Over a decade after my mother’s death I consider the lingering effects of the illness that plagued her life
My Mum’s handbag normally contained a few perennial items: balloons, sunglasses and wine gums (candies). She kept the balloons to give out to her grandchildren, great-nephews and nieces along with other kids she encountered; the sunglasses were an accessory she never did without even in the depths of winter, and the wine gums were the occasional treat she allowed herself.
Mum was idiosyncratic, and vaguely eccentric. She possessed the cut glass accent of an English Duchess – the result of childhood elocution lessons, and favoured long flowing skirts (particularly in summer) accompanied with beaded necklaces and glittering rings.
She died at the age of 62, fourteen years after my father who she always adored. The memories of her from childhood and adulthood are crystal clear, and yet at the same time they are clouded. They are blurred by the illness that she suffered for most of her life, and which also cast a long shadow over all our family.
In 1977 Mum was hurt in a house fire, which inflicted serious burns on her body and also wounded her deep within. In the wake of the accident she developed depression and then manic depression – latterly renamed bipolar disorder.
My childhood was punctuated by her periods of dark depression when she would retreat into her bedroom, emerging only occasionally as a teary-eyed and wisp-like presence. By contrast during her manic times, she was a tornado of activity, mowing the lawn at dawn, cleaning the house from top to bottom, and speaking at lightning speed as her mouth attempted to keep pace with her overactive mind.
For my Dad, my brother, sister and myself, it was generally disorientating, sometimes frightening and occasionally funny – such as the manic phase when she went on a shopping spree for Edwardian carriage clocks, which we then had to return to local antique shops.
My Mum’s illness was also our family secret. We didn’t discuss it outside the house, lending it the air of something dark and shameful.
There came a time when my Mum began to talk about it, and we took our cue from her. But mental illness is hard to discuss not only because it is painful and a social stigma persists, but also because it is so hard to explain. For those who have not experienced it at first hand, it is impossible to convey how confusing it is, not just for the sufferer but also for those caught in the immediate vicinity. The boundaries of normality become twisted and distorted, in behavior, routine and family dynamics.
For me, it was like an incendiary device going off in the heart of our family. My mother bore the brunt of the blast from her illness, but its effects spread like a destructive shock wave through us all. Family life was always held hostage by the whims of the disease. One day for no apparent reason she could be transformed from a happy smiling and dependable parent, into a mass of anxiety, fatigue and tears needing gentle care.
From my long years of observation I can only liken mental illness to cancer of the soul. That mutant force fought a relentless battle with my Mum for her essence and character. She battled the illness, trying not to let it win, and dictate how she should act, and who she would be. There were times of peace when it was kept at bay thanks to a delicate balance of medications and good fortune. But there were other long periods when the illness overcame her, wreaking its chaos upon us all.
In recalling my Mum, almost eleven years to the day since her death, I find the memories of her illness intruding upon my thoughts about the person she was, and the times we had together. We argued and bickered as a mother and child do. But there were many good times, when I got to fully enjoy her lively and loving presence.
I remember wandering through Regents Park, with her and my then girlfriend – now wife – drinking tea and gossiping as she took photos of the musicians playing on the bandstand. I recall the gentle hugs she gave and her affectionate reprimand to me not to hug her back ‘like a sack of potatoes’, and I remember her inexhaustible energy for walking in all weather and all places including through central London and the Egyptian desert.
But the problem is that I have to fight hard to get to those good memories, navigating a path between the pain, confusion and fear that the disease brought. It was like an ingrained stain that spread beyond her and that is still very hard to remove.
Bi-polar was her nemesis – and ours – to the very end, over a decade ago. She became physically unwell with a difficult to diagnose condition. But she was also in the midst of a severe manic phase, when her mind moved seamlessly between real and imagined thoughts. The doctors missed what was there, and she died. Such tragic occurrences aren’t uncommon in people with mental illnesses.
Today like every day I remember my Mum with love, but I also continue to hate her illness with a vengeance for what it robbed from her and our all family.
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