By: Mary Sellers
She asks me how many blessings I need, and I tell her not many, to save some for herself. She’s a distracted sort of glad-to-see-me, which I suppose is to be expected of a woman who’s gone and married God. In her reality, my mother has many children and is nearly divine. She is joyful—she’s in love—and she’s leaving my father, but it’s all for the best, she promises, because her new husband-deity isn’t just a god, but also a philanthropist, and they’re planning on saving the world in a couple of weeks’ time. Oh, and did I know about my newborn baby brother? He has his father’s eyes—not my father—the new one, the second husband, God. And she wants me to name him—this half-divine, half-brother—because I’m her firstborn, her only child up until now, and will always be special.
She looks at me appraisingly for a beat, then announces, “I think you’ll be pretty alright.”
Then, she’s satisfied. Pausing, her face shifts into something decidedly less cordial. She thanks me for the visit; says she has to go. I’m surprised how much this hurts—I’d felt self-righteous, like this was a favor, a kindness. But she didn’t have time to talk to me at all, if she’s being completely honest.
There’s nothing stranger than realizing you’re jealous of someone else’s hallucination. I realize this now.
There are things He needs her to do. There’s no point in lying—He’s always with her, a constant, second presence—a comfort, really. They have no secrets, and isn’t that wonderful? And now all at once she’s conspiratorial: a heavy leaning onto table, a hasty beckoning, as if we only have a moment before whoever’s left the room will return to the room and it’ll be too late, at that point.
“He’s a little too controlling,” she says, hot breath inches from my ear.
This is what acute mania looks like on my mother. She is what happens when the Up meets Down—a human palimpsest of contradictions. I am so angry and so sad at her. It is an unsettling sight: the exposed wiring and deep intimacy of someone else’s mind.
This past August, we committed my mother again. It was the fifth time since the first time when I was thirteen and still such a child. Now, I was a month away from my twenty-seventh birthday. It was also the fifth birthday my mother wasn’t conscious for or well enough or able to tell me happy birthday on my birthday. You see, there were bigger things at play for her attentions; I don’t begrudge her that. All the same, it was strange not having her there, especially for this number.
It stands apart from all the others for us because that was when my mother had always told me life started for her.
“Started for her” to be defined as: became a wife and mother and graduated law school and passed the bar eight months pregnant and took the free volunteer job that would end up becoming a successful career spanning eight years and most of my childhood.
People, for some reason, are surprised when they realize just how thoroughly I’ve kept count over the years. When I think about it, it always reminds me of one of those tinny-late-afternoon-lights-and-nostalgia-filtered movie montages with a child’s height measurements penciled lovingly into the crown molding of a wall in a back hallway somewhere.
There’s something steadfast about keeping count like that. I don’t know why I do it. There’s no particular emotion that comes to light when I think on it, as I am now, spring of 2018, months past.
Regardless, it feels necessary.
And as usual, I’d known it was going to happen for weeks before the event. I myself had recently been diagnosed with a pretty severe case of clinical depression—a depression that was surprising in the gentle yet surprisingly thorough way it had unfolded itself within me—like watching an Alka-Seltzer dropped in water with all those effervescent fitful fizzings, silent little CO2 explosions, dissolving—lapping up my ability to feel anything, let alone happiness.
Slow, steady, if I had to describe its movement to a child, I’d say that depression was like a gentle dinosaur: it is a massive creature, one you can’t always see coming because it takes up the entire sky with its slow groan of hulk.
And it’d come on me at such a patient rate that it took months for me to even suspect that something was very wrong, and by the time I did, I was already deep in my apathy. I was also in Tennessee on top of a mountain at a famous writing residency I was having trouble enjoying or even really caring about. I was going to workshops and getting compliments and not caring about those compliments but instead, only wanting to slip back to my un-air-conditioned dorm room and go to bed. I was surrounded by writers and had never cared less about writing. There was guilt, sure, but when I tell you that apathy can be stronger than even the worse sort of self-villainizing guilt, believe me.
Nearly three years back, on meeting a former psychiatrist for the first time—a stressful process—a meet-and-greet with an uncomfortable focus on your problems, the issues you’ve been experiencing. I’ve learned to anticipate the “family history” portion of the interview, in which I’ll have to explain in length my mother’s Bipolar. This is when they really get interested, I’ve learned. Not necessarily in a bad way, but the med school student in these otherwise calm, relatively jaded Keepers of the Sane (shrinks, councilors, therapists, psychiatrists) are suddenly confronted with a bit of a paradox, their very own experiment—me, a psychological and genetic wild card. It was during this specific visit that I learned the very thing I’m now, at this late hour, researching: as a child/offspring/direct descendant of a mother with Bipolar One Disorder, I have a twenty-five percent chance of inheriting the disease (in some form).
A quarter of a chance? Not too bad, you might say. But juxtaposed to the less than two percent the rest of the world has? That’s my usual reasoning for when I want wine at an inappropriate time.
I’ve spent hours online, reading badly-written testimonials from people with Bipolar parents. A theme of forgiveness runs throughout most of them. Some stories are far worse than my own—poverty, suicide—while some have better, happier endings.
One, I still remember, concluded with an, “and now we are best friends,” statement that makes me unreasonably angry. It feels condensed, somehow, this person’s tidy narrative.
I realize, too, the selfishness of my feeling this way, of my disappointment in the lack of complication in this stranger’s life.
How did they escape their inheritance? Where are their scars?
I want to see just how damaged I could’ve been, could still be. I wanted tragedies to get drunk to; I dislike myself for wanting this.
While I’ve passed the age in which the initial onset of my mother’s disease usually occurs (18-20 years in women), have been on and tolerated SSRI’s without any signs of mania, and my doctor is generally optimistic about my Bipolar-free future because of this, I come with my own set of disorders—maybe less moody, but still “abnormal” (clinically-speaking) in my own anxiety-ridden way. I have the papers to prove it.
Two weeks before I move to Louisiana for graduate school—to hopefully begin again at the beginning of a life that’s happier than my current one—more suitable for a proper fairy tale Ever After, my mother goes missing.
A little over twenty-four hours later, I’ll be speaking with a social worker who asks uncomfortable questions about my mother’s personal life. He asks me about the hallucinations, the delusions, expecting me to provide some sort of background context for them. He wants me to evaluate my parents’ marriage, whether I think it’s healthy or not, if I know whether they’ve had affairs.
He implies things, too—potential drug abuse? (Nothing any stronger than the occasional full palm of Xanax, the near-suicidal cocktail of liberal Klonopin use and empty bottles of red wine.) Is this most recent lapse into psychosis and mania worse that her past ones, in my opinion, or milder? (You’ve got to be kidding me, right? No, actually she’s been much friendlier in her conversations with all the voices in her head. Oh, and this time, she didn’t ask for my help in finding all of the hidden bugs from the government in our living room walls. What a relief.) And my father—what does he do, why isn’t he the one, here, instead of you, answering these questions? (Well, he’s currently in Houston, Texas, at the MD Anderson Cancer Center undergoing the tri-monthly tests for two different types of cancer: throat cancer and advanced stage 3-C malignant melanoma, which’ll determine just how bleak the newest of his life sentence estimates will be.)
A week later, after signing in and giving the office assistant my mother’s code—four digits, assigned at random—I’m led by a male nurse who is shorter than me, whose eyes roam me freely enough to feel vaguely inappropriate—down a long, white, too-pristine hallway that feels like a movie still from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or something. I’m ashamed of how clichéd my thinking is turning out to be about this place, and I wonder how anybody could begin to improve or hunt down their sanity in such a clean, cold shoe-box of a place. The nurse has a shiny black head of hair that’s slicked back so tight it reminds me of a penguin’s coat. I follow and keep my eyes trained ahead until we reach the common room. It’s decently sized with eggshell-colored walls, those linoleum floors I’d anticipated, and a walnut-colored desk in the middle, flanked by nurses and male orderlies.
There’s the prematurely wrinkled woman with the thin wrists, shuffling against the walls in Velcro bed slippers. I watch her mouth move in ways that remind me of the goldfish in the back-sections of grocery stores. I realize she’s speaking to the cracks in the floor; I wonder what she thinks they’re saying. She looks up suddenly, meeting my gaze with scrambled eyes. She grins, having caught me, and I look away. There is also the man so heavily sedated that his head rests slack on his right shoulder. The whites of his eyes point towards the ceiling, his bent knees jutting in opposites. He slumps like this, and the older woman—his own mother, perhaps—takes his large hand that remains limp but warm-looking, a just-dead thing. It rests indecently large in her two cupped hands, which are child-sized compared to his. There is a younger girl, too, and I wonder if this is his daughter, if there are three generations of sadness here.
And then: my own mother. She is walking briskly away from bathroom’s exit, heading back towards her room, perhaps. It’s funny seeing the back of her first, because I’ve seen her so many times like this—going for walks—when she was better, less turbulent. I hear the nurse call out her name and she turns and I’m surprised by her alertness, the sharpness of her face that holds an unmistakable flash of recognition and intelligence. Her hair is smoothed back, undone, and her face shines because she doesn’t have any makeup here to paint it with. She’s always worn too much makeup. Here, her face is supple and tight and younger than I remember it. I see my own face in it, too.
The brand-new tennis shoes I delivered just days ago are torn open and gutted of their laces, of the potentiality for an accident that wouldn’t be an accident at all, but instead, a last-ditch effort to escape this place with the white walls and visiting hours and horse pills that contort the mind like those funny balloon characters at birthday parties. At least, this is how I picture it.
You’ve come to visit me, she says. What a surprise!
She doesn’t remember how she got here, but she isn’t particularly bothered about that. She is happy to see me, and I notice then how large her pupils are, glossy with adrenaline. There’s a hysterical edge to her voice, a faint, medical drowsiness that bites down at the ends of her words. Panicked fingers, a new nervous way she bites the edges of her lips. I am critical and uncomfortable inside my head, but I accept her hug anyways. She is reaching for me in the same way I used to reach for baby dolls; I pretend for the length of the hug that she’s having one of her good days.
My mother’s taken enough pills in her lifetime to kill a herd of elephants, many times over. She is still very much alive, aged fifty-two, and moisturizes nightly. She likes Elton John and Billy Joel and sometimes plays The Eagles on repeat. She’s a lover of sci-fi—Star Wars, Star Trek, Star Anything, really. When she’s happy and decently lucid, she’ll sing freely, unabashed by her loudness. Hers was a brilliant mind, the kind that dazzled, but it was also a deceptively fragile one. I still see it every once in a while—in a particular turn of phrase in one of the many endless emails she sends me. There’s a clarity, sometimes, a sharp perceptiveness that’s surprising when it happens.
Origin stories are already shrouded in enough mystery as it is, without the help of faulty memories, the lacking in objectivity our childhoods afford us, and the screwy subjectivity of mental illness. But this, regardless of its tricky tapestry, is what I do, what I do best, one of the only things I’m even relatively competent at doing: I tell stories, and I’ve always been good at beginnings.
I was thirteen when she was diagnosed with Bipolar One disorder—the “One” reserved for those who hit the jackpot in terms of severity of symptoms, whose mania transcends the classification of a mere “mood disorder” and traverses into the complex realm of the Psychotic. It’s a zero-to-sixty moodiness, impossible to predict.
For a long time, people with such extreme cases of Bipolar were mistaken and falsely diagnosed as Schizophrenics. For example: Zelda Fitzgerald. It’s easy to understand why. While Schizophrenia isn’t classified as a mood disorder, but instead, a Psychotic disorder, both illnesses deal with reality in similar ways: they escape it. Mental illness, being the cruel taskmaster that it is, put an abrupt end to my mother’s career, sparked a dependency on substances, and changed the trajectories of our lives, inevitably.
This is our story.
This is a story about both of us.
Originally from Jackson, MS, Mary B. Sellers is a recent graduate of Louisiana State University’s Creative Writing MFA Program. While there, she worked on her Frankenstein of a thesis, a hybrid novel, RAPUNZEL HAS INSOMNIA, which is part story collection, part fairy tale vignette, and part personal memoir. She is also the founding editor of Awkward Mermaid Lit Mag. Her stories and essays have been featured or are forthcoming in: Flash Fiction Magazine, Sidereal Mag, Moonchild Mag, Crab Fat Magazine, Literary Orphans, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and others. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @marybsellers