Several years ago, I began working as a patient simulator, helping third-year medical students learn to recognize the psychological problems that sometimes underlie patients’ symptoms. I applied for the job on a dare. I must have been convincing, because the health-sciences center hired me on the spot, even though I was the only one in the group who lacked professional acting credentials. Once a month for six years, I spent ten hours in a stuffy little booth hung with dusty blue drapes, pretending to be, among others, Mary, who begged for tranquilizers to get her through an anniversary response to a rape, and Sara, an oil-and-gas attorney with chest pains that turned out to be panic attacks.
The character I truly excelled at impersonating was Lisa, the bipolar, whose husband had ordered her to see the doctor for sleeping pills because her incessant vacuuming kept him awake nights. As Lisa, I exhibited all the manic symptoms listed in the scenario the medical school provided, plus a few of my own devising for good measure. In time, I became so skilled at portraying Lisa’s hyperactivity that the students forgot I was pretending. Several of them left in the middle of the interview. One attempted to strike me on his way out the door.
My employers thought I was uncannily good and referred to me as their “star performer,” teasing that I should receive an Oscar. They didn’t know how I’d come by my ability to mimic the racing thoughts, rapid speech, and bizarre actions of a full-blown manic-depressive. Raised on an isolated Michigan farm by a mother with bipolar disorder, I had been in training for those thirty-minute sessions for most of my life.
During my childhood, my mother spent many days with her face pressed into her embroidered pillowcase, tears streaming from her eyes, while I wandered quietly from room to room in the old farmhouse, pressing my own face against the window glass. No matter from which pane I peered, I never saw another living soul, except the drivers of the occasional cars and pickup trucks that zoomed by on the gravel road.
Early on, I learned to take care of myself, making my own bread-and-butter sandwiches sprinkled with sugar and playing silently on the floor with my paper dolls. I developed imaginary friends to reassure me until Mama got out of bed and began pulling herself together in anticipation of Daddy’s arrival home from work. I’d watch wordlessly as she drew on her eyebrows with a dark brown pencil, put on her crimson lipstick, and clipped on a pair of button earrings. Then she’d brush past me on her way to the kitchen to fix supper.
Though difficult, the crying spells were not half as bad as the times my mother crackled with energy. She would ascend from her dark moods slowly, rousing herself over several days. Then she might start baking, not one batch of cookies, but one of every kind in her cookbook. Some days she tore apart the huge old house, cleaning everything and all the time singing and talking to herself. On others, she started sewing and didn’t stop working the treadle machine until I had ten party dresses. (I would never wear these creations to a party, since she forbade me to play with other children.) “I am not a person who goes halfway,” she would often say of herself.
Her energy spiraled to dizzying heights, but at some point in her climb, there always came an almost perceptible tick, like a phonograph needle hitting a scratch. In that split second, her good spirits would turn to outrage of equal intensity.
I was often the cause of that tick. Perhaps she was dancing around the house to the show tunes she sang, her high heels tap-tap-tapping on the brown linoleum, and I, preoccupied with my dolls, refused to be her partner. Or maybe I spilled chocolate milk down the front of one of those party dresses. Somehow I always managed to trigger her fury.
Before I turned four, I learned to recognize the approach of that critical instant and to hide before I did or said something to turn my world upside down. Mostly, I hid outside in the bushes. During frigid Michigan winters, I crouched beneath the dining-room table by its brass-tipped, claw-foot legs, mouth dry and heartbeat thudding in my ears, screened from her view by the heavy lace tablecloth that hung nearly to the floor. If she found me, I knew, I’d be sorry.
In the hours before Father came home and it was once again safe — probably — to venture out, I learned to pray. Sometimes God listened and Mama forgot about me. The rest of the time, she would find me and punish me, screaming how I should be ashamed of myself and that my soul belonged to the devil. Once, she stuck my head in the toilet bowl. Another time, I dropped the doll she’d treasured as a child, the kind with glass eyes that rolled back in its celluloid head, and she pushed me down the attic stairs.
More often than not, she opened the dreaded bathroom cupboard to bring out her equipment: the douche bag and the enema bag, the hairbrush and the hairpins — implements she used to wash away my sin once and for all. Calling me a dirty, dirty girl, she would strip me and examine my body for signs of evil while I stood shivering on the bathmat. Then she’d set to work scrubbing me with a hairbrush until the bath water turned pink, the prelude for other atrocities I still cannot bring myself to put into words. I could not fight her; she was too big. Crying only made my sins more evident and increased the vigor of her efforts to eradicate them. I became adept at sending my mind elsewhere, letting my body go as limp as Mother’s baby doll, my eyes as unseeing.
Afterward, she would send me to lie unclothed on my bed and await my father’s part in the ritual. When he returned from work or the fields, she would meet him at the door with elaborate stories of all the trouble I had caused, insisting that the only solution was for him to whip me with the razor strop. To quiet her, he invariably did. The stiff leather whizzed through the air. Only after he had closed the door of my bedroom behind him would I allow the tears to come. At those moments I hated them both, because I knew that, after the few days of calm purchased with the beating, her crying jags would return, then the frenzied days, and, at their crescendo, another beating.
In public, my parents expressed bewilderment at my hysteria in confined spaces and my fear of flushing toilets, loud noises, and strangers. (I believe today that I screamed only about half as much as I needed to.) Not even the family doctor knew why my stomach ached constantly or why I threw up every day or what had weakened my immune system to the point that I contracted nearly every known childhood disease, almost dying several times. He never questioned my recurring vaginal and urinary-tract infections, never found out about my mother’s sin-finding expeditions with the hairpins and hairbrush handles. Maybe I was jealous of my new baby brother, someone might suggest. Perhaps I was just run-down. “You’re high-strung,” my mother would say, shaking her head. When she touched me, I shrank from her, which infuriated her more.
My brother, born when I was six, eventually replaced me as the focus of our mother’s attention. Although her mood swings continued, their impact on me lessened. Certain I was going to hell, she gave up on me, hoping that she could do better with the baby. Since by now I had become a “difficult child,” my father ignored me. It was my brother’s turn to purchase Mama’s brief peace of mind. I did not know, nor did I care, what price he paid.
Years later, my brother would be the first one to put a name to our mother’s wild behavior. “I think she was a manic-depressive,” he told me one day on the phone, after I had nearly killed myself with drinking, trying to blot out the memories. His words were tentative, as though he were committing disloyalty of the worst kind. But the more we talked about it, the more the diagnosis fit. We started to research the illness in earnest and to compare notes, not only about manic depression but about our childhood memories. As if to confirm our private suspicions, a few weeks later our mother plummeted into the deepest depressive cycle of her life. It lasted two years and ended with her death from cancer.
Creative, talented, intelligent, and — I am convinced — a loving woman at heart, my mother was consumed by the emotional storms of manic-depression, a condition that, according to the American Psychiatric Association, affects one out of every hundred people in the U.S. at some point in their lives. As best we can tell, her illness was “cyclothymic” — the ups nearly equaled the downs until near the end of her life, when depression predominated.
When suffering depressive episodes, my mother focused on her physical ailments. I cannot remember a month passing without her making a trip to the doctor. Thoroughly convinced she had cancer, she compulsively examined herself, my brother, and me for what she called “the seven deadly signs.” Her medicine cabinet was crammed with pills, including amphetamines and tranquilizers, which she consumed most heavily whenever she felt “down in the dumps.”
Eventually, the blues would be replaced with euphoria. She would buy a pound of chocolate stars from the dime-store candy counter and eat them all, insisting that my brother and I content ourselves with a Tootsie Roll apiece. Routinely, she’d ask my father for money to buy us school clothes, only to spend it on scarves, costume jewelry, and makeup, and then enlist us in hiding her indiscretions from Dad. If she wasn’t baking or sewing, she was redecorating the house or planting huge gardens in a frantic race to finish before a mood change waylaid her. When her corn ripened, it was all we ate for two weeks. The same held true for tomatoes, and tuna fish when it was on sale. Then, without warning, she would disappear for a day, leaving me to cook for myself. I’d stand on a chair in front of the stove while she spent hours shopping for items we couldn’t afford and never used.
For a time, she wrote curriculum guides for a Sunday-school publisher, covering every flat surface in the house with pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, and paste for the craft projects she designed. After school, my brother and I were forced to construct models of Moses in the bulrushes and the walls of Jericho until our fingers ached. Genealogy became such a passion for her that she spent hundreds of dollars on family history books, getting the money for them by cutting dental and medical care from the family budget. Next came lingerie making, cake decorating, and antique collecting.
Deciding I needed to participate in group activities in order to come out of my “shell,” she enrolled me in Brownies, then took over leadership of the troop. Within the space of a year, she had conquered Blue Birds and a group sponsored by the YWCA as well, relegating me to a corner when I got in her way. During her manic phases, Mom taught Sunday-school classes and got appointed to church boards, where she worked her way up to the state administrative level. She wrote a history column for the local paper and enrolled in college courses. All this activity caused outsiders to view her as superwoman, endowed with talent and leadership capabilities far surpassing the norm for Shiawassee County.
Though cyclical, my mother’s rapid shifts from elation to anger to deep despair were often difficult to predict. Some mornings, she just woke up a raging witch. Other times, outside events — such as an impending visit from her mother, a rainy day, or my sweater catching on the battered Remington typewriter at the edge of her desk and sending it crashing to the floor — would trigger an outburst or plummet her into despair for weeks. I remember being terrified of my mother and developing an elaborate version of the superstition “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” Only if I stepped surely and on solid ground, would I be safe. It didn’t matter that my stride was too short to navigate the tiny islands of sanity in my home. The more I failed, the more I blamed myself. My mother blamed me, too.
Although school provided me an escape from home — and a place to dispose of the cookies produced during Mom’s baking binges — before long I began to have problems there. My teachers wondered at how such a melancholy child, always lost in daydreams, could have sprung from such a gifted, loving mother. I withdrew further at such comments, refusing to speak to anyone. Finally, they called my mother to the school for a conference. “They think you’re crazy,” she told me when she came home. “They’re right, you know.” She sighed. “At least now they know what I have to put up with.”
When Mom could not find an immediate transgression on which to blame her outrage, she said that having children, in and of itself, had made her life so unpleasant. Even after we’d left home, she openly blamed us for her abrupt emotional shifts, and Dad still held us accountable for their chaotic results. “Your mother is a sensitive woman,” he would say. “You need to stop upsetting her.” Early on, we shouldered the burden of her insanity, making it our own. We were the crazy ones — my brother, the mad genius, and I, the lost, delusional one.
After I had married for the second time and started my own family, my mother once told me, “You’ve always had such low self-esteem. I don’t know where it could have come from.” Dumbfounded, I made an excuse and left the room.
Despite the highs and lows, mine seemed a fairly normal childhood, because I had known no other. Until we became adults and moved away from home, both my brother and I were convinced that everyone had been raised under similar circumstances. We were equally certain that we were freaks of nature, able to destroy the well-being of others with a look or a word.
Mom covered her tracks by blaming Dad for being incapable of feeling or showing love. Repeatedly, she informed me that he hadn’t wanted to have children and characterized him as placing unreasonable demands on the rest of us. Despite evidence to the contrary, I believed her.
Throughout my childhood, she pitted me against my brother so vigorously in a competition to win her favor that he and I avoided each other well into adulthood. Thirteen years of not communicating was the logical outcome of a childhood spent trying to kill one another in the hope that Mom might have enough love for just one child. Our battles effectively drew the spotlight away from her. Later, my brother would suggest that maybe those attacks were a good thing: had we not vented our frustration on each other, one of us might have become a serial killer. In my darker moments, I believe he is right.
Once we’d left the nest, Mom turned her attention to art classes, making two or three oil paintings a day. She taught seminars on how to have a happy Christian family and spent her spare time shopping for the few small appliances she had yet to own and for clothes she might need someday. Working on her family history at a frenzied pace, she discovered she was descended from Charlemagne, the mad king some called a butcher, who died ranting from syphilis. Except for the weekly letters she sent, reminding me that I was high-strung and mustn’t do too much, and the Bibles with the warnings to find salvation inscribed on their inside front covers, she left me to my own devices. Perhaps she mellowed out on her own without treatment or medication. Maybe Jesus helped her. I’d like to think that, but I suspect she simply became more adept at covering her mood swings.
In the end, religion, the very cure she had picked to save her, turned on her instead. Ever in search of a church with doctrines strict enough to suit her, she found one whose preacher called her a sinner and forbade her to teach her seminars because they were nondenominational. He warned her — much as she had warned me years before — that she was cursed, and he told her she must not talk to anyone outside his tiny congregation. This threw her into a depression deeper than any I’d ever witnessed. For months, she spoke of giving up and occupied herself with labeling snapshots in the family albums against the day that something would happen to her. She searched the house for my letters, my schoolwork, anything personal, and set about destroying it all so that no one would find it after her death. She stopped shopping and some days forgot to wear lipstick.
After Mom took to her bed, my father called to ask my advice. When I told him she’d been depressed much of her life, but that she’d always pulled out of it, he was surprised. “I was always working,” he said. “I didn’t notice.” I suggested therapy, but he vetoed the idea, saying she would never agree to it. Then, mere weeks after a complete physical resulting in a clean bill of health, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and began undergoing chemotherapy.
In April, I flew to Arizona, where my parents had retired. My mother was weak from the chemo, but still strong enough to sort through her closets for clothes to give me. She bypassed rows and rows of stylish blouses and silk scarves to pull out an old leather jacket with too-wide lapels and an orange-and-green-flowered polyester blouse three sizes too big for me. “You might as well have these,” she said. “It’s either you or Goodwill.” Next, she sorted through my father’s childhood treasures, starting with the books. While he was out back changing the oil in his truck, she handed me his leather-bound Poe and his mint-condition copy of Little Men. Her own bookshelves she kept intact. “Your father’s having a terrible time adjusting to this,” she said, “but I’ve completely accepted my condition. If I went tomorrow, I’d be happy as a clam.” As she snuck a few more of his possessions into my suitcase, I knew that, emotionally at least, she was on the rebound. “I want you to know I’ve forgiven you for everything,” she told me on my way out the door to the airport.
I discarded the jacket and the blouse when I got home, but I am still coming to terms with my mother’s legacy. Witnessing her emotional roller-coaster ride has left me with an unholy terror of my own emotions. If my lover of five years leaves me and I cry, am I overreacting? If I feel sad after losing my job, am I experiencing a depressive episode? Uncertain whether my tears are an appropriate reaction to a given situation, or the result of my difficult childhood, or the first signs of inherited bipolar disorder, I tend to suppress them. Unfortunately, the same often holds true for joy, elation, and a whole range of other emotions I am only now coming to realize are a normal part of life.
My years beneath the dining-room table instilled in me a fear of conflict and a grave mistrust of others, even the people to whom I am closest. In relationships, I can’t seem to shake the role of magical helper. I attract manic-depressives, combat veterans, alcoholics, and borderline personalities as though I were running a free clinic. On the positive side, I am great at damage control, am content to spend long periods of time in solitude, and have the ability to take care of myself. Enduring pain, both emotional and physical, is my forte — a quality many mistake for strength or patience. And then I have my imagination. Overactive as ever, it has provided me with a living, whether as a patient simulator or a writer. I am still working on my ability to forgive.
Shortly after my last visit, my mother suffered a severe stroke brought on by the cancer-fighting chemicals being pumped into her system. I dialed her hospital room the next day, hoping to get Dad. The woman in the next bed picked up instead. “He’s in the cafeteria,” she said, “but hold on, here’s your mother.”
Mom’s voice was thick and garbled. (This would be the last time I would hear it. Shortly after our conversation, another cerebral incident would wipe out her vocabulary except for, like a cruel joke, the word microwave.) From the jammed-together, drunken-sounding syllables, I could make out that she loved me, and that she would pray for me. I told her I would pray for her, too. And I have tried. For ten years, the words stuck in my throat. Only recently have I succeeded.
A week after her funeral, Dad set about sorting through her belongings and called me to inquire where the forty-odd pairs of shoes and the numerous dresses with the tags still on them had come from. He asked about the hundreds of brand-new paintbrushes, the cartons of sewing thread in every imaginable color, the stacks of unread magazines. Although she’d used his money to fund her shopping sprees all those years, he’d never had a clue. To spare his feelings — and to protect my mother’s memory — I told him, “She must have accumulated them over time.” He seemed satisfied with my response.
What would my mother’s life have been like had she been treated? The answer is a mystery to me, because I cannot imagine her other than how she was. I believe that, at some level, she knew she had a problem and had a fairly clear idea of its diagnosis. I sometimes wonder if she didn’t deliberately avoid treatment, fearing that flattening her mood swings would make her life dull and average. Perhaps she was addicted to her manic moods and craved the giddy excitement and creativity they brought.
Several weeks ago, I came across a children’s book she gave me the year I left home: Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. It’s the story of a little boy named Max who dresses up in a wolf suit and dreams of a land filled with terrifying wild things “who rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.” He tames them with magic, and they elect him king, celebrating with a wild rumpus. But the smell of his supper draws him home.
My mother never stilled the wild things inside of her, but when she wasn’t battling her demons, she read me stories and taught me how to draw and sew. She showed me how to play hopscotch and encouraged me to read and to record my thoughts on paper. Because of her, I can sing the entire scores of Oklahoma and South Pacific.
On a warm late-September night three months after her death, I was sleeping alone, having recently separated from an abusive spouse in what felt like my last shot at mental health. Hugging my pillow, I dreamed of my mother in her grave halfway across the country. “It’s boring here,” she complained. “I never knew it would be this way or I wouldn’t have done it, any of it, not even the dying. Look, it’s snowing. You think we dead can’t feel the dampness in our bones? Well, that’s all we feel. It’s no picnic, I tell you.”
Walking through snow in my bare feet, I took her a thick wool blanket, spreading it over the bare rectangle of ground she lay beneath.
“Thank you,” she whispered, content at last.
“Don’t mention it, Mom. I know you’d do the same for me.”
When I awoke, I opened the curtains on the season’s first snow.