes, yes that’s her. “She’s been talking about you for days. She just loves you so much,” the girl added. I thanked her, humbled. More than anything, I was embarrassed I’d yelled at my mother earlier. Whether my frustrations had been directly at my mother or her illness didn’t matter. I knew it hit her all the same.
It was time to hit the reset button. Instead of bullying myself for having a short temper with my mother, I took some time to do what I do every time I’m having trouble with something—I write down how I’m feeling, and try to view the situation from a different perspective.
I don’t think our relationship will ever be perfect, and each day that goes by I become more okay with that. I’m glad to be back home after that trip. But I miss her already.