Once when I was around six, I had to sit on top of my mom to keep her from jumping out of the canopied bakkie we were traveling in. She wanted to end her life by jumping off a cliff on the high mountain pass. Somehow I managed to stop her.
When I was born my mom was a successful young businesswoman who, only in her mid-twenties, was training staff for an international company. She dressed to the nines, did her make-up like a professional artist and owned very many pairs of sexy stilettos. She was fashionably thin, fashionably smoking and fashionably independent. Her marriage to my father was happy and fulfilled and they both gave me of their time and attention abundantly.
For years I begged to have a little sister; not just a sibling, it had to be a sister. A few months after the joyous news that my mom was expecting, panic struck. Tests revealed that the long awaited new baby would be a Downs Syndrome baby. During the remaining months of the pregnancy my mom focused all her energy and brain capacity on research. She wanted to know everything she could, to be as prepared as a person possibly can be, to raise a baby so completely different from the first. She threw herself into the details of what her hew life would entail and felt emotionally, mentally and physically ready.
My beautiful sister came into the world with absolutely no defect, exactly the same kid of baby I had been five years before. The shock plunged my mom into Post Natal Depression, not wanting her new baby and not having the faintest clue how to care for her. She spent the first two years of my sister’s life in and out of mental institutions, straight-jacketed, electrically shocked, heavily sedated – they still performed all those inhumane forms of treatment back then – and was a very real threat to herself and others. PND was the trigger that let her underlying Bipolar Disorder surface, at that time diagnosed as Manic Depression.
Having to be both my father and mother at the same time, my dad’s only coping mechanism was to ask for the help of their very close family friends living in the mountains. For all practical purposes my sister became their baby and for about two years we didn’t have much contact with her. My dad and I coped as well as we could – once I tried to surprise him with dinner and burned a black hole in the ceiling when the oil on the stove overheated, my anxious shrieks ending his exhausted afternoon nap. The neighbour-lady tied my hair for school every morning and the maid was my nanny in the afternoons. Every now and then I would call my dad at work to let him know I didn’t have any nice clothes and we would go buy something to wear and to eat. Those were the jolly little times, but he cried often, especially in church.
On the odd occasion when we were allowed to visit my mom, or when they let her out after putting a stamp of approval on her progress, it was clear that something was very wrong. She would mostly cry. Just cry. For hours. Not sleep or eat or drink or talk, just cry. Other times she would keep the neighbour hanging over the fence while she shared the divine secrets she had been receiving from celestial beings. My dad told me we should try and distract her as soon as she starts on the topic of religion, but once she got going she could keep at it, feverishly, for very long. Another favourite topic was sex and by the age of seven I knew things I really shouldn’t have.
Bipolar Disorder seems to balance itself out with exactly the right combination of medicines and there have been periods of sometimes up to two years of uninterrupted mental stability. But just when we start feeling that everything’s fine, that her mind works the same way ours do, the little cracks start to show. We raise our eyebrows when the sentences she speaks flow from her mouth so fast and so streaming that she doesn’t take the time to breath and ends up gasping for air after whole paragraphs.
Or we glance over the table to check if anyone else thinks the number and the size of the dishes she prepared are outrageous. We lie awake at night knowing but waiting for someone else to say it first: she hasn’t slept at all in three days straight and the house has never been as spotlessly clean, every nook and cranny having been scrubbed and polished and made brand new.
I don’t live with my parents; I haven’t for over eleven years. The sleepless nights were mine and my dad’s first, then my dad’s and my sister’s and now that both of us have our own adult lives, my dad’s alone. My mom, nearing sixty, hasn’t had an episode for over two years. I wasn’t there with the last one, or the one before that, or the one before that. It sounds cruel and I don’t mean it that way when I say I think I’ve had my share.
My childhood was not a happy one. Now I hear about the things that go wrong only over the phone and I time my visits for when it’s plain sailing. When it’s not, I sense the panic and the heartache but it doesn’t affect my own daily life. I prefer it that way.
Living with a mentally unstable parent has taught me many things, of which what it means to be truly submitted to God has been the most precious lesson. My mom’s faith and my dad’s support are the two factors I believe have brought her this far. It has brought all four of us this far. Her faith now is a real relationship with her Creator, not the fanatic’s surreal revelations any more. She is so different from the mom I had when I was born – she is plump, her hair is seldom styled fashionably, she wears inexpensive very casual clothes, she stopped smoking years ago and she bakes amazing cakes – only one at a time – in comfortable flat shoes. She is also very different from the mom I had when she was at her most ill: thin as a rake, obsessively cleaning things and people all the time, never eating healthily, never sleeping properly, never having normal, ordinary emotions.
It’s true that people are at greater risk for mental instability when their family has a history of mental instability. I will forever be at risk and I have had my first experience with being of unhealthy mind: during grade 11 I was suicidal and on anti-depressants. I saw a shrink for months on end but eventually had to be taken out of boarding school and put under the carefully watching eyes of my parents. I got through it and I have never been close to that kind of insanity again. I am happy, healthy and I know what to look out for. I don’t feel the possibility of becoming mentally ill hanging over me dark and heavy and I feel at ease. For now.