by Joni Edelman
In 2005, my oldest sons were five and seven years old. On a summer afternoon I found them in a hurricane of kicks and slaps, a disagreement over legos or hot wheels. I raised my voice, yelling, STOP. Unfazed by my clenched fists, my volume, the anger in my eyes and in my scowl, their fighting continued. My rage reached boiling. I scanned the room. My eyes landed on a wooden chair near the door and brought it down on the hardwood floor in a crash, splinters flying, the flooring scratched. The fighting stopped and their expressions told a story of terror.
I remember those faces — still. It’s been 10 years.
In the summer of 1983 my best friend ever in the entire universe came to my house for a sleepover. My house was the best house for sleepovers. We had Twinkies and microwave popcorn, fruit roll-ups and A&W Root Beer — and all the things 9 year old’s dreams are made of. The cabinets were organized alphabetically; Twinkies by the Triscuits, popcorn by the Pasta-roni.
I had a daisy comforter and three decorative pillows, my own TV, and eight Cabbage Patch dolls. My mom would sometimes be gone all night — which only added to the allure.
Me and my best friend forever ate the popcorn, and everything else, and watched whatever was on TV (which wasn’t much). And went to sleep.
When we woke up Saturday morning, the house was quiet, and I had a new stepfather. Steve worked construction and smelled like stale cigarettes and tequila and freshly milled 2X4s. He yelled a lot. I didn’t like him. He had three pesky, filthy children, who I also didn’t like.
Friday night, my mom and Steve went to Vegas. And Saturday morning I had a new family. The next week, in the middle of a school day, my mom picked me up. From school we went to Steve’s house, which was dirty, remotely located, and surrounded by flooded groves of walnut trees and fields of cotton. I didn’t like it either.
I never saw my school — or my desk full of Hello Kitty pencils — again.
This may seem like odd behavior, because it is, but it wasn’t for me. Sudden changes in locale, housing, men, stepsiblings, schools, all typical. I loathed it. I was accustomed to it.
Ten years later I was living on my own and helping my sixth stepfather raise my 4-year-old sister. My mom was living in some remote city in Northern California, with the addict who would ostensibly become my seventh stepfather. I was in college, married, pregnant, terrified.
In early adulthood the bipolar disorder that was my genetic destiny was pushed around — shuffled from doctor to doctor, city to city, misdiagnosis to misdiagnosis. Deeply distressed, consumed by sadness, it was just “postpartum depression.” If I had manic energy, it was “drive” or “passion” or “dedication.” Snap decisions, irresponsible, risky, promiscuous, it was just “life learning.” I never finished anything I started, something always got in the way. It was never Bipolar Disorder.
It was always Bipolar Disorder.
I wanted children, a family — stability to heal my wounds. And I knew the truth, I was very sick. I wanted desperately to be anyone but my mother, but, always suppressed, always explained away, I was exactly like my mother. All night sewing marathons, consuming obsession with fitness, organization, church, gardening, decor, 17 kinds of crafts. My magical thinking, my invincibility. The rage. The waves of crippling depression.
I had three children who were pushed aside, when I was sad, or busy, which was a lot of the time. I yelled. I cried. I retreated. I apologized. I did it all again — an infinite loop of dysfunction.
I wanted to be the best mother. The opposite of my mother. I wanted to do it all, and well. But I wasn’t doing it well. I was doing what I could. But sometimes what you can do isn’t enough.
There was always fear, the fear of the unspoken truth, the elephant in the room — in my life, all around me — as much as I didn’t want to be my mother, I was. I ignored it, ultimately medicating the long troughs of depression, celebrating the months of boundless energy, denying the dysfunctional behavior; the out of control spending, the risk taking, the defiance, the promiscuity, the rage.
For 20 years.
When I was 40, I met my psychiatrist, a diminutive man, who drinks lattes and eats Sun Chips during my appointments. The man who mixed a complicated cocktail of psychiatric medications, and finally leveled my moods. The man that rose my depression, and stole my mania, and bridged the gap between crippling sadness and dangerous madness. The man who changed it all.
Despite the bridge, my moods still shift from time to time. Lately they’ve been low, I’ve planned my death seven different ways. And so we adjust my dosages. Three months ago they were high, high enough that I didn’t want to sleep. But I continued to swallow the usual pills, and the extra pills he prescribed to force the sleep I hate, to shut me down. We move my meds up and down, in spite of the sometimes crippling side effects. In the name of sanity. In the name of trying to be a safe place for my five children.
I’m still scared. I’m scared that the 10 years I lived in denial hurt my children, irreparably. I’m scared that they will grow up and write something like this, recounting a childhood of fear and dysfunction. I’m scared that the cocktail that keeps me alive may stop working — that the depths of depression will take hold, and I won’t be able to shake it. And I will die. And leave them motherless.
I’m scared that they might be better off motherless.
I’m scared that one of them will have this cursed gift. I’m scared they will blame me, like I blamed her. I’m scared that someday I’ll be her, and not even know.
Every night I brush my teeth and I swallow five pills and I hope that I can be better, that I am better.