When did the problems begin? By high school she ran away from home. She told me about it. Listening to Bach, windows rolled down, hair streaming in the breeze, done with her old life, driving without stopping, destination Florida. That’s what I now know to be a manic episode.

The problems started long before I came in the picture. Even then, crazy people are lots of fun when you’re too young to understand. You see the fun, not the costs. Sometimes she was scary, but she never did anything to me. She loved me. Even when she hated her own children. She’d pull me aside, too close, telling me her and I were a team. We’re the black sheep; we’ve got to stick together.

No one ever said she had bipolar disorder. They just had the look. Exchanged glances. Grimaces. Excuses for why visits had to be cut short. She came in and out of my life, I was mostly only allowed to see her when she was doing well. But that rule was loose, since they couldn’t just leave her kids alone. Everyone came together to take care of her, push her to get help, even if no one would put a name to it.

And the good stretches could be long. Long enough to feel like maybe I’d imagined the rest. Sometimes it felt like I was her third child.

Then it got bad again. For a long time. Now we were old enough for her kids to move out. That was enough of an excuse for the rest of the family to not bother. She caused a lot of trouble. They’d rather just wait it out. I did, too. I tried at first, like some of us did. But she was too much. Too mean for my adolescent ego to handle. I couldn’t do it. We all backed off.

Finally, over drinks, someone admitted what I suspected. She’d long ago been diagnosed as bipolar. Had been hospitalized. On and off of medications. But there’s not a lot of services available. Waiting lists that are longer than how long she was agreeable. Medications came with side effects and weren’t already covered by insurance she didn’t always have.

Most of us cut her off, but we didn’t mean forever. We were in a holding pattern, circling around her, waiting for a sign it was safe. That’s how we found her, but also how it took so long.

Later, we pieced together that several of us had called and gotten no response. Two people stopped by to say hello, but the door didn’t open. Finally, by the time her daughter stopped by, the mail was pulling up.

The police wouldn’t let her kids inside. They called my dad, who cleaned things up. I was a little alarmed that he took a crime scene mattress to the dump and nobody asked any questions. I guess that’s how small towns are.

The house was sold. The bed stayed in my parents basement for years. Maybe it’s still there.

At the funeral no one said suicide. Or bipolar. Or anything about lack of health care access or shame. I heard an aunt say it’d be better for the kids. It’d be tough at first, but she was a bad mother. Of course, by then there were no ‘kids’, really. We were all as adults and we’d ever be.

The kids disagree. We grew apart. I wonder if it was because I did not play along when they sainted her.

Her name doesn’t come up in conversation very often these days. I don’t think they’re trying to pretend she never existed, but it brings up a lot of complicated emotions and uncomfortable family dynamics.

 

I spent a lot of time wondering what part of her was her and what part was the illness. At what point did I start to share the blame for never trying to get her help. There are no answers that I settled on. I guess I made peace with knowing there could be no peace. The answers are irrelevant.