Chute Me Now

My 10-year old daughter sees a therapist to help deal with her bipolar disorder.  Although she adores her therapist, her favorite part of each session is the time spent in the waiting room prior to each appointment.  She begs to go early so she can check out the “old fashioned” board games on the shelf in the lobby, hoping to coerce me into losing to her at a game of “Battleship”, “Connect Four”, “Clue” or maybe Jenga.  She is intrigued by the lack of batteries or electricity required to play these games, and treats them like relics at a museum.  Her favorite game to play with me while we wait for her appointment to begin is “Chutes and Ladders”.

Have you ever played this game?  Each player has a “guy” who makes his or her way up the game board space by space, the object being the first to reach space #100.  There is no pair of dice, but instead you choose how far your player moves by spinning a “spinny wheel”, as my daughter calls it.  On the road to space #100, there are a variety of ladders and chutes (which resemble the tubed slides on a playground).  If your player lands on a ladder, he climbs up to a higher level; it’s like cheating, in my mind.  You get a shortcut from space #7 to space #29.  Totally unfair, of course, because in all the time I’ve been playing this stupid game with my daughter, I have never once, not ever climbed a ladder.

I am the queen of the chutes.

Should you spin the “spinny wheel” and move your player forward and land on a chute, you are immediately sent down the chute and you lose several, if not dozens, of spaces.  Just as you make progress, you hit a chute and lose all of the momentum you had gained.

Even more aggravating than the chutes are the pictures of the children drawn on the game board.  At the bottom of each ladder is a happy child.  At the top of the ladder is an ecstatic child.  At the top of the chute is a tentative-looking child, but the child at the bottom of the chute looks devastated and depressed.  Clearly that cartoon child recognizes that being sent down the chute stinks.

Today, we were at the therapist’s office and my daughter, of course, was winning at “Chutes and Ladders”.   She “climbed” so many ladders, I’d lost count.   But she noticed that I hit the top of the exact same chute three times in a row.  And after the third slide down the chute of shame, she asked me, “Mommy, doesn’t it bother you that you have slid down that same chute three times?  Aren’t you upset?”  Oh, how I wanted to answer her truthfully.  That my entire life seems to have been a series of “chutes” that I have barely climbed to the top of before I plummet down again, only to have to start over.  Again and again and again.  I wanted to tell her that my life has been a game of “Chutes”, but with very few ladders.  I can never seem to get ahead.  I had the ladder of a beautiful marriage which rescued me from a deep depression and shot me to the top of my game where I remained happy and continuously climbing with the addition of my three beautiful children on their subsequent ladders.

But then I started hitting the squares with the chutes.  My dad’s death, my diagnoses of bipolar, my husband leaving me – those were the long chutes, but there were many shorter chutes in between.  Just when the “spinny wheel” got me a few spaces ahead, I would land on another chute.  Just as I thought I was crawling out of my hole, I was sliding – no, plummeting – back down another chute, landing at the bottom next to the cartoon drawing of a miserable-looking child.

But I can’t say that to a 10-year old.  Instead, I tell my beautiful daughter, “No, honey, it doesn’t bother me at all that I keep hitting the same chute over and over.  Because as long as you keep climbing the ladders, that’s all I need to be happy”.

And that’s the God’s honest truth.

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Mayday

May 1st. May Day. A day that, for some, marks the start of a real spring and happy weather. It’s often a day to turn over a new leaf; wash your screens or put away the winter blankets. But for me, it’s the anniversary of a day that changed my life. A horrible day that I can barely think of without feeling a familiar and unwanted tightening in my chest. A speeding up of the thoughts in my brain. A heartbreaking remembrance of what was, but could never again be. Because twenty years ago on May 1, my older brother was killed in a plane crash.

While thinking about him today, and examining my life before, during and following that horrific event, I’ve tried to assign a timeframe to when I first noticed my symptoms of bipolar. And I’ve stumbled onto a question that begs an answer: Is my bipolar disorder based primarily on genetics, or can environmental factors play a role? That’s my query for the day.

My brother was the family treasure. He was in his mid 20’s when he was killed, and I had idolized him. He was the perfect child to my parents: an excellent student who received a full-ride scholarship to college; athletic and artistic, and as an adult he was extremely caring and kind. He married his high school sweetheart and got his dream job as a pilot. He did everything right, and he never disappointed. I am younger than him by three years, and had such admiration for my only older sibling. When my mom called to tell me he had died, I felt like my mind had floated away from my body temporarily, just to be able to bear and process the news. It was weeks before I felt my brain reconnect with my person, and allow me to function again, although I don’t know if “function” really applied to how I was getting through my days. I remember little of it.

I never resumed my “normal” life. I had my first panic attack during that time. I experienced deep and crippling depression, situational and circumstantial and perhaps unrelated to bipolar disorder, but depression nonetheless. And my behavior became erratic and unpredictable. It was within a year of my brother’s death that I experienced my first major manic episode.

So, was I already genetically predisposed to my fate long before my brother was killed, and perhaps the stress of his death brought those emotions to the surface? Would I be experiencing this disease to its very fullest had it not been for this life-altering occurrence that shook my world and changed my entire outlook on life? Or would I have merely been dealing with a mild and manageable “case” of bipolar disorder if my brother was still here? Would the disease eventually have surfaced at all?

I do believe I would have exhibited symptoms of bipolar eventually, but I don’t know to what extent. And the “woe is me” feelings of zero self-worth might not be so strong had my brother remained in my life for the past twenty years. Less reason to feel sorry for myself, more familial support. Therefore, maybe less serious bouts with the disease. Do I believe I was going to “be” bipolar as an adult regardless of his fate? Yes. Do I believe his death and my reaction exacerbated my symptoms? Definitely.

Ironically, I want to share with you that “May Day” is not only the name given to celebrations of May 1st, but it is also the call of distress that a pilot uses when his plane is crashing:

“Mayday! Mayday!”

I miss you, big brother.

The Crossword

The other day I was going through some papers in my nightstand drawer, and I found a small glossy blue and white folded paper that I’d come across many times in the last few years and done nothing with. I recognized the paper as a folded crossword given to me by my dad several years ago. I had been saving it. For what, I didn’t know.

I live in the Rocky Mountains and my father lived in California. Being his only daughter and the mother to his only grandchildren, he visited often. And my dad only flew here on United Airlines. I used to joke with him that I don’t think he chose that airline because of the prices or his growing Mileage Plus account. It wasn’t for the (at the time) free cocktails or the Priority Seating that he got for being 6’4″ tall. I swear he flew United and no other airline strictly because of the crossword puzzles.

From an early age, I could remember my father doing the NY Times Crossword Puzzle on a daily basis. He always did it in pen. He used either a fine-point Sharpie or a felt-tip pen of another brand, never ever a ball-point pen. And when he started the crossword he might use one color, but if he put it down and had to return to finish it at a later time, he always used a different color ink. In addition, he always used all capital letters to fill in his answers. Everything was always done the same way: the way he folded the paper, where he sat when he worked on the puzzle (outside on the patio in good weather, at the kitchen table in bad), the colors of the ink and the capital letters. I thought it was tradition, or perhaps even superstition. I know now it probably had to do with his bipolar disease. It goes hand-in-hand with OCD and he likely worried that if he changed anything around, the outcome would be different. And his outcome was always the same: that man never failed to complete a NY Times crossword puzzle, even the harder Friday versions. It might take him several days, and several colors of Sharpie, but he always finished. That crossword puzzle was his peace. His quiet retreat. His “time-out”.

When my father would fly to see me, he would reach into the seatback pocket of his airplane seat and find the United Airlines magazine with an “undone” puzzle. And he would very, very carefully remove the puzzle page from the magazine. Then he would fold it in half, then in half again, and again and again until the clean, unsolved page measured about 2″x 3″. Then he would put it in his dress shirt pocket (where he kept his Sharpie) and remove the United Airlines magazine from the seatback pocket of his yet unseated neighbor, hoping for another blank puzzle. If he found one, he would not remove that one from the magazine. That magazine he would keep for himself and that puzzle he would start before the plane lifted off, and he would usually finish it before the flight attendant came around with that first free cocktail.

When my dad arrived at my home, he typically had gifts for my three children. Stuffed animals or handknit sweaters from my mom, or other fun trinkets. And there was always a gift for me: a small, glossy, folded white magazine page with blue squares and tiny blue typing. My United crossword. He brought one every time. And I would wait until my children were in bed before sitting at the kitchen table, trying to solve my puzzle, my simple gift from my dad.

My father died in my home during one such visit. Cardiac arrest. They claim he died in his sleep, but I saw him as he left this world, and his eyes were open. And he was scared. And I could not save him. And as my mom and I were going through his clothing the following day, I found my crossword. Shiny and small, folded with perfect right angles and even corners. I put it in my nightstand drawer and never opened it. Since my dad’s death 6 years ago last week, I never once opened that puzzle. I never unfolded its perfect page. I never looked at the theme. But in the corner, without having to open it, I could see the date. And it is dated for the month of his death. April 2007.

Well, here it is now, April 2013. My life, in many ways, is worse. Since that time, I have been given a name for what troubled me for so many years: bipolar disorder. I have learned that my daughter suffers from the same illness. My children are growing and no longer need me as they used to, my husband has left me, friends have abandoned me, my only brother no longer speaks to me, and of course, my father is dead. And there is nothing I can do to fix any of it.

My life is a bit of a puzzle itself, but with no “answer key” at the back of the magazine. My dad didn’t remove that page, only the crossword. The answers I will have to come up with on my own. I can use as many colors of ink as I want, and I can fold it back up and put it away in my drawer if I can’t bring myself to solve it all at once. Or if I simply don’t have the answers. It will never be as neat as when my father first tore it from the magazine. It has been bent and crumpled around the corners, and the ink has faded near the folds. But it’s still my puzzle. And I’m pretty sure I can do it. I might have to ask for help, because I don’t know all the answers. But I can complete it. I may have to put it down and return to it later, with a different color Sharpie, but I will finish it eventually. I may not finish it the way I originally planned, but it will get done and my answers will be correct.

And in honor of Earth Day, I think I’ll start with green.

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.