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My family is full of nutballs, mostly on my Dad’s side. There are confirmed cases of depression, OCD, and anxiety disorders. When I asked Dad about family mental health history before going in for evaluation (since I knew they’d ask), he mentioned that he suspected that my Mom was bipolar.

At the time, I dismissed it. But it stuck with me, and later my Aunt and Grandma brought up some details I hadn’t noticed or known about that sounded an awful lot like bipolar symptoms. Mom died in 2007, so there’s no way to verify any such suspicions.

The more I’ve learned about bipolar disorder, the more it seems a very fitting posthumous diagnosis. I’m a lot like my Mom in being very intense, passionate, accomplished, and temperamental. But there’s more to it than that. A lot more.

  • Mom always had a volatile temperament, but aside from a very short fuse, nothing really seemed out of line until around 2001 when my youngest brother died in a tragic accident. Her mental health quickly deteriorated after that. SSRI-only treatment for depression may have contributed.
  • Rage? YES. At my brother’s funeral, she screamed at my father that he was a murderer and to blame for my brother’s death. The negligence accusation was partly true, but she blew it way out of proportion like so many, many other incidents. My fits of temper make me look like a purring pussycat next to the enraged, rabid tiger that was my Mom when she was angered.
  • Major problems with insomnia and sleep suddenly cropped up, which led to self-medication with alcohol. Hypnotics turned out to be a very bad thing. Even though Mom knew better than to mix them with alcohol, she was so desperate to get some sleep that she did it anyway. After trying a variety of sleep meds with no results, she ended up having dependency issues that made the sleep problems worse. She would wake up with a black eye, all the laundry done, massive bruising, or the fridge half emptied. She was one of the people who would drive “while not fully awake”, as they say in the Ambien ads. That’s a very mild way of putting it. I will never take hypnotics.
  • She went on impulsive shopping sprees and spent way too much money on clothes and jewelry. When she died, her closets were full of things with the tags still on them. She was deeply in debt and denial.
  • Her depressive episodes got to the point of suicidal ideation after a few years. I had the pleasure of having to talk her down while she was drunk, suicidal, and probably “not fully awake”. She would later have no memory of these horrible phone calls. I was not the only person who got them.
  • She complained incessantly that her employers were conspiring against her. It’s entirely possible that they were mistreating her, but the way she talked about it now strikes me as paranoid and delusional; the talk of persecution never stopped. She eventually felt that all her friends had turned on her, but she also isolated herself quite a bit. She could be really aggressively confrontational, which would scare anyone off given the venom of her bite.
  • Mom was also incredibly smart, creative, talented, and joyful – when she wasn’t angry or depressed. She was an amazingly productive overachiever most of the time. I felt I could never measure up to her example.

Retrospectively it all seems pretty glaringly obvious. At the time, though, I didn’t have a clue. I was trying to handle grad school and the return of my own mood swings triggered by increased stress. No one then suspected that I had a mental illness, of course.

Nor did we suspect that Mom might be battling mental illness. She was such a brilliant person in so many ways that no one would ever have come to that conclusion (gosh, sound familiar?) It seemed to be a lot of stress and continual momentary crises. Later she would appear to be fine, so just as with my own issues, the dark days would be forgotten. For awhile. But it just kept on getting worse and worse.

I loved my mother dearly. Her unexpected death at age 53 was devastating, but her last few years were utterly wretched. Dying was a kinder fate than things continuing as they had been. She had already given up at that point, but life just kept on trampling her.

She deserved better. We could see that she was suffering, but we didn’t know what was going on and that we needed to intervene. I can’t blame myself for that because I did my best to help, but it makes me so sad for her.