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my mother, bipolar, and me
I had coffee with a new friend the other day. We got to talking about our lives and, invariably, about our emotions. She told me she was bipolar, and I asked which kind. She said "the less bad one." "Oh," I said, "my mom has the 'more bad' one."
My mom has been at my apartment for the last week, staying with me, for the most time we've spent together since I was maybe eleven or twelve. It sort of feels like the longest first date I’ve ever been on.
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I’m conflicted on what terms I should be using here. “Mom” feels too comfortable, but “mother” sounds too formal. Orphan-esque.
It's true that I often did feel somewhat like an orphan. Having a mother but lacking connection to her is enough to make most girls into orphans in practicality. And I'm not talking about girls who fight with their mothers - that rift has been common for centuries and is perhaps one of the strongest ties between women, especially female relatives. When you fight with your mother, you are making a negotiation of how much space you take up in each other. She is seeing her heart in yours, and perhaps she is not taking a liking to its current shape. You, as a growing being, are becoming aware of her place in your body and mind, sorting through what would serve you to take and leave from her influence. You are, all the time, aware of your tether; an opposition cannot exist without a counterforce. You push because you are being pulled.
Having a mother that is sometimes ill, sometimes distant, and in either case gone to you in most respects, is not like fighting with her. The phrase "in the heat of the argument" refers to a fight as being in a hot place, a warm place, distinct from but not wholly unlike other warm feelings such as intimacy, belonging, and the few seconds before a hug. The slow unraveling of a relationship is cold. The deep canyon of loss, of lifelong confusion, is colder.
There's a viral TikTok I saw a few months ago (before my swearing off of the app began) of a teen girl leaning on a granite countertop, hands cupping her face, looking shocked. The text on the video said "I just realized that my mom is a person without me. Like she has thoughts and wants that are totally separate from me. She's just like a normal person. Wtf." The comment section was filled with similar sentiments; "does my mom get little crushes on strangers too??"
The realizations that your parent is both not an omnipotent being and separate from you as an individual are, of course, natural ones - as natural as the impulse to believe that their sole purpose is to serve you before then. These realizations develop in small ways evolutionarily (according to Daddy Freud), and vary psychologically based on exposure. Some people discover this by calling their fathers about car trouble only to find that he is simply reading solutions off of Google, just as they might have done had they not called. Some are shielded from their parent's personal disclosures until late adolescence or even adulthood, at which time the realities begin to finally coalesce. Infidelity in a family is often shocking to children not only because it breaks the fabric of a familiar union, but because the children are forced to comprehend their parent as an individual with desires and needs unconnected to, and sometimes in opposition to, their own. It is a mostly rare experience to make it into adolescence without this fracturing of reality.
The first fracture in my own reality came at the age of seven, when my mom would pull me into her bedroom, close the door, and speak to me under the covers about my dad. I was an avid watcher of teen dramas and romantic comedies at this point - the secret countenance and gossip between women was understood to me as a sacred bond, a time at which essential truths were shared. My mom would divulge her suspicions about my dad, more specifically, about his alleged infidelity. She'd recount to me times in which she'd found an unfamiliar earring, a day that she'd rented a car to follow him, and the fact that she had bugged his work truck with audio devices to spy on him in secret. I listened and took note, as many romcom sidekicks before me had done in diligence, and then I kept quiet, hoping to preserve my status as a trusted person.
I knew my father as a kind, devoted man who I could not imagine betraying our family as my mother suspected. My dad loves the Beastie Boys, listening to me sing, and skimming Buddhist philosophy. I could not then also see him as a man who snuck out to rendezvous with women under the cover of darkness. And so my reality split.
A second split happened as my mother continued to confide in me. Over time, her suspicions began escalating in scale and diminishing in probability; he was sleeping with the babysitter, he had a secret family, he had another identity. These scenarios were starting to muddle even the new reality I had learned to accept, and so yet another rose beside it. I began to feel unsure if any of my mother’s realities were related to this world, the world I thought we all shared. I began to feel increasingly confused. I began to feel unsafe with her, unsafe with her ideas of existence.
I remember telling my dad this. I remember his kind eyes, and behind them, his fear. I remember a few solem nods, and then nothing. I was kept as her confidant. In many ways, I believe I shielded him from the worst of her.
Later, he would recount this to friends in order to explain the severity of her illness: “Eliza literally came to me and told me that she felt unsafe with her.” The story always ended there - the implication being that he had, of course, intervened after hearing this. But the story ended there in real life too. He did not intervene. A recent, painful realization is that “my father: the hero" was more often “my father: the witness.” As a child, you cannot comprehend that no one is protecting you. You make believe that there is another reality in which someone is. You split.
You split when you see your mother shift from an attentive, loving, nurturing presence to a whirlwind tornado, whipping in and out of days with seismic force, and back again, over and over and over. You split when you are left on a train at the age of eleven. You split when you have to call the police at the age of fifteen and beg them to be gentle with her. You split when you have to barricade yourself in your room and fall asleep to the sound of sobbing.
I split so many times as a child that to recount all the ways would revert this essay into a Buzzfeed-style listicle of trauma. I split until the splitting became unbearable, until I could not possibly reconcile every reality, until I became acquainted with what is now known to me as a familiar feeling of dissociation. My metaphorical orphaning happened on both sides - I was shut out, and in response, I shut myself in.
I am not an orphan, and the tether between my mother and I is not irreparably broken. When I was fifteen, my therapist suggested that this might be the case - that perhaps my healing did not mean my mother's outcast. For the first time in our many years of working together, I got angry at my therapist for this suggestion.
During that period, I thought it best to erase my mother from my life entirely, exclude her from my wedding, and speak vaguely about her mere existence in front of my future children. After a particularly harrowing psychotic episode, followed by a slow recovery that came with an endless barrage of messages, requests, and undue anger, the revolutionary idea of not dealing with any of it struck me. I had been a practicing anorexic for close to five years at that time and had regular flirtations with suicidal ideation - the relationship was beginning to break me. I alerted her close friends and our immediate family that I was not to be the first call about any forthcoming medical emergencies or episodes. I blocked her phone number. I pulled away. She pushed harder. Such is the nature of things.
On one of our last nights together in the city, I took her out to dinner at a wine bar that's close to my old apartment. Even after a week, it's still strange to see her integrate into the adult life I've built away from her. Often, when I'm driving, she asks me if I know where I'm going.
We talk a lot about the big things we've missed out on together - my first period, prom, seeing me through high school relationships and breakups - but the smaller, more mundane things seem to wrench her more than anything else. A year or two ago, I left a receipt that I had scribbled on in her living room. She told me that she kept it, put it in her nightstand, because she didn't know what my handwriting looked like. She wonders what I have for breakfast. She wonders what streets I know, which routes I take most often, where I spend my time.
I find it unbearable to account for the totality of the grief - a vast pit that encompasses not just my mourning, but hers.
I think of a child, left so completely responsible for a parent who is suffering from one of the most challenging mental illnesses, turning her tiny body around and around, looking for someone who knows what to do. I think of that child adopting adult behaviors and an affect that does not belong to her, tucking away her babyish sensibilities to stumble forward through the darkness. I think of her, when the burning candle has met in the middle and her own psychic darkness has begun to creep in, making the hardest decision of her life, which is to decide to stop living it in service of someone else. It is not an exaggeration to say that stepping down from my caretaking role at fifteen felt like signing my mother's death certificate. I had no evidence that her life could go on without me, that other people might pick up the slack, that she might begin to get a hold on her illness. But if I had not done it, I surely would have chosen death myself.
It is so painful for me, more painful than imagining that child, to imagine her mother. Stuck at the helm of a disorder that was yet to be diagnosed or understood by virtually anyone around her. Trapped in cycles of mania and psychosis for years, shuffled in and out of hospitals and between many precarious living situations. Watching her own fall from a great height - a lucrative career, a family, a daughter, all passing between her fingers like sand. Trying to get better while being shut out by the only person she ever grew inside her body. Feeling like the grief and shame could kill.
At that dinner, I talked with my mother about this piece. The conversation began with her asking me about my thoughts on writing real people into my art, sharing information about them that perhaps they did not directly consent to being shared. My response to her was that people who get to know me in a significant capacity know that this is the deal (a la Lorde's Writer in the Dark). I write, sing, and speak about my life for a living. And when I do so, even if the expression of my art involves other people, it is always, ultimately, a subjective reckoning with my own feelings. I am not here to embarrass or expose anyone. I am always talking to myself.
But I realize that she did not get that choice - she did not buy into me as the person I am today. She is worried, rightly so, about how I will narrativize our relationship. She is worried that I may truly see her as the villain in my hero arc, the person that I am today having been created in all ways in spite of, and in no way because of, her existence.
I cannot say that I am here to tell the truth - I do not have it. What I have is a collection of disparate memories and a way to organize them that helps me live another day. The systems change, the scope widens, and the lens is different all the time. When I wrote her out of my life as a teenager, I needed to. I needed to realize that I have the power to set the boundaries, to make the rules. Having never made them before, I drew harsh lines - what I thought at the time were definite lines. I think differently now. That organization no longer serves me. I'm more comfortable with the grey areas, and seeing my mother as a person rather than a symbolic representation of my pain is what helps me move forward. It is what keeps me holding on to the tether between us.
My growing comfort with living in the grey is a gift given to me by years of conversation with myself. Trauma changes the brain structurally. It creates rigid systems that work, by design, in black and white; safe and unsafe, good and bad, right and wrong. These systems keep you alive - they are important. And then, all of a sudden, they begin to calcify into pain. The pain will trail you everywhere you go until you decide to hold its hand.
At dinner, my mother says something that strikes me: "I wish more than anything that I didn't have this last episode." The episode she is referring to happened a little less than a year ago, after many years of stability. She began working on a creative project, feeling energized and alive, and, as is common with many people on psychiatric medication, began to believe that the medication was no longer necessary. I will spare you the details. She is back on her meds now.
"I just feel like it set us back. I was so stable for so long. But I promise you that it won't happen again."
I began to think about the word "promise." How it is a term often used with children who, grappling suddenly with the unstable state of human existence, are usually staved over with the comforting idea of certainty. I think of my mother, in that statement, trying to tell me that she is trying. Trying to give me something that cannot be given.
There is no way for either of us to ensure that she will never have a psychotic episode again - if there was, we both would have sold our souls years ago to make it possible. There is no way to ensure what happens next year, next week, next hour, next moment. I will not put all my chips into a pile that is really a void. The way I have to move forward is with uncertainty.
A few nights ago, my mom knocked on my bedroom door with a bowl of store-bought angel food cake topped with strawberries, sugar, and Reddi Whip. I came to sit at the dining table with her, and we ate. At that dinner, she had said “what if we do have a normal mother-daughter relationship? What if this is what it looks like?”
She cuts her spoon through soft layers of cake. I squirt the can of Reddi Whip into my mouth once. Then again. We laugh and put our bowls in the sink. When I wake up in the morning, my dishes are done.
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