For most of my life, for as long as I had any word for my mom’s condition, it was “schizophrenia.” That’s what I was finally told at the age of 20, and that's what I told all my therapists. I even participated in a study of children of schizophrenics. I took lots of tests and had my brain scanned and was pleased to find that I did not have the brain of a schizophrenic. More than likely, neither did my mom. She was diagnosed in the 1950s sometime, I guess. I have to guess because no one talked about the “problem," and I get so many mixed reports from my brothers, who were young when the episodes started. She was institutionalized a few times and given shock treatments. She rarely referred to any of this herself, since she didn’t think there was anything wrong with her. A lot of the time she was really tired. Sometimes she didn’t even get out of bed except to make sure I was taken care of. Then, suddenly, she would have one of her “spells.” She would rage at my father, or at no one in particular, pacing through the house, opening the door to wherever you might have retreated to lob one more verbal assault. She would be tense and agitated and restless for a day or two. Then she would calm down. Other times she would embark on massive projects only to abandon them mid cycle, and whatever supplies were taken out would remain where they were. Or she would hustle us off to some destination with some overriding purpose that never made sense to the rest of us. Still other times she would sew for hours on end, entirely engrossed in her project. Then back to weeks of staying in bed. She heard voices, but she rarely talked about them. For most of my childhood I didn’t realize that the doctors she told me about didn’t exist. There were three of them, men, and they seemed very nice. She was sometimes paranoid, thinking that she was part of an FBI experiment, or that there was a conspiracy against her. She was under no treatment whatsoever for mental illness from my birth until her death.
A few months ago my nephew was being treated for depression with an SSRI medication. His behavior changed dramatically. He went into violent rages. He got in trouble with the law. He had hallucinations. My nephew is bipolar, and so, as it turns out, is his father--my brother--who has spent much of his life alternating between depression and episodes of anxiety and panic attacks. More than likely my mother was bipolar and not schizophrenic. Until my nephew became ill, I didn't realize that manic depressives can have hallucinations. I also didn't realize that there are bipolars like my brother who don't have manic episodes but something called hypomania, or that SSRIs can trigger mania or hypomania not just in bipolar people, but in the children of bipolar parents. That there is something called the bipolar spectrum. That I've probably had an episode of hypomania in the past but I just thought I was being "wild." Or that if you are the child of a bipolar parent and you have recurrent depression, you need to revisit your treatment plan.
Recently I turned 40. From age sixteen to my mid-twenties I could count on a depressive episode every year or two. It seemed to lighten up a bit after that, particularly when I threw myself into a new job. Even when I’m not depressed, I am not exactly okay. Psychiatrists call my condition dysthymia—chronic, low-level depression. Sometimes I tip over into something more problematic. I’ve been in the something more problematic stage for about a year now. When I feel like this, I don't remember what I felt like before I felt like this. I don't remember normal.
I am not so depressed that I can’t function. I can drag myself out of bed and go to work. I can’t stay focused, remember anything, or keep organized. I am easily distracted. I can’t make decisions. I forget what I’m doing and move onto something else only to remember that I have to finish the first project. I try to write everything down. At the end of the workday I'm not sure what I did. I exercise regularly, but it doesn’t help. I cry at small frustrations, I cry at commercials, I cry when I see videos of children. I don’t enjoy much. I think, “Hey, this is really nice, I should really feel great about this.” But I don’t.
This condition is very tiring and frustrating. People want you to do something about it, as if I had any energy to make an action plan. As if I could just "change my attitude to one of gratitude." If anyone mentions affirmations I will hunt them down and force them to eat the entire works of Louise Hayes. I can understand why manic depressives who experience euphoria when they're up don't want to give it up. I could use a little euphoria. I'm stuck. As a therapist once told me, therapy doesn't work if you're too depressed. You have to have enough energy to engage. So I'm off to a psychiatrist to adjust my meds and I hope find something to make me feel normal.