The other night, the kids and I were cuddled up on the couch watching “60 Minutes” and a segment came on about untreated schizophrenia and its links to most of the mass shootings in the past fifteen years. In hindsight, I probably should have switched over to “America’s Funniest Home Videos” so we could watch babies get launched across the room from sling shots or poodles ride skateboards, but all three of us seemed transfixed by the expert psychiatrists’ testimonies on symptoms of schizophrenia and the history of the treatment of schizophrenia and how schizophrenia could be better treated.
To be honest, I wasn’t really thinking about why my kids were so compelled by this segment until Sophia turned to me and asked, worriedly, “This isn’t the kind of mental illness that you have, is it, Mom?”
“Yeah,” Alexander said, “do you have this kind?” he kept glancing back and forth at the screen which shuffled pictures of the faces of recent shooters suspected of being mentally ill—D.C., Colorado, Arizona, Virginia. Was he waiting to see if my face would pre-emptively appear? His hand crept across my lap and found my hand.
“No, no, no,” I said. “I have Bipolar Disorder, not Schizophrenia. They’re very different from each other.” Though not so different chromosomally. Close cousins, really. In fact, I’ve taken the same medications that Schizophrenics take. But I don’t tell the kids this because I can see that they’re weighing the mental illness that they know their Mom! Their Mom!!! has against the mental illness these mass shooters have and they want me to be as far and away different from them as possible.
“That’s right,” Sophia said. “You have that one. You have the mood swings one.” She inched closer to me on the couch as if that would close the gap between what might be threatening about what was still unknown in my mental illness and what was known in her mom. “Because,” she continued, “your mood swings can be really bad. Sometimes you just get really angry at us for no reason.”
Alexander threw both his hands in the air. “Yeah! You do! Like sometimes we’ll be sitting on the bed and you’ll just start yelling at us for sitting on the bed and we won’t be doing anything but sitting on the bed!”
I closed my eyes. I might not have the voices of Schizophrenia, but I have the voices of punishment, of self-loathing, the voices that say: See? This disease will ruin your relationship with your children. It’s the wrecking ball, swinging through love, punching holes in walls, knocking out cross beams and support beams.
I opened my eyes and the kids were looking at me like I was crazy.
“I know!” Alexander said. “Maybe when you start yelling, or before you start, you should just go to your room.”
“Yeah,” Sophia said. “When you feel a mood coming on, so you don’t take it out on us, you can just go to your room. And then it’ll be okay.”
I smiled at them. They weren’t really afraid of me winding up on that television screen. They weren’t even afraid of my having a mental illness, of my being Bipolar. All they wanted was a tool to help me contain it. So they could help me help myself. So they could feel powerful instead of powerless.
“I have an idea,” I said. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to always know when a mood is happening. I’m not always able to spot it right away. But you guys are experts. So how about we have a code word for when you think I need to go to another room for a time out and I’ll go?”
Alexander smiled. “But we won’t use it if you’re angry at us for being crazy and we need to stop being crazy and calm down.”
Sophia said, “Or like we need to stop fighting with each other and we’re not stopping.”
“Right,” I said. “It’s for when I’m getting angry or a mood swing is happening that has no good reason and maybe it’s scaring you so you think I need a time out. So all you have to say is ‘Go to Your Room.’ Okay?”
They both nodded and we shook on it. Then Alexander gave a great sigh of relief and threw himself on me in a hug. I hadn’t realized my mood swings had seemed so scary? overwhelming? engulfing? My own mother has a big personality, and I was able, as a child, to build a pretty good moat. I forget, sometimes, that my son, while not fragile, is more delicate—he’s like a butterfly or moth and his wings beating on the outside of his body for all to see and to be damaged.
And I forget that for my children, the wings they see beating outside my body are not the ragged wings of some storm battered butterfly, but the colossal wings of a Bipolar dragon, furiously flying into the heavens, then folding back for the dive down into the black well. And just the day-to-day effort of keeping aloft? Enough to make a mom tired and stupidly, unthinkingly angry. Enough to know when it’s time to go to “Go to my room.”
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