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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Meltdown refrozen

Apologies for the minor meltdown late last week.

My mother has bipolar disorder. It's nice to type that on a blog, where I can't gauge my readers' reaction and feel the level of discomfort in the room rising. Having a mental illness in the family is unpleasant for many reasons. One of them is that the social stigma attached to mental illness is so strong that I can feel people desperately looking for a conversational escape route as soon as the words "my mother has bipolar disorder" leave my mouth. I'm sure if the words were "my mother is blind" or "my mother has multiple sclerosis" or even "my mother has Alzheimer's," they wouldn't react in the same "Jesus, get me out of here" way. I wouldn't have to watch their gaze dart or their feet shift or their hands squirm if I revealed my mother's diabetes or my dad's death from prostate cancer*. People have a problem dealing with mental illness.

And so do I. My problem is that I am 10,000 miles away and there's nothing I can do about it, and the guilt is sometimes overwhelming. Another problem I have is that perhaps the only person in a position to do something about it - my mother's boyfriend Trevor - is schizophrenic and possibly also in the midst of an episode.

My mother's mental illness first manifested in 1987, when I was seven years old. It's not the regular, run-of-the-mill bipolar disorder, but a severe type exhibited by only 1% of all bipolar sufferers; even with constant medication, she suffers from recurring episodes, usually annual, which land her in psychiatric wards for between two weeks and three months. She's been doing particularly well in the last four or five years, with episodes limited to only two every three years; unfortunately, these have seemed to coincide with Matt's visits to Australia, with the result that every time my husband has met his mother-in-law in her home country, he's had to visit a mental hospital. Yes, there is a dark humor in the situation.

I grew up with bipolar, the always looming fourth (or perhaps fifth) member of my not-so-nuclear family (nuclear in a different sense of the word, maybe). It complicated everything. Perhaps the only uncomplicated moments I spent as a teenager with my mother were when her episodes became obviously intolerable and easily diagnosed, and I marched her into emergency wards to have her committed.

I don't know if she's definitely having another episode. She's definitely been having some relationship issues. Last week, she called to tell me of Trevor's erratic behavior, and followed with a few erratic conversations of her own. "We are one!" she bellowed at me. "If you die, I die. If I die, you die. Say it!" "Yes, Mum, we are one," I said in despair, and I felt my gaze dart and my feet shift and my hands squirm as they gripped the phone, desperate to hang up and escape.

I talk about my mother because she affects me every day, even when I don't speak to her, and right now, she's affecting me more than usual. When I mention her mental illness, I don't want my audience to feel pity for me or react with shock. I don't want them to fidget and change the subject. I wish my mother's (and therefore, my) problems were as unworthy of comment as a broken arm or a stolen car, that people would understand the appropriateness of simply saying, "Eh, that sucks," and letting me speak.

When I was a teenager, I noticed a trend among my closest friends. "Troubled," I called them. They were intelligent kids who all came from backgrounds with some sort of enormous hurdle. Unbelievable parental abuse. Spectacularly broken homes. Sexual trauma. Unconventional sexual or gender issues. It didn't really matter what the hurdle was, as long as it was being dealt with in some way**. It was like one-on-one group therapy. I could say to my friends, "My mother threatened to kill me with an axe," and I wouldn't be met with pity or shock, which only make me feel worse. I would just be met. "Oh yeah?" they'd say, and they'd laugh with me, because sometimes all you can do is laugh.

I guess I moved somewhere very different when I came to America. I have the most wonderful stable home life possible. I don't have to take care of anyone. Nobody is actively undermining my self esteem. Perhaps as a result of all this stability, my friends in this hemisphere are remarkably untroubled in comparison to my Antipodean friends. The downside is that when my past comes knocking, I am no longer surrounded physically with people who will only say, "Eh, that sucks," and maybe throw in a few horror stories of their own to make me feel better.

So, in part, I think the meltdown I had in school last week was about that. At least I managed to keep it fairly private; there is nothing more pathetic that a woman pushing thirty weeping in a building populated mostly by teenagers. The catalyst for the meltdown was being bullied into performing on the cello without notice in a masterclass -- immediately after a lengthy conversation about Schumann's bipolar disorder. I probably would have gotten along very well with Schumann's kids.

Feel free to post "Eh, that sucks," in the comments. Throw in horror stories if you have them.

* For Jason's sake, I should probably acknowledge that "my mother caught HIV from teh gay sex" would probably be worse, but dammit, this is my bitching session.

** In retrospect, one of the pre-requisites for obtaining membership of the Troubled club seems to have been dealing with hurdles by succeeding in an extraordinary way in one (or many, or every) other area of life.
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