And so we come to the gist of the story. My father the writer and me, his daughter who is also a writer.
My father gives a unique, relevant and compelling voice to the invisible voice that prevails when it comes to the invisible thread of mood disorders. He has suffered from bipolar from his late teens. During his own personal life experience he has triumphed above all overwhelming odds that confronted and challenged him.
Everyone suffers from ’emotional baggage’ but there is more to it when it comes to bipolar or suffering from any other mental illness including a mood disorder.
My father has always taught me to dream big. Growing up I always knew that there was something special about him. He has suffered and lost, gained from personal blows to his ego and throughout his many life experiences his indomitable strength has always shone through. He was the perfect father, a saint. I worshiped him when I was growing up. I remember all the things that he taught me. He taught me how to love most of all and that the human heart is indecipherable though the keys to unlocking it are numerous.
He often came, and still does to this day, under fire for spreading the awareness of mental health in our community (he puts and pours his heart and soul into it). He deals with it on a daily basis as best he can.
There is a dual relationship between mania and depression when it comes to bipolar. They are inseparable. They are bound, bonded together like Siamese twins.
The mania gives rise to behavior that is reckless, wild, unpredictable, unforgiving; it makes you think that you are exceptional and despair, a slump in your mood and desperation comes with the depression. Depression is fast becoming the sickness of our time and of this generation. It has become a silent killer with indeterminable triggers and setbacks.
From my own personal life experience living and growing up with a father struggling with bipolar was far from easy. It taught me hard life lessons like that if you are suffering from a mental illness you can still be strong on the surface of things, keeping it together, functioning in a stressful workplace, a household filled with children creating chaos and mayhem in the kitchen but you can still feel empty and frustrated from the depression you are suffering from.
One thing I have learned is that there is hope even when you feel rejected, helpless and alone. When bipolar becomes such a struggle that it becomes difficult for you to function and survive there are people around you who can motivate you with positive words of encouragement when you need it the most from the people who care about you and love you for who you are. Not just as a nameless, faceless person but who see you as a human being that comes with all the flaws and imperfections of being human.
On some days when I was still a child and sometimes confused by my own father’s behavior it would feel as if I was looking into a cracked mirror; that was the place I called home. Although my father still made me feel safe when I was small and as long as he kept his demons at bay he kept my own far away from my own child’s mind.
There were the five of us caught in the middle of this raging storm at sea with no lifeline in sight sometimes, my mother, my sister, my brother, me and my father. There were days when the only link we had to each other was my father. The battle against the depression was an uphill struggle. Visits to the clinic where my father was hospitalised for his mania were regular occurrences when we were growing up. So were family counseling sessions. We all had to see and sit down face-to-face with a family psychologist every week while he was there but this very quickly became normal for us. In these sessions nothing was sacred or held back. Everything came under scrutiny that happened in our house but we never gave away much, all of us tending to be quiet and withdrawn. This was obviously learned behavior. We were taking our cue from our parents. As children we didn’t know how to recognise a helping hand that could soothe the situation we found ourselves in.
These times gave us false hope sometimes that perhaps this would be the last time; just maybe. But that wasn’t to be. The illness always came back with a vengeance. Even now I can see how my father’s daily suffering affected and impacted my siblings. As adults we all carry the deep emotional wounds and scarring coming from childhood. We internalized our father’s sadness, melancholy, depression, manic state of mind, the restless and frustrating mania that we and he had no control over and slowly we learned to accept it as our own.
My father makes everything around him beautiful. It spills out of his mind, his tenderness, his kindness, his tolerance, his calm, cool, collected head, his words and his language in the books he writes prolifically, out of the devastation and wreckage that was and is bipolar and his genes and his spirit. It has not diminished with age.
Being bipolar has not tarnished his image in the community instead it has made him a beacon of hope and an example to others who live daily with the denial of having a mental illness. When he was unafraid to discover who he was, he put the spotlight on the illness that he suffered from. While he relived his manic episodes in terrifying flashbacks while he was awake and that came upon him in his dreams from his subconscious when he was least expecting it there are those who cower back, who refrain from exploring the ghosts that haunt them from their own past but he took it in his stride.
When I think back to my childhood a whole deluge of images swim in front of my eyes; it is sometimes a manic blur frame by frame by frame. My childhood was a crazy place to live in. I can’t even imagine what it was like for my younger sister and brother growing up. The only way all of us could deal with the ‘bipolar’ was not to say much about the subject; for it to remain a moot point when it came up for discussion in front of the psychologist.
My father is still after all this time my hero. He is a writer, a father, a teacher, a futurist, a nurturer and a protector; noble, patient and wise and my best friend.
Bipolar holds your body and your mind hostage. There is no way that you can go back to the previous life that you lived without it coming back to haunt you sometime in the future. It clutters up your brain like a game of pick-up-sticks; erases happier memories in your head space, that you hold inside your head. It takes a long while before your dignity, health and integrity is restored. It is always a healing work in progress.
This mood disorder can render you helpless and senseless at the worst of times.
It makes you want to project a healing crusade onto the yoke of bondage that you throw off when it comes to bipolar. One that you want to project onto the feelings, emotions, actions, reactions and responses that rise up within you when you are either faced with a high head on or a bluesy low. You can never go through downswings without it leaving its indelible mark behind for the whole world to see, especially your loved ones and your close family. Reaching a fine, subtle balance when you suffer from bipolar can sometimes be just out of reach. You have to learn how to deal with the frustration, the distress that comes with the illness and the lack of control all in one and learn to let go of it. Learning to surrender is all a part of it.
It is hard to live with, love someone with all your heart and grow up with someone who lives in such close proximity to you who suffers from this illness. When you are a child your own moods, your private thoughts make you resilient, make you bounce back consistently from things that trouble you, strengthen you from the inside out, and make your realize that facing this illness demands sacrifice on your part no matter what age you are.
You cannot discriminate. You are forced not to and cannot self-destruct or sabotage yourself in the relationships you have with other people, your family, your friends or the life your lead just because daddy isn’t himself today or doesn’t want have the energy to spend any time with you or play with you. Yet as a child you still have to find a release somewhere. For all of us, the four of us, we fought our own way out of this illness that seemed fit to overwhelm us drowning visitors, forced us to put our hands up and surrender.
The only way to transcend the painful revelations that comes with bipolar is to realize that there will be days when there is depression, stressful situations in which conflict and challenges abound that we all will be faced with, moods that are terrifying and all at once lifesaving. There were moods that needed to be killed with pills.
The freedom that comes from having this knowledge is a comfort and it transforms us daily. It can also drive you slowly insane sometimes when everything normal, happy and cheerful is out of your reach.
There was always a radiant smile behind which my father hid and while he suffered in silence we all did in a way. We covered up this family secret, bipolar, with secrets and lies even if we didn’t mean to we went out of way to do it.
My father teaches me every day how light can be illuminated, how it can co-exist in fragile systems, hurtling through space and between bodies at indeterminate speeds, always infinitely expanding and contracting to the universe’s own breath not unlike our own breath and how some people call this light God.
My voice is just one in a million. My father’s valiant struggle with this mood disorder, bipolar, is also just one in a million.
The journey we have all been on has always been and is the destination. He has always been larger than life and his spirit invincible. His love so strong, his vibrant laughter, his bedazzling, enchanting smile comes daily shining through brightly even when all there is is gloom in the day and it burns unashamedly, giving off invisible, yet intense, almost blinding vibrations like the white sun. I can see it in his eyes; sparkling like glitter or sequins.
Lost inside of him somewhere is still a little boy who grew up with a father who was a barman at an elite, posh country club and a mother who was a housekeeper.
And then I come to my father the writer and the genetic predisposition of manic depression, suicidal depression.
Suddenly there is this uncontrollable shift; this mechanism in my brain, invincible and everything that came before, stability, emotional stability, normality and coherency is lost.
The loss of relationships derails you but love will find you in spaces ultimately devoid of sacrifice. This town is poor, small, and uneventful. You seldom feel out of touch with the reality of it.
I have always felt that there is an intense radiance behind words, streaming through the invisibility of white pages, an aggression of trapped particles between phrases.
Everything in an illness is an adapted move to the social climate, not structured, then a rescuing force reaching, straining to make sense of the world around you in an embellished utopia or a hellish nightmare filled either with pure, unfathomable dread or adrenaline shooting through your body, powered by an inescapable thread, a disconnected feeling of separation from the masses. They include people who are sociable, in good health, unafraid of the stressful aisles at the supermarket, lists and the hum of shopping malls.
My characters make choices that lead to their self-development, while I improvise. I tell myself often I’m going to have a wonderful life. I am going to be happy.
My medication is on the bedside table. I call it, ‘The Pharmacy’. Their physical shape leaves an imprint on your brain that says you are on dangerous ground. Their prowess like the end of a romantic affair is painful and like your beloved’s perfume it is remote and intriguing. It is like smoke, signalling a brittle, unforgiving outcome of a mysterious nature.
I learned to be successful you have to have an aversion to needles, doctors, well-meaning therapists. My heart keeps pumping. It’s my mistakes that are unpredictable, that bring me psychological terror and not relief. In my head, in relationships I tell myself, ‘I’m not in love.’ or ‘You don’t mean that much to me.’ I convince myself I don’t feel anything. It’s the way men are, their frame of mind.
The worst times are when my creativity is dulled and compromised. If I could freeze-frame happiness, I would bathe in the heavenly glow of junk food and films starring sad women like Marilyn Monroe for eternity.
My father strokes my leg, my neck, drums his fingers on my knee, kisses my forehead, pats my head and I put my arms around my father’s neck. He has just come home from work. He is tired, withdrawn. I am 5 years old. We watch the news together holding hands. I sit in his lap. “I love you daddy.” But his eyes are watching the flickering images on the screen. A world I already abhor.
“Don’t look.” My mother says. She is pregnant with my sister. I defy her, numbing myself already at this young age to senseless murder and violence. I finally do look away because I do not understand this world. My mother is triumphant, “I told you not to look.”
I am not yet twelve but already I know no man will ever gaze as adoringly at me as my father, be as forgiving of my temper, my depression as he is or be as loving towards me.
The vanishing pink traces of my mother’s fingertips against my sister’s cheek at the breakfast table, a lipstick smudge against her morning cup of coffee stretched my imagination beyond belief. Would I become her or would I cease to exist, as I knew it, dieting, shopping, living vicariously through characters in a weekday series on television or airbrushed pictures in a magazine. Dates between my mother’s fingers is the color of blackstrap molasses. My mother and I were like two bodies hurtling through space. To her, giving in doesn’t mean giving up. She feels pleasure in eating impulsively. The backlash I experience when I do the same is exhilarating and dangerous.
Tense, numb, anxious, pensive, I left the psychiatrist with my mother. He wanted to talk to her in private. The magazines in front of me on the table held no interest for me. They were just one thousand and one stories of staring into nothing. I was alone except for the young receptionist. She had short hair. She was pretty, helpful. She did not stare at me. Instead she busied herself with admin. The good doctor had studied in Vienna. That had to count for something, I told myself, imagining the gates of the university, its spires; if it had lofty towers, students walking across green spaces, trees blossoming. ‘Our last resort will be to have you hospitalized. This will mean Elizabeth Donkin. We don’t want that to happen. So I’ll see you next month, then.’ Just like that, my life as I knew it was all over.
Julian came to visit me often at Tara. He drove his sister’s car. She worked in a bank and had worked herself up from being a teller to working in the finance department.
Julian had schizophrenia. He played the guitar in the band at his church. Sometimes he would have good days and sometimes bad. If it was a bad day, it would be really difficult to communicate with him. He had long, dark hair. We would talk for hours on everything under the sun; the physical and emotional horrors of treatment, the isolation that accompanied grave mental illness. Sometimes we would just sit together on the grass, saying nothing at all, in our own thoughts. He’d buy us cans of soda at the cafe at the hospital that was open in the early afternoon until 4 o’ clock. We’d sit together so long outside, on a park bench that the soda would become warm and we’d sip the fizzy drink that now tasted like water through straws for intermittent periods of time. Both of us staring into space, imagining our futures intertwined with periods of ill health, euphoria, the mania that came with bipolar. Sitting down face-to-face with yet another psychiatrist, psychologist, other in-patients in the canteen; imagining what hell must be like, feel like for eternity and having to process that yet again.
When the pressure intensified and I tended to believe that I was above recrimination, teachers would take me aside and say, ‘This is a warning. We can’t accept this kind of behavior. You’re good. You have talent. You’re intense. Tone it down or you’re out of here.’ After Tara, I got tangled up in compliments, displaced in relationships, stopped going for checkups. Warning bells began to ring but I tended not to notice the blinking obvious at the time.
Sitting around in a class, I still felt like I didn’t belong. I didn’t deserve to be there. Unfortunately, my masked insecurities that came from my gut was seen as sheer arrogance by a lot of people that I came into contact with. Of course, in retrospect, I would have done it differently. I would have been more considerate of other peoples’ feelings, been more sensitive, my thinking more rational and would have had much more clarity of vision. I would have been the most emotional mature person in the room. I would have been more aware of my manners and my mannerisms would have screamed subliminally, ‘etiquette, etiquette, etiquette at all times, Abigail.’ Instead, I became more and more withdrawn (at this time I wasn’t taking any meds, I didn’t feel I needed them anymore, I was ‘happy’, ‘content’, ‘balanced’, ‘coping’, ‘sane’, ‘healthy’), a hellish, highly intelligent human robot going head on through the motions of being a highly kind of normal that I thought my parents, the people around me, rooting for me, the ones who had my back, who believed in me expected of me. Looking back, all the signs were there. I wasn’t sleeping. Three days would go by and the most sleep I got was a few hours, a long midday nap or I would pull an all-nighter with the boys in the edit suite; staring, glassy-eyed, at frame after frame after frame until the early hours of the morning. I tried to make friends with the girls but they were not having any of that. It was as if they could already sense a disconnect within me, my altered states of mind, the dopamine and serotonin clicking away, speeding away in my brain; endorphins slowly but then more surely rising to higher levels. In their heads, there were no wasted or lost years, there was no wilderness unfolding into the barren playing fields of living with years of a mental illness, no trial and error only beautiful, biological perfection. Perfection I could not call my own.
Mental illness and craving, half-dreaming wellness; a sense of spiritual, emotional and physical well-being is an eternal battle; you are locked into it mentally with no viable exit out. No matter how long, how hard you hate yourself, you punish yourself, you loathe yourself, you push against this daily struggle, this trauma, hoping against hope that it will finally let go of you, you live and you learn to let go of working so hard to keep a pretense up. The plain truth is this, if you don’t let go of ‘it’, it the humiliations that burned you, what you said, how you said it, what you didn’t say, in that few precious moments when you still had the time to take that hurtful accusation that came out of nowhere, from you, yes, you; you will go insane and it’s not that much of a struggle, if you’re halfway there already. Half-drowning, flailing like a bird with a broken wing, mourning the life you once you knew you had, when you were perfect and not sick. Not getting out of bed, not eating, pulling the covers over your head when the sight of afternoon light hit your head, not taking care of yourself, of your home, of your family.
Doing ordinary chores that once made you feel human and grounded in reality like working in the garden, for God’s sake watering plants is me feeling normal again, going swimming, for a walk on the beach. Stroking a pet’s fur, washing the dishes, cooking a meal, doing activities that gave a more novel meaning to your life, sharing secrets, conspiring vengeance upon the enemy that is mental illness. Feeling normal is the ancient darkness of despair, the gut-wrenching, explosive volcano of the paranoia of mania that only settled when you got your rest and when they stuck the needle painlessly in. I mean (you’re so high, you can hardly feel a thing), and perhaps here, I am talking in secret code to those who would know that part best; when sleep becomes your best friend, your only friend when you’re knocked out stone cold. It’s a magical alliance with no flurry, detailed illusions. You’re finally dead to the world, almost as if in a coma. Your skin oh so pale and beautiful.
I was there.
I did all that, went through it all. It sounds like drama but it doesn’t just end there. The black dog of depression comes on you like a fork in the road. It rises out of nowhere like lists, an item you remember wearing and then cringe at your choice because of the trends at the time. It rises like a ghost from your past; like faces and limbs whose features come unstuck at the edges and become blurred, sinking and swimming in ripples of water; something that was lost in haste and then found once again amidst bliss and glee. So important to you now that it will be buried like treasure in a sock, under a mattress, in a drawer; held dear, never to be lost again. If only regaining your emotional health could be so easy, I hear myself say over and over again like a stuck record.
I never truly fitted anywhere. I tried too hard or not enough. I was too different. With pain pulsing in short staccato waves murdering me every inch of a movement.
You get lots of ‘space’ in hospital. You get ‘lots of time to think’, ‘lots of time to yourself’ and ‘lots of time to weigh up the labels you’ve been given or are going to get given in your life’. But most of all, you get ‘lots of head-space’ and too many people picking at your brain and sometimes you find yourself loving, craving all the attention your own mother did not have the energy, to give to you, because you wanted all of her. You wanted all of her, when she was tired or busy running errands or just facing whatever issues grownups, in her day, faced.
‘Bring it on. More. More. Ask me anything you want. I’m an open page. I’m not afraid of the truth.’ Then you realize, that your truths swiftly, really, reveal who you are, when you begin to open up, and it is this; that you’re one hell of a psychological mess, on a road paved with good intentions, goals that are within your reach if you work hard enough with courage and commitment. And yet that road is still leading you faraway, further and further on a pathway straight to the hell and the preeminent burden of mental illness. So I told myself, I’m sticking to my childhood stories of name (the person who caused you the most), pain and blame (them for everything that went wrong in your life).’
Sometimes you’re sick of it, your honesty, and how painful the process of what they call here ‘cognitive therapy’ is, but most times you find it a bit self-indulgent. And by the third month you’re just thinking, ‘Am I ever going to get out of here? Am I ever going to escape the stigma of this place, of taking daily doses of lithium to ‘cure’ me? Nobody even knows what lithium is, so they’re not going to care anyway.’ And I heard, like a song on the wind in the heartland of winter in the countryside, the most heart-breaking words of all in the English language. ‘Nobody will ever love me again. Nobody will ever hurt me, touch me, hug me, embrace all of me and know what I had to endure, live through to get this far in life, to get to the other side again.’ The other side was humanity. A breath of fresh air considering what I had been through to get there.
I was wrong. People did hurt me but I did my fair share of hurting people too. Sometimes I apologized. Sometimes I didn’t. Although that first impression stayed with me for a long time before I realized it was just a white lie I drilled into myself to keep me sane and to make me believe in sobriety. For some people, mental illness and alcoholism simply, with no forethought, go hand-in-hand. They are inseparable buddies for whom sobriety could be a killer. I had to work on it, like most things. Patience did not come easily to me. I had to focus especially on not getting distracted at the task on hand. My anger could easily flare up and then I just saw red. A high exposure of red scribbles, a thin red line drawn through a conversation, red flaring up through my body, from the tips of toes, to the top of head in a mad, wild, hot rush and next, I would feel nothing. Calm would descend; a cool desert of calm at twilight complete with Magi and camels and ‘that’ star. Yes, almost as if there was something oddly religious and meditative about it, the calm that descended. I needed some sought of mechanism to fix whatever was hurting so badly inside me and that was it. Experimental writing. As I grew older, faith became all-important to me and I discovered I could begin to ‘read’ my moods; when I was up but especially when I was down. Different things work for different people. For some people it’s a glass of wine and sushi, a circle of friends, playing an instrument like Julian, the relationship between Natasha and her mother; the respect and devotion for one another that they share. For me it’s this; having faith.
I love those words. Electric. Electricity. Fire. They tell me when I should be on the lookout, on the alert for any signs and for me they don’t mean so many things, only one. Panic and mania.
In the past when I started to feel like that, I could already imagine the onslaught of mania. It was as if I was on fire.
I don’t know what wavelength I’m on or connected to, I just write. It helps me figure out what’s behind ‘all of this’. The years I spent speaking to therapists isn’t wasted on me. I can draw from those ‘behind-the-scenes’ experiences and use them when I write to their full potential. I know who I am now. I’m not perfect but then again, who is? Who isn’t? The possibility that this is what saved me from a fate worse than death is not completely lost on me. I am living a full, productive life. I’m healthy for now. I’m happy. You have your good days and you have your bad days and I can see them through. I’m learning how to handle the ‘episodes’. Rage, sadness, the torture of having your nerves on edge all the time, gritting your teeth, because there are just too many people in the world today for you to face, even if it means going out just to buy milk and bread. It’s shameful what we do physically, mentally to our bodies when we hate ourselves. Who do we hate more? I hated the wasteland of depression. I hated the suicidal depression even more. The more I resisted it, the more it would not let me go. I thought to myself how peaceful it would be, make no apologies and just to drown in it, give up and give in.
There’s two words for it; human suffering. I could have said mental health or the awareness of mental health or mental illness but every day somewhere in the world human beings are suffering and there are others who remain obstinately in denial of it and indifferent and aloof to it. Who do you feel sorrier for now? Those who suffer in silence or those who do not care at all? I have discovered there’s always a story behind any kind of illusion found in life. There is always a lie or a scar. Everybody hurts. The monster doesn’t have to be mental illness or a mood disorder like bipolar.