I was just reading something on Psych Central about another bipolar person who was diagnosed comparatively late in life, and being in something of a contemplative mood today, it occurred to me to wonder what her childhood was like. What little I remember of my own was blissful until I was five, at which time my sister Louise—who was the only one of our family that really nurtured me—was thrown out of the house essentially for loving the wrong boy, and I became the target of our mother’s wrath.
It’s been fifty years, but I’ve never forgotten watching Louise silently pack her things into her friend’s car, nor the feeling of being physically restrained by my mother to prevent me from running to her. “She doesn’t want to see you,” my mother said to me, setting in motion a cascade of such severe emotional problems that I developed night terrors and intrusive thoughts. Louise had literally been my caretaker for my entire life; who else would love me as she had? The feeling of being rejected by her was devastating, and it wasn’t until I learned the whole truth of that day, decades later, that the hole she’d left in my heart was filled.
Now I look back at my mother and realize that her passive-aggressiveness, her sudden rages, her drinking, her over-concern with appearances, and maybe even her lies were more than likely indicative of undiagnosed bipolar disorder. But of course, we didn’t have mental illness in our family—we were too “high class” to be plagued by something that was only whispered about in our house, and only when it involved some movie star.
I do remember being taken to a child psychiatrist once because of the night terrors, but never went back because, according to my mother, he said there was something wrong with me. Of course, nobody was diagnosing little kids with PTSD or manic depression back in those days, but the fact that my parents decided to ignore my psychiatric issues rather than risk being embarrassed doesn’t speak well of their priorities. I was NEVER first where they were concerned—no, my place in line was behind their friends, their club memberships, their social and financial ambitions.
But it was my mother’s inconsistency that made me crazy. I never knew from one day to the next what the prevailing mood was going to be. Sometimes she was very loving and playful; we’d go to the beach and laugh like hyenas when I got sand in my ice-cream cone, or when we nearly got run over by a bunch of hippies on bicycles. She also loved shopping and going out to lunch, and sometimes she’d take me with her for an entire day of “retail therapy” and buy me whatever I wanted.
Unfortunately, her dark side was on display more often than not, and she could be cruel when she was in a bad way. She’d scream at me for three hours sometimes for a minor infraction of the many rules she made up as she went along, or accuse me of deliberately doing things I “knew” would hurt or embarrass her. Naturally, I didn’t have the words to tell her that I never thought about her when I was up to no good—what kid does that?—and she would proceed to verbally abuse me until I couldn’t take it any longer and begged her to stop. Later on, she would deny the “conversation” even happened and tell me “That’s not true, you just remember everything wrong”.
So, I grew up believing I was irredeemably flawed and unable to trust my own impressions of the world or the people in it. I’ve carried that burden for five decades. Only now, after two years of therapy and medications, am I beginning to realize that NONE of this was my fault, and that it’s time to forgive myself for not being the child my mother wanted. She’s been gone for 25 years this summer…..and as clichéd as this may sound, I think it’s time to emerge from her shadow and learn to live in the light.