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.


“Chaos to Cured”

I’ve just finished reading an interesting book written by an acquaintance of mine, Kirk Miller, describing his life with Bipolar 1, his body’s resistance to most conventional bipolar meds, and how he stumbled upon a medication that he believes to have cured his mental illness.

I urge you to read his memoir, because some of his highs and lows are so familiar to me, as well as so many of the side effects he truly suffered from while taking the “typical” meds. I do not believe he tried ECT so for those of you adverse to the thought of electric shock as therapy for bipolar, perhaps this book is worth a look.

It’s a fast read, and inexpensive. You can download it onto a Kindle for less than $4. And best of all? All of his net profits from sales of these books will be donated to the “Healing Unique Minds Foundation”, which provides research and aid to bipolar patients. You can even check him out at http//

If nothing else has worked for you, read Kirk’s book and talk to your doc. See where things take you from there.



Just like Mom!

My 10-year old daughter and I have been prescribed the same medication by our respective doctors. Different doses, of course, but the same drug. She thinks it’s cool, because it has to be taken with food and we’ve instituted a new bedtime snack/pill popping routine. We can remind each other when to take it, and we are even experiencing some of the same initial side effects together. How fun! Kind of like back in the ’80s when moms and daughters wore matching Laura Ashley outfits!

Yeah, not really……

Sorry, Bing

Bing Crosby sang this song that I loved when I was growing up.  These are the first few lines:

“When I’m worried and I can’t sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep counting my blessings”

Sorry, Bing.  I have absolutely no interest in counting blessings or sheep.  I’m completely exhausted and sleep deprived and I am not going to fall asleep counting either.  And when I’m low on sleep, I also feel rather low on blessings.

So instead, I think I will count Ativan.

Remember this?

I think I’ve mentioned that ECT screws with my memory. In fact, in my case it has totally destroyed it. Of course, I strongly believe that the benefits far outweigh the inconvenience associated with loss of short-term memory, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying.

Last year, during a visit to my General Practitioner, I had to provide an update of all medications I was currently taking, as the list had changed drastically since starting ECT and seeing her last. She was entering my changes into her laptop and asked,

“Are you still taking Aricept”?

I replied that I had no idea what Aricept was, but I knew for certain I wasn’t taking it. I didn’t remember ever having taken it.

She was nearly hysterical with laughter, and because I automatically assumed she was laughing at me, I was immediately offended. “What the hell?”, I asked her.

“You can’t remember that you were taking Aricept”.

“So what? I don’t remember a lot these days…..”, I snarled.

“Your ECT doctor gave you Aricept to help with your memory. It’s commonly prescribed for Alzheimer’s patients”.

Oh. OK. That’s pretty funny.

Down the hatch

I have a new medication that I’ve been taking for about three weeks now. Yesterday I left a message for my prescribing psychiatrist telling him I’m having some very strange side effects:

A little twitchiness in my fingers and wrists, which I’ve had with other drugs. a little less sleep than usual, which I’ve also seen in the past, and some dry mouth and increased appetite.

And this very weird sensation that I think is commonly referred to as “contentment”. I might even be able to describe it as “borderline happiness”.

I’m not accustomed to either of those feelings, so this med might be “the one”. Bummer about the likely weight gain, but I think the trade-off is going to be ok.