How Growing Up With My Mother’s Bipolar Disorder Changed Me

There are places that medication can’t reach, & that’s where my bipolar inheritance is quietly alive and flourishing

Published13 Sep 2018, 01:03 PM IST
Fit
4 min read

My mother suffered from severe bipolar disorder. In the 1950s, psychiatry in India was a very new field. My mother did not get adequate treatment so her manias and depression ran their course without intervention. With every episode the severity seemed to touch new heights, and plumb new lows. In depression, she was dangerously suicidal. In mania, she would run away from home naked.

When I was in my thirties, I too was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. By now, a whole host of drugs had been discovered. A psychiatrist put me on Lithium and I could be fully functional. There are no highs and lows, just occasional small blips.

When it comes to appearances, I am normal. I have held a steady job for 35 years. I have a family. I am a published author.

Beyond Medication: Living With Bipolar Disorder

But there are places that Lithium cannot reach and that is where my bipolar inheritance is quietly alive and flourishing.

When you don’t have a mother as a repository for your fears, they seep into your skin. Without access to an exit, they take up permanent residence. They fester like wounds and slowly, turn into a nameless dread.

Flight or fight is a reflex action for me. Dread is my constant companion. And my mind continuously paints negative scenarios.

I am watching television with my family and a light bulb flickers. Nobody notices. Except me. My hair stands on end.
I am watching television with my family and a light bulb flickers. Nobody notices. Except me. My hair stands on end.
(Photo: The Quint/ Rhythum Seth)

I am watching television with my family and a light bulb flickers. Nobody notices. Except me. My hair stands on end. My breathing becomes laboured. My mind shows me the flicker turning into a spark and burning the house down. I am trapped underneath a heavy door and my daughter is screaming. I scold myself, tell my mind to stop its nonsense. But my shoulder muscles are tense and my mouth is dry. My body will not let my mind forget.

Pretense Became Second Nature

I am at work, chatting with a colleague, relaxed and careless. My email pings. I have to be in Mumbai next day for a meeting. From that moment on, I know no peace. Flights are my worst fear. That night I cannot swallow any food. I think of a million excuses, even toy with the idea of taking the Rajdhani to Mumbai. But I dare not, because no one must know about my fears. I cannot allow that. I must be normal. Pretense has become second nature.

I am certain that the plane is in trouble and brace myself for the oncoming impact. I actually see fire billowing from the craft.
I am certain that the plane is in trouble and brace myself for the oncoming impact. I actually see fire billowing from the craft.
(Photo: iStockphoto)

Next morning, I head for the airport, chanting a mantra all the way. I tremble when I am handed my boarding card. Once in the craft, I make sure I have plenty of water, my throat is so dry. I ask the attendant for the newspaper. Anything to distract myself. The plane takes off. I grip the armrests hard, furiously chanting. The plane gains height. But the captain has not put the seatbelt sign off. I am certain that the plane is in trouble and brace myself for the oncoming impact. I actually see fire billowing from the craft.

A Regular Flight Led to Acute Stress

My entire body is braced, feet planted on the back of the seat in front of me, every muscle prepared for the worst. A couple of minutes later, the seat belt sign is switched off. I breathe again, but do not relax. I refuse the food tray, curl up uncomfortably on the narrow seat and chant some more. Every now and then I look at the flight attendants, trying to spot fear in their faces. They are busy serving tea and coffee, none of them look alarmed. But my mind, the relentless torturer, tells me to hold tight, because disasters happen without warning and I needed to stay alert.

Elevators do the same for me, only less intensely.There are other more insidious effects.
Elevators do the same for me, only less intensely.There are other more insidious effects.
(Photo: iStockphoto)

So, I sit frozen, waiting for the crash. Even after the plane lands, the acute stress persists. After each flight, even if it’s a half hour haul, my body hurts so badly, I am bed-ridden for a week. Elevators do the same for me, only less intensely.

There are other more insidious effects.

When a Bipolar Parent Means No Playmates

When you grow up with a bipolar parent, cousins don’t come over to play. Friends never drop by. Your home and sanctuary becomes a place to be avoided. The feeling has never left me. I can never relax completely in my own home. The alarm bells ring incessantly.

A bipolar mother makes you a persona non grata. Invitations to weddings and festivals pass you by.
A bipolar mother makes you a persona non grata. Invitations to weddings and festivals pass you by.
(Photo: iStock/Altered by The Quint)

A bipolar mother makes you a persona non grata. Invitations to weddings and festivals pass you by. Till today, I feel acutely out of place on occasions that warrant decking up and prettying oneself. My women friends spend hours buying just the right ‘dupatta’ or the exact shade of lipstick. I look on, blank. Nobody taught me the ‘girlie’ stuff. Mothers are supposed to teach you that and mine was not available.

My relationships too have taken a toll. I got so used to my own company growing up, people have very little use for me. I’d rather be alone.

That’s my bipolar inheritance. It’s my cross to carry and its perpetual. I pray that I don’t bequeath it to future generations.

(Shubha Menon is a copywriter with an advertising agency and author of the The Second Coming. She is also an honorary trustee of Anhad, an NGO.)

(This story was auto-published from a syndicated feed. No part of the story has been edited by The Quint.)

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