That was then, this is now.

I remember a lot about my childhood. Surprisingly, my memories are pretty clear. I especially remember summers. When I was young, I never went to camp and we rarely traveled during summer vacation, so I enjoyed my break from school in the idyllic setting of a small town. I grew up in northern New England and recall riding my bike to my best friend’s house by the lake almost daily and floating with her in the cool water for hours, doing cannonballs off her dock. I never wore sunscreen, I drank Coke out of glass bottles, sang along to the radio, made s’mores and pretended to be Princess Leia. I remember picking red clover from the field near my house, plucking the purple spikes from the stem and chewing on their ends. I fished for tiny perch with my brothers, and caught fireflies in a mason jar with holes poked in the lid, hoping they’d live through the night. I remember the chirping of crickets as I lazily rocked in a hammock.

I don’t remember being bipolar.

But my 10-year old daughter will spend her summer suffering from the disease I unwittingly passed down to her. She will know too well the symptoms I didn’t experience until my twenties. Her summer will be full of therapy, and medications and their side effects. She will continue to lose friendships and not understand why. She will cry herself to sleep, asking why she has to be “like this”. And I will have no answers for her. I can give her cool lakes and hammocks and Coca-Cola, but the joy she might get from those experiences will be only temporary.

I wish I could have my youthful summers back. Because I would give them to her. Instead, I gave her bipolar disorder.

Passing time

I just saw a cool quote (author unknown):

“Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway”.

So true. This applies to many things – love, health, fame and fortune among them. But my dream is happiness. The time it will take to find my dream may be out of my hands, but what I do with myself in the meantime is entirely up to me. And I don’t intend to waste a single moment.

Look out happiness, here I come.

Nothing “purty” about it

My paternal grandmother, apparently, was bipolar. I didn’t learn this until just a few years ago. You see, I always thought she was just plain old mean.

There had been plenty of minor incidents when I was growing up during which I experienced my grandmother’s curious behavior. Oddly, she was always either high or she was very low. But there was no in-between that i can recall. We always thought she was just bitchy. And when she wasn’t being incredibly unpleasant, she was in her bed, seemingly feeling sorry for herself. She lived 1000 miles from our home so we didn’t see her often, but when we were together it was always the same routine. She was a miserable witch.

It had always been clear that I was no favorite of my grandmother’s. She had told me on many occasions that I was too much like my mother, who she referred to as a “Goddamned heathen immigrant”. My grandmother was a Methodist with a thick Southern accent (not the charming kind of drawl, either, but the hick dialect of an uneducated farm girl from the South). My mom was an obedient woman, a Russian Orthodox who was not the first choice of a wife for her perfect and only son. And my grandmother hated her; by relation, she also despised me.

I remember a couple of incidents quite clearly, which I now recognize to have been manic episodes. The first was at my high school graduation party. My friends and guests were milling about, congratulating me and paying me attention. But my grandmother was being largely ignored, and her narcissism and her disorder couldn’t handle the slight. So she worked her way into the center of the small crowd with whom I was conversing, and I was starting to introduce her when she announced quite loudly, “Ya know, if you were half as nice as you are purty, you mighta turned out okay….”. The crowd was still and silent, and I did my best to choke back my tears and hide my shame. My father quickly escorted his mother from the patio and brought her inside. She spent the next day in bed, never once rising until the following afternoon. I was devastated that she had embarrassed me in front of my friends, and I received no apology. It was as if, in her mind, the incident had never occurred.

The second episode was at the dinner table on Christmas night when both my grandmothers were present: my father’s mother, and my little Russian babushka who everyone adored. They had both traveled to join us for the holiday to celebrate my older brother’s engagement that day to his longtime girlfriend. Looking back on that night, I remember my grandmother’s agitation and restlessness. She had been sarcastic and antsy all day. By the time we sat for dinner, she could no longer hold in her angst. She began by telling me I shouldn’t eat so much or I’d end up “fat like your mother”. She pretended she couldn’t understand my Babushka, asking if she was ever going to learn to speak “real English”. She then asked my brother’s stunned fiancée if she was sure she wanted to be part of this family. My father asked her several times to apologize, to quiet down, but when my grandmother told my mom that her beautiful Christmas meal “tastes like shit”, my father threw his chair back from the table and lifted his 75-year old mother from her seat and carried her, kicking and screaming, from the table and into her room. My mother cried, my brother apologized on his grandmothers behalf, and my father returned to the table and pretended nothing had happened. The next morning when I woke, my father and grandmother were gone. He had taken her to the airport to return home. She never again was invited to visit, although she did attend my brother’s funeral four years later, at which time she spent the night in a hotel and was not allowed to stay in our home.

My mom told me only recently that my grandmother was bipolar, and that when I was a toddler my grandfather had her “institutionalized”. During her 6-week stay at a mental hospital, she underwent ECT. This was the early 1970’s and my grandfather believed it was her only chance. Sadly, ECT was not an effective treatment for her and she took lithium for the rest of her life, another 25 years. During that time, my mother tells me, my grandmother was unfaithful to my grandfather as a means of punishing him for “forcing” her to do ECT, for shaming and humiliating her. So, she shamed and humiliated him back by publicly carrying on a two-year affair with another man. Her indiscretion was, in her mind, payback for the terrible way he had treated her, forcing her to receive treatment for a disease that in her mind didn’t exist. And my poor grandpa was well aware of her behavior, of her cheating. He was a man who missed his wife and the woman she used to be, and was willing to do anything to make her well because he believed somewhere behind her illness was that woman he still loved. He forgave her the affair because he loved her, and instead blamed her illness for it.

He died before she could truly be well. So did she.

My grandmother’s life was anything but “purty”. She refused to acknowledge her illness, and it consumed most of her years. It stole from her relationships with her son and grandchildren. It left the people in her life with nothing but ugly memories of her. She missed out on blue skies and friendships and the warm embraces of children because she was sick and refused to ask for help. She denied the disease existed, and as a result she denied herself the possibility of a happy life.

Bipolar disorder may run in the family, but the way it’s handled doesn’t. I refuse to turn out like her.

I absolutely refuse.

“Hello, my old heart”

You’re going to see lots of quotes on this site – sometimes I read or see or hear things that cause me to giggle, or grip a little at my heart, or make me think twice about my situation. Here’s an example: I heard this song for the first time on the radio a few days ago and I’ve listened to it several times since then. It’s been around for a couple of years, so perhaps you’re already familiar with it. If not, I thought it worth sharing. The word “poignant” comes to mind when I read the lyrics of this sweet song by the “Oh, Hellos”:

hello, my old heart
how have you been?
are you still there inside my chest?
I’ve been so worried
you’ve been so still
barely beating at all

oh, don’t leave me here alone
don’t tell me that we’ve grown for having loved a little while
oh, I don’t want to be alone
I want to find a home and I want to share it with you

hello, my old heart
it’s been so long
since I’ve given you away
and every day I add another stone
to the walls I built around you
to keep you safe

hello, my old heart
how have you been?
how is it, being locked away?
don’t you worry
in there, you’re safe
and it’s true you’ll never beat, but you’ll never break

because nothing lasts forever
some things aren’t meant to be
but you’ll never find the answers
until you set your old heart free

Curse or convenience?

I think I’ve mentioned that I undergo ECT to battle my bipolar disease.  I may have also mentioned that it has been utterly devastating to my memory.  The year 2011 is, for the most part, lost to me completely, and much of 2012 is a blur.  I keep hearing from Dr. Ted Danson (see my other ECT posts…..) that I will likely eventually regain a good portion of what has been “temporarily” lost, but I still have my doubts.

I’ve come to realize that my short-term memory loss can be a real curse.  I often look at photos on my computer in the hope of “refreshing” my memories, but it only makes me feel like another person took those pictures because there are so many faces and places and events that seem like they must have happened to someone else.  I often find myself repeating certain things to my family, and my kids are always quick to point out, “Mooooommmmm, you already TOLD US THAT!  53 times!!!!”  It’s annoying to them, and aggravating to me, because I honestly don’t remember telling them even once.

Memory loss is incredibly embarrassing, as well.  “Hey, do you remember when our families went canoeing on the river?”  (Nope)    “Hi, nice to see you again.  We met last summer”.  (No, sorry, I’ve never seen you before)    “Do you remember how to get to that street faire we went to a couple of months ago?”  (Absolutely no clue)    “How can you not remember that we share a birthday?  We celebrated two years in a row together!”  (oops?)  “What’s the name of that family that moved in down the street last summer?”  (a new family moved in?).    “Where did you get that dress you wore to your cousin’s wedding?”  (my cousin got married?)

Of course, there is the “up” side to memory loss.  It can be convenient.  If I’m really lucky, I forget things like how sick I was following my last ECT session.  Or when my teenage daughter told me I promised to take her to a particular R-rated movie, I can cite my poor memory and tell her, “There is no way I would ever have agreed to that”.  If I forget to show up to an appointment or forget to sign the permission slip for my child to go to the field trip or forget that there is a field trip, most people are pretty forgiving because severe memory loss has been such a huge part of my life for nearly two years.  Sadly, people are getting used to it as being part of who I am.  Sadly, I am getting used to it as being part of who I am.

Unfortunately, I can’t seem to forget the things that bring me the most emotional pain.  I’d love to forget that my dad died while I watched.  I wish I could forget that my husband has left me, and why.  I would like to not remember all of the terrible behavior I exhibited when I was at my sickest.  I would love to forget some of the horrible things I’ve witnessed.  I pray to forget much of my recent past.  If I’m going to be cursed with memory loss, why can’t I at least get to decide what I remember and what I don’t?

And I could easily make memory loss more of a convenience than it occasionally is.  I could lie about having forgotten this or that.  I could use it as an excuse.  But truthfully, I’m afraid that if I take advantage of my faulty memory, it will come back to bite me in the ass.  Kind of like when my mom would say, “Don’t make that face; it might stick like that”.  I could so easily lie my way out of many situations and blame it on my ECT-induced memory loss.  But with my luck, it would then become the truth.  And I can’t bear losing any more memories, even the bad ones.

So, chaos or curse?  I’m leaning heavily toward curse.  But I have my sights set on the day when I wake up to find an old memory has returned to my scrambled brain.  I look forward to regaining my happy memories, one by one, regardless of how much time it takes.

In the meantime, I’m going to remain optimistic.  For as long as I can remember what “optimistic” means.