Weather’s not Bipolar. My Mom was.
So many people have equated the weather in my state with Bipolar Disorder. When it’s a high a of 80’s one day and snowing the next. I’ve fought this sentiment, because it negates the devastation of this serious illness. But I can see many ways in which extreme weather events are like mental illness.
In my family, stories of severe mental illness (extreme weather) are the norm, not the exception. My mom struggled with BiPolar Disorder, Anorexia, tobacco addiction, and drug abuse. She was in and out of psychiatric hospitals and jail cells. She hid bottles of vodka in the back of her toilet, her chosen medication to shut out the storm. Her afternoon naps timed just right to maintain the façade. Then, after dinner, she’d dust off her sobriety chips, 1, 5 & 10 years sober to attend AA meetings. She gambled with her life and ours. The courts did not grant her custody in the divorce. She was a tornado. A danger to all in her path. There were always warnings, sirens, which served as alerts that she was close to the edge. I had a psychic energy intimately connected to hers. Bad dreams would flood my sleep. Washing terror over me. I was afraid of my own mother. These dreams were vivid, and after a week of night terrors, something bad always happened. The levvy that she had carefully built, would break, flooding desperation and confusion. Parts of her that were never meant to be seen would surface. After every storm, there’s the cleanup, the promises for new systems, new ways of dealing with storms. But the next storm is just waiting, and devastates all the same.
She hated the medication, it made her feel flat, she would rather brave these storms than settle for a cold wet gray fog hanging over her. And so, it went on, year after year. Bits of sunshine would shine through the clouds, moments when she’d play the piano and sing “pennies from heaven”. If only I could’ve turned my umbrella upside down to capture those moments. But instead, we were left mostly with the wreckage. She died when I was 15. She weighed 85 pounds. The storm swallowed her and left us with just a few washed-out photos.
We knew that BiPolar disorder ran in families, my mother, and her mother both had it. It was like there was a gun loaded with a single bullet. A game of Russian roulette my brother, sister and I.
On an ordinary day of 6th grade, on the brink of puberty, an avalanche named BiPolar Disorder engulfed my brother. For months, he was buried, there was very little sign of the person we knew. The psychosis made him forget how to walk, his brain a blank white sea of heavy wetness. He spent 3 months at Children’s Hospital. His psychiatrist, Dr. Brown, taught us how to respond if my brother got aggressive. My dad was, by now, an old veteran, storm chaser. My brother too hated the medicine, he would rather feel the joy and clarity that comes with boarding the out of bounds, unadulterated powder, and deal with avalanches, then stay grounded altogether. He’s learned from the storms of my mother. Like traveling in a blizzard, he’s cautiously proceeds with patience, experience, and a trust in others around him.
Not until, in 2010, did I understand how these storms could shut out the light. My form of illness is like the wind, a little of it helps to pollinate the flowers, too much can knock down power lines and shut down all operations.
The wind was always there, but mostly it just helped me to be successful. The wind picked up intensity the day my son was born. I was supposed to differentiate his consistent innocent cries. I hated nighttime, when it was my burden to soothe this person that seemed to hate me. Everyone had so many opinions on how to make him a “happier” baby. “Try this. Try that.” My son’s pediatrician never asked how I was doing. Yet, I kept making appointments to get to the root of his crying. After hours of holding him, my mind would drift to ways I could escape. In the morning, bleary eyed, exhausted, standing at the top of the stairs, I could visualize falling down the stairs on top of him. So I’d scoot down the stairs with the little bundle snug in my arms. At this point, the wind was howling. I shut the door on the wind as I went to work, but just when I opened the door at the end of the day, the wind would knock me down, into my pillow, tears of pain, worry, hatred for this person I had become. I called my health care provider to “get help”. They told me that I was on the four-month waitlist. The wind picked up speed. After 8 weeks on the waitlist, after four nights of not sleeping, I told my partner “I’m having thoughts about driving into ongoing traffic”. Saying those words aloud made me feel so weak. I couldn’t believe that, a professional in the field of mental health, could have these thoughts. The wind had knocked out the grid. We drove to the hospital, and I finally got care. I was diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
I went on medication, I went to therapy, I learned meditation. The wind is still there, it sometimes picks up intensity, but I have a windsock now. I try to be the friend people can share their storms with.
So, I guess, mental health is like the weather, something that you can prepare for, but hard to predict, and sometimes devastating. And like the weather, I would like mental health to be something you can easily talk to people about over the water-cooler.