My Bipolar Mother

Today I was folding blue-paper-boatpaper boats with a group of children and my mind wandered back in time to a painful memory I don’t dust off too often of events when I was four years old. When you’re four, your parents are like gods to you. My mother stopped being a god and left my world crumbling under my feet in one afternoon.

The first memory that filters through the haze of time was my brother M, my sister R and I standing outside the bathroom door. I know it was summer, we had been playing outside and R needed to go to the bathroom. At the time, we were living in a small blue house by the Richelieu river in Chambly, Quebec. I remember being very happy there, it seemed like it was always summer. Until that day.

I know we pounded on the door for a very long time. R was crying. She had wet herself. She was only 5, after all. M was 6, he was trying to be a man, but he was crying, too. We all were. The baby, D, who was only 2 was in her playpen, she had subsided from her tears and gone to sleep. We wept and banged on that unresponsive door for so long. The afternoon dragged on and on. We couldn’t understand why our mother wouldn’t open the door, why she wouldn’t answer our calls, why she didn’t come out. At last our papa came home.

Our papa broke down the door. I remember the horror of seeing my mother, my strong godlike mother, slumped beside the toilet. I remember papa picking her up and carrying her out with her underwear down around her ankles. I think that was the worst. My mother was always so modestly dressed, so composed, and here she was with her underwear down around her ankles…

Many years later, I learned that this was a suicide attempt by taking pills.

She was taken to the hospital by ambulance. Madame Girard, a kind lady from social services came to look after us for many weeks of that summer and into the fall. She was the one that taught our clumsy little fingers to fold paper boats. To this day, when I fold those paper boats, I remember my mother with her underwear around her ankles and Madame Girard who taught me to fold paper boats.

That was the first time I saw my mother disintegrate, cease being that composed, strong, responsible, indomitable woman I had thought her to be. It was not to be the last.

It happened again a couple of years later. The events were not so traumatic, so all I can remember is that she never slept and would wake us up at odd times of the night and talk and talk and talk. Normally she said only the essential. I know she was hospitalized for a couple of months and her unmarried sister came to look after us so Papa could go to work. My Aunt A was a God-fearing, good woman and tried to do her best by us. She would dress us and do our hair up in pig tails. I remember she pulled our hair something dreadful. She also didn’t get along with Papa and would have long arguments with him. I don’t know what the arguments were about. My mother came home at last and life continued.

Soon after that, my world collapsed again. Terrible things happened with Papa and my mother left him and stole us away to stay with some friends in Farnham. My mother handled very well the stress of his anguished demands to have us back, pounding on the doors, and threatening retribution. She became again the indomitable woman in my eyes.

Farnham. Our town. We owned it. Yamaska River of memories.

Farnham. Our town. We owned it. Yamaska River of memories.

We were so happy there. We moved into a tall, old apartment building with railroad tracks on both sides of the house, Main Street in front and a wonderful field full of bugs to catch, frogs to examine, birds to marvel at in the back. Even better, there was a river, the Yamaska River, at the back of the field. My brother and sisters and I owned that river for the long summer days. We fearlessly crossed and recrossed the train bridges over the river, our dog Lassie trotting after us, to climb down the steep banks and play in the rapids. Our friends from school would come and play with us, all of us swimming in our shorts or dresses in the rushing water. We feared nothing.

These are our falls. How many times we sat on that cement walkway swinging our bare feet down. How many times we crossed the bridge that can only be glimpsed at the left of the photo. Memories...

These are our falls. How many times we sat on that cement walkway swinging our bare feet down. How many times we crossed the bridge that can only be glimpsed at the left of the photo. Memories…

It ended.

We first started to notice strangeness. My normally frugal mother started bringing home gifts for us. Useless gifts. I got my first real barbie from her one day. The next day she brought home ceramic dog figurines for all of us. She didn’t sleep. She would wake us up in the night and talk and talk. Sometimes she would hug us and cry and say how much she loved us. This was a woman who spoke only when she had something to say, rarely hugged and kept extremely regular hours. Our meals started to be irregular because she was so busy pacing around and talking. Some ladies from the church came over and tried to settle her down. Nothing helped. Then, her excited state ended. She began to spend days in bed and she cried all the time. Finally they took her to the hospital because she was talking crazy things about life not being worth living. They kept her there. We were sent away; two of us to an aunt in Markham, Ontario and two of us to a couple of friends from the church in Orillia, Ontario. My sister R and I were with my aunt. We had to adjust to a new school, a new life. We felt uprooted, disoriented. We didn’t have any friends. Our aunt and uncle had one son who was a lot older than us. We didn’t like the school. We would comfort each other that when we got back to Farnham, everything would be ok again.

We never went back to Farnham. When our mother was released from the hospital, she decided to go and live in a small town in northern Ontario.

We were devastated. There were no good-byes possible to our friends, we never saw our dogs and cats again. Our things had been packed up and sent to northern Ontario. We were driven the several hundred kilometres to the unfamiliar world that we were supposed to live in. My siblings and I refused to call our new apartment ‘home’ for the longest time. We would say “I’m going to the house”, or “I’ll call the house”. We resented our mother so much. We were not happy there because we refused to accept that our happy life was over.

Time passed. We began to accept that we had to live in this place our mother had brought us to. Our mother had been through a lot in her last treatment. She talked to us sometimes about having received shock treatments. She was on a lot of medication so her mental processing was slow. She cried easily. Needless to say, she was no longer godlike, indomitable and infallible in my eyes. I scorned her. I nursed anger against her.

She crashed again about two years later, going through the manic cycle, then the depressive cycle. She had a sister living in the same town with her husband. They stepped in and had her hospitalized. We stayed with them during that time.

I think this happened at least four more times. We grew to know the signs. My older sister R became the responsible one. My brother ended up going to live with Papa in Quebec. We would watch our mother and we knew when she was going to go into the cycle of mania then intense depression. She attempted suicide at least twice more that I can recall, each time with overdosing on pills.

She was no longer the woman that had been my childhood barrier against the world. I saw her as someone who was trying to control me but could not control herself. I saw her belief and faith in God as hollow since it didn’t provide her with the strength to fight off these manic depressive bouts that landed her in the mental hospital. I was so angry, that I rejected everything she tried so hard to instill in me, in terms of morality and correct behaviour.

She became my excuse for getting involved with bad company, drinking, toking, sex. I was only fourteen years old when I started all this. We had so many fights and I would scream at her that it was her fault. I was so angry, so very angry as a teen. I had no idea what was going on inside her, all I cared about was my rage at her, my rage at life. SHE had ruined my life. It was all her fault.

It took me a long time to forgive her. I had to go through griefs and anguishes of my own to see that none of it was really her fault. She had done the best she could for us. It was her body chemistry that had betrayed her.

None of my mother’s five children ever manifested this disorder. She finally found a doctor who could regulate her medication and her diet well enough so that she didn’t have any more crashes. We learned that it was a bipolar disorder and quite common. We also observed that her mental acuity was becoming diminished as well as her strength of character. It may have been the electroshock therapy she received, it may have been the years of lithium and other anti-psychotic drugs, who knows.

Now, my mother is 81 years old. She still reads and sews and quilts and cans and freezes fruits and vegetables from her garden. She is still medicated, her memory fails her frequently, but she knows all her children and grandchildren and never forgets a birthday.

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One response to “My Bipolar Mother

  1. What a poignant story of truths, suffering and so much courage. I found this looking for photos of train bridges in Farnham, where I grew up until my early 20’s, then raised my family in Chambly. Many travels in similar Ontario towns…Thank you for sharing this, Cheryl-Lynn

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