"Mommy, it's time to get up, I have to go to school," I whisper as I gently nudge my mother. She is unresponsive. My little hands plead her to get out of bed, but she lies there in the dark bedroom with her eyes closed.
"Mommy, come on, you need to make my lunch."
"Catherine, leave her alone. I'll take you to school this morning. Here." My father hands me a few crumpled bills for lunch money.
"But I want Mommy to take me to school!"
"She's having a bad day, so I'm taking you."
"Is she taking her medicines? Do you have to call Dr. Avery?" [Note: Name has been changed.]
"No, honey, she's just having a bad day. Come on, we're going to be late."
"Bye Mommy. I love you!"
My father drives me the two blocks to my elementary school as we sit in silence; I try to hold back tears because I have to be strong for Mommy. I leave the car, put on a smile, and walk into my third grade classroom -- it's just another day.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder affects 5.7 million Americans in a given year. My mother is one of them. The majority of my life has been filled with anxiety. Will this depression spell last long? Will she pick me up from school today? Will she still be in bed when I get home?
From a young age, I've had to memorize her list of medications just in case something happened while my father was at I work and I was alone with her. As of today it's Wellbutrin, Lithium, Zoloft, Tegretol, Lamictal, Geodon, Haldol, and Risperdal.
Growing up with a bipolar mother meant mornings like the one described above were many. When my mother had one of her bad days, I'd spend the entire day at school nervous. If my grandfather picked me up from school, then I knew it was a really bad day -- a day when my mother would stay in bed because the depression was crippling. A day when I'd watch her from the crack in the door, too terrified to go near.
I've always had a fear that I would someday inherit the monster that plagued my mother. Whenever a relative or a family friend would say, "Catherine, you're just like your mother," my heart sank. In reality, the percentages are low -- there is a 15-30 percent chance of children with one parent with bipolar disorder inheriting the disease. Yet, no matter how many statistics and studies indicate that I will be fine, I still worry that I can be one of the 15-30 percent or that it will somehow skip a generation and one day when I have children, one of them will inherit the disease.
How did this happen?
My mother was born in a small farming village in Italy. She and her family immigrated to America when she was 8 years old. Their ship docked on a Friday and she was in school that Monday. On top of household chores, she balanced my grandparents' checkbook, made their appointments, and was their designated translator. By the time she was 14, she had a job at a deli making $1 an hour, which she worked while maintaining good grades and upholding her household duties. A lot was expected of her. My grandparents relied on her to do things that I, nearly a decade older, still don't know how to do.
During my childhood, I never fully understood what was wrong with my mother. She sat me down a few times to explain, but that always left me with a million more questions than the answers she wouldn't (or couldn't) provide. Here's all I've been able to gather: My mother's first hospitalization occurred when she was 21 for severe depression. She was admitted into Bergen Pines. What triggered the depression was a culmination of traumatic events, which she refuses to discuss. Since it was 1980, the treatment of mental illness was not exactly progressive. The lack of understanding about the disorder, coupled with my grandparents' minimal education and old country mentality, led to my mother receiving electroshock treatments. The results were negative -- it made her depression worse and she experienced long-term memory loss, the affects she experiences to this day.
That first hospitalization started a 13-year roller coaster. Doctors used a kitchen sink approach to finding a diagnosis. First it was depression, then it was schizophrenia, and then it was severe anxiety.
During this time, there were periods when her doctors were able to stabilize her on the right balance of medications, allowing her to maintain various retail and secretarial jobs and make new friends (the old ones got scared and bolted after she got sick). But there were things in my mother's life that brought her down into a deep depression. Bad breakups caused by guys who were not sensitive to her condition or refused to understand that her disease did not mean she was "crazy." She eventually met my father, which made her happy... until she had me.
When my mother learned that she was pregnant, she was ordered to stop all medications, causing the chemicals in her brain to become severely imbalanced. Initially, after I was born, she was elated, but then her moods became more erratic. Some nights she couldn't sleep because of all the energy she had. She would bake elaborate desserts and order useless items from the Home Shopping Network. One day, when I was 9 months old, my mother slit her wrists in the bathroom. This led to her second hospitalization -- this time for a month. There she met Dr. Avery, the psychiatrist who finally diagnosed her with bipolar disorder; the psychiatrist who was finally was able to give our family a semblance of normalcy.
Knowing all of this still didn't change how I felt about my mother. During my teenage years, I seethed with resentment. There was also a lot of crying and cursing God for sticking me in such an unstable family, for making me act like the parent most of the time, for making me raise myself because I had a mother who couldn't.
Everything came to a head when I entered high school. I would yell at my defenseless mother, too angry to comfort her when she was feeling down. I would blame her for everything that was difficult in my life. I was sure that if I was tough enough, I would never become sick like her. My goal was to be as different from her as possible. Regardless of how hard I tried, those words -- "you're just like your mother" -- continued to haunt me.
One afternoon I came home from school and found her sleeping on the bed, which made me furious. I started yelling and the incident escalated into my saying I wished I were never a part of this family. My mother finally had enough.
After dinner, she sat me down and we (or really I) aired our grievances. I told her how I've been feeling for years. Our teary conversation continued into the early morning hours. I confessed that I was afraid of getting her illness, especially because of the ways I had come to realize that our lives paralleled one another's. Most essentially, we both had to assume parental roles and were forced to mature at an early age. She told me that all she wanted was to be a good mother. When this dream wasn't realized after I was born, she thought a life without her would be better for me. At that moment, I realized how miserable my life would be without her. I hated myself for all the awful things I had said and for failing to see how incredibly strong and loving my mother really was.
After that night we began our long process of rebuilding. I had to get to know my mother through fresh eyes -- eyes not clouded with resentment. What I learned is that my mother has the purest heart. There's not an ounce of cynicism in her. She has unconditional love for her friends and family no matter how much they have wronged her, and a way of making everyone around her feel at ease.
Our relationship is still not perfect, but I've come to learn that her disease does not define who she is. I've learned to look past her illness and see her as the selfless woman who cooks for the homeless shelter regularly, the woman who won't eat until she serves everyone else, and the woman who goes out of her way to help anyone in need. Now, when someone tells me, "Catherine, you're just like your mother," I don't hesitate to say, "Thank you."
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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.