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 fiancĂ©e 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.

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