Thursday, October 8, 2015

When Momma Was Mad: Bipolar Awareness Day

Today is Bipolar Awareness Day.  I assume you are the targeted audience and not me, because I am aware of this condition every day.  A “condition” rather than an “illness” because (1) “illness” suggests ongoing dissipation, hollow-eyed, marginal stability; (2) “condition” suggests an achievable management of symptoms; (3) in my mind, anyway, “illness” summons pity and shame, and “condition” more an optimal, practiced functioning—like Crossfit and how it maintains and develops strength and balance.  I’m working on staying upright, not yielding to the dark, annihilating voice that wakes me at four a.m. trying to persuade me that I am empty and done and a failure, and really, truly, Kerry, not interesting to anyone or loved by anyone, okay, your kids maybe but that’s genetically foreordained, and besides, you let them watch a lot of Dr. Who and buy them Burger King chocolate shakes.
But here’s the difference between having a condition and being actively ill.  Five years ago, I would have been drinking or cutting those dark thoughts away, would have been actively planning my exit, would have been unable to slow down for a walk with friends (or speed up, if running all out would help squash the voice), would have been once again locked in the quiet room at the psych hospital.  I was admitted so many times, and for so long, that the staff knew me by name, and always looked at me with tender if trepidacious concern: I was the manic woman who walked thousands of laps around the halls, refused food and conversation, and prayed every night that I wouldn’t wake up because my kids and husband would be better off without a mad, mad momma.

Shame.  The core emotion that ran my life, twisting thoughts and feelings in a Gordian knot.  All the things I was losing because of this illness.  My beloved job that helped me be who I was meant to be, which was helping students find their most authentic and intellectually ambitious selves. My now ex-husband never able to look at me in the same way again (how could he, after seeing me strapped down in the ICU, arms hacked up by the Devil of Depression?)  My children lost trust in me because of my vacillations between silence and rage, and leaving them for one hospital after another.  My friends and family tried to help in so many generous, selfless ways, but I turned my back on them in favor of the illness’s demands: drink, disappear, die.
All that’s almost five years ago.  And thanks (not really) to almost twenty five rounds of ECT treatment, I can’t remember much of it.  My hard drive wiped clean.  Ten years of my recollected past, which creates identity after all, is gone—I have to ask other people about my life, about the places I don’t remember travelling to, the readings I’ve given, books I’ve read, awards received, and most devastating, what my children were like when they were little.  Photos fill in the gaps, but the emotional resonance is often gone.  And writing!  The imagination relies on memory, drawing on existing knowledge and experience to create new ideas, new descriptions, new characters.  I am wed to a thesaurus and a screen that is often blank, throbbing in disappointed frustration. 

Most of what I recollect about my years of active illness is due to this blog’s archive.  I have to reread entries every few months to believe that I was as ill and out of control as people remember.  The only visceral indication I have about those years is a churning pit of dread that I carry with me, a ball python coiled in the gut that bites down when I get complacent.  But now, I rely on my healthier, conditioned voice: Calm down, deep breath, think happy thoughts, and no, this isn’t the time to go off your Lithium.  So much of what has happened this year—divorce, the betrayal, living on my own for the first time and half that time without my kids, a seemingly impossible job search—all of this could have sent me back down the rabbit hole.  Because yes, mental illness was fuzzy and safe, despite the cut-up arms and overdoses and hospitalizations.  Giving in to all the insane impulses meant I didn’t have to try to live anymore, didn’t have to love myself anymore—I could check out of myself.  (It was why I loved the moment when I was going under on Propafol for ECT—a little death each time.)  But in forgetting, I also get to relearn how beautiful my children are, how supportive my friends and family are, how much I am loved, and how loving I am.




  1. Did you really lose almost ten years of memories and were you warned this could happen?
    What has been the important in helping you recover?
    You are an amazing writer. How awful that you had to leave a job you loved and excelled at.

    1. Sorry it's taken me so long to reply. Yes, 10 years of memories gone. I was warned about short term memory loss, not long term, and wasn't told that ECT only reduces depression for a few days to weeks. But I can't change what happened, only try to make it meaningful.

    2. Sorry it's taken me so long to reply. Yes, 10 years of memories gone. I was warned about short term memory loss, not long term, and wasn't told that ECT only reduces depression for a few days to weeks. But I can't change what happened, only try to make it meaningful.

  2. Thank-you for taking the time to reply. I was a senior English teacher for 31 years. After 2 rounds of ECT 7 months apart (4 uni, 6 bilateral) and then (3 uni, 8 bi), I lost at least 10 years of my memories. Not warned what could happen, not aware any "benefit" from what was really brain injury was short term.
    Have been looking for hope that one can survive the trauma and loss. Worse is my current inability to build new memories or retain and learn new information. You do not seem to have that problem?
    You seem to be an amazingly strong person, a loving mom, and a gifted writer. You are resilient; you are a role model. The pieces you write are amazing.

  3. Yes--my story is very similar to yours. 2 rounds of ECT, 8 months apart, approximately 25 treatments, mix of bi/unilateral. Of course i signed the consent form (I was manically depressed and suicidal), and of course, since I was desperate, I didn't read the fine print--which was mostly about sort term memory loss. No one EVER suggested that I could suffer severe long-term memory loss as well as cognitive defects. 10 years of memories wiped out, ability to recall words decimated (which makes writing an agonizing process), all the knowledge I accumulated through my PhD studies and 15 years of teaching gone, too. They sell this desperate treatment to desperate people. The resulting consequences are far worse that the treated condition. Thank yu for reading and for your support! :)