My father had PTSD from being only one of three men in his company to survive the battle of San Pietro. My maternal grandmother suffered from depression so badly that she spent most of her life in bed. My mother, it seemed to me, was just mean. For this reason, I kept my diagnosis a secret from her but someone told her. One Thanksgiving she made a disparaging comment about people who “thought they were bipolar” and looked right down the table at me. The faces of the other family members turned to see how I would answer. In the days before I went on mood stabilizers, I would have risen with a fury and blasted her with a confused twirl of invective. But I sat calmly and mentioned how hard it was for psychiatrists to make a diagnosis, perhaps harder than for other medical specialties. Someone changed the subject. I got up to get more turkey.
This confrontation pretty much ended our relationship. Even though she lived only 50 miles away, I only visited her on Thanksgiving after that. We seldom if ever talked on the phone. When she was dying of a brain tumor — she had moved to Portland, Oregon to be closer to my brother — I waited to hear that she wanted to see me. The call never came.
I wonder if my mother suffered from some kind of brain issue, maybe bipolar disorder, maybe anxiety, maybe major depression. She was one of the most negative people in a negative family. When we got together, I would listen as the others talked about how bad everything was and how they had been betrayed by this politician or that priest. If I tried to say something positive, they would treat it with cynicism. As I grew older, I wanted less and less of them.
She was prone to rages. Once I yelled back at her and she tried to choke me. If I tried to get away from her for a bit by walking out of the house, she’d come running after me crying and screaming. The neighbors thought this spectacle was funny and I had it thrown in my face once by someone who wanted to put me down. Mom was clingy and she was mean, always reminding me of my faults but hiding her true relationship with me from her friends by telling them how proud she was of me. When I got a full fellowship to Duke, she was furious and chipped at my ego until I spiraled into a mixed state and a depression that cost me the fellowship.
After I moved away and came back to Southern California some twenty years later, I received a call from the Kaiser Hospital in Fontana. Mom was in the emergency room. The issue was her blood pressure. We arrived within an hour and a half and found her in a curtained off area. Every time she checked her blood pressure, it rose by 50 to 100 points. I pulled the doctor aside and told him about my own history. He ordered a psychiatrist.
The psychiatrist put her on Prozac. I never found my mother easier to get along with than during the three months she stayed on it. But she was always looking to the time when she could stop taking the meds. When she did, she went back to the person she had been before, except she hated me for turning her in.
I am a bad son because I never liked my mother or respected her. She held grudges, she picked at my weaknesses, she would not face her own depression except by applying the “bootstrap” method. “The fact that we were raised Catholic,” she once told me, “kept us from ending our lives no matter how depressed we were.” That might have worked for her unless she had had a dark night of the soul when she had had pills in hand ready to eat that she never told anyone about. It nearly didn’t work for me. At age 47 I nearly sliced my own wrists. A telephone call from my psychiatrist at the gloomy moment of decision stopped me. That and a med change saved me from prematurely bringing on the final oblivion.
I owe my mother nothing. Things are better now that she is gone.
NOTE: Some of you have wonderful parents. Please do not take this as a general condemnation of them. Good people are good people.