Sitting poolside in south west Mexico dreaming of buying a wee little apartment. Just a two bedroom in a nice spot. We could leave our house to our grown son or let it out for six months of the year. What a tidy little life we would have now that we are both retired, hubby and I. We would go to the beach every morning to do a bit of yoga. Swim. Eat tons of guacamole and ceviche. The odd margarita. Mmmmm. A tidy, little life.
Ah, but there’s a wrinkle in said plan.
If I’m not absolutely careful with medications, (yes, plural) sleep, sun, frivolity, bloodwork and following up with both medical and psychiatric doctors as well as talk therapy with a social worker. If I’m not on top of this thing, I could easily be poolside talking to an invisible Virgin Mary. You see, mental illness is not tidy. Nor is it little. But, it is life.
I am blessed in many ways and some have told me that I ‘have it all’. If by that you mean waking up out of a dead sleep in the grips of a panic attack with lifelike apparitions about, then, yes. I do have it all. Or being amped up such that sleep is just impossible. Then yes. I do. You see, the amped up aspect means hypo-mania. Hypo-mania is dangerous as it makes me lose my sense of judgment. I also just get downright pushy and annoying.
Let’s touch on another true danger. Suicidal thoughts and plans can occupy my racing mind when hypo-mania settles into my tidy little life. In order to combat the situation I second and third guess everything I do and say. I will often get quiet and sensitive and will overthink even the tiniest of decisions. Should I have a coffee or not. Maybe I should never have coffee again. Ok. Maybe I’ll only have coffee every other day but only if it’s sunny and definitely only if it’s before noon and only if a squirrel is peering at me while she quickly cheeks another nut. And on and on it goes. Yes, shades of Rainman.
From hypo to full on mania is just a step away. Maybe a few sleepless, lonely, frustrating and scary nights. With full on mania I talk to and touch everyone. I call folks at 3 in the morning repeatedly. When talking to complete strangers in the street or in a shop I take hold of their hand and tell them about their life and what to do with it.
The next step after mania is psychosis. Straight-jacket thrown into a rubber room psychosis. Injected with an embarrassing amount of sedative that usually needs repeating to be at all effective. I’ve been psychotic twice. I was unrecognizable even to myself. I escaped the locked psych ward of our area hospital and with a johnny coat flapping, knee socks and Birkenstocks I was running home. It was February. It was dark and minus 20 Celsius but, see, no judgement. Two old ladies encouraged me to get into their warm car then they called 911. I have no idea who they were but they likely saved my life that night.
Folks, if you know someone with mental illness and they are behaving unlike their usual selves, tell someone who loves them or call the cops and ask for a wellness check on them.
When psychosis is in full swing it is in no way tidy. It is in no way little but, it is in every way life.
Gordon Lightfoot’s song was playing while I shuffled around my kitchen trying to simplify my thoughts and push down the anxiety. God Damed Anxiety is back. It puts this tight clamp on my spine where the cortisol moves in and stirs up feelings of hopelessness, lack of confidence, uselessness. All those wonderful wonderful feelings to carry like a monkey through the days.
In 1999, in postpartum after the birth of my one child, I was flung into a psychosis which turned into a straight-jacket and a rubber room experience. Haldol and all. (Locked up in D.C.). I was then, at the age of 33, diagnosed Bipolar. I had never had any symptoms prior to that. But you see, I am Military Martha. My whole family of six siblings call me that. I am the sensible one. The rule-follower. List maker (thank’s Annie). The one who solves problems. I am definitely NOT the one who ends up in a Johnny coat running for my life out the hospital doors at -20 Celsius with my undies on show. (Crazy Train 2011)
But this is mental illness folks. It takes all that you know and turns it upside down. It makes that positive side of me disappear. It makes it nearly impossible to reach out to friends and family (unless it turns into mania and then it is impossible to NOT reach out to friends and family and just about anyone else, and even at 3 in the morning).
Even the simplest of tasks cause me to turn in circles and not know where to begin. I need adult supervision. Thanks Uncle Buck. My husband of 28 years becomes the one person who knows me so well. He takes my hand and leads me along through the cloud. He will encourage me with a simple tasks to focus on and accomplish, telling me all the other stuff can wait. It’s not going to be a problem if it all just waits, he says.
Yesterday I was trying to explain the anxiety to my sister on the phone, three provinces away. It is like I know cerebrally that the task is not important but even knowing that, I feel like I am swimming in goop and am finding it hard to keep my head above it. Couple that with the feeling of a huge alligator clamp on my lower spine and that everything I look at is somehow wrong: not good enough, out of order, messy, needs fixing…AHHH! It becomes just overwhelming.
I was explaining how some things seem to help. Letting things go until a better time, cancel, reschedule, forego, cross it off the list. Listening to up and happy music. Walking in nature. Holding hands with my husband and quietly talking and walking. Simple tasks: peeling potatoes, hanging laundry, watering the garden, weeding, sweeping the floor, scraping the paint on the house with a warm sun on my back…all seem to help, if I can get out of my own way to do them.
I had my Birkenstocks and SmartWools on and with my big-ass undies peeking out of my johnny coat, I saw my chance to escape. Out the psych ward’s normally locked door I slipped, down the hall and through the big front doors. I was running home. It was a dark, -20, winter night but if I could just run the 15 k home, all would be well…
You see, I was in the midst of my second ever full blown psychotic episode of Bipolar-1, my first ever had happened in postpartum in 1999. It was now 2010 and I had enjoyed perfect mental and physical health for eleven years.
Then, we decided (cue ominous music here)…to move house and shortly thereafter to completely gut and renovate the kitchen and that’s when the shit hit the fan…and, it wasn’t pretty.
We had moved into our little bungalow which is in an idyllic location in our beloved town. It is close to everything and sits between two parks and just up from the dyke lands. The street is short and quiet with a handful of unique homes on it and home-owners who mostly stick to themselves. I adored this new little house, which is all we needed for the three of us and our large dog.
The previous owner (whom I strangle in my imagination every time I catch sight of him) had, however, sadly, let if fall into disrepair and become outdated. We had our hands full when we moved in. The old harvest-gold carpet in the living-room stunk like stale Guinness. We ripped it out the first night.
Open the dryer and door fell off.
Door knobs and cabinet knobs were missing.
Huge pink toilets ran for hours after flushing.
Every window screen was torn.
Paint was chipping on the exterior.
The ancient dishwasher didn’t work.
The fan above the oven exhausted into your face. So, I took to wearing a hat when I used the stove-top to cook.
The windows were full of black gunk around the edges.
There was a large amount of black mold on the main bath ceiling. Both bathroom fans sounded like jet engines taking off.
The ensuite shower stall had a serious microbiome going on.
Run the washer and the water drained into the kitchen sink and then onto the kitchen floor.
You get the idea.
Everything was broken!!!
And the owner had been a professional, a PHd!!!!! (I’m a ProFESSional, as Dad would say so that everyone would know that he knew everything about everything. One time, in the eighties, on a road trip to Florida, he had corrected a local waitress, serving tables in her own home-town, about a fact about her home-town that there was no way in hell he could have known to be true –there was no internet nor cell phones nor wifi then. He waved his thumb at he and his new wife saying, Honey Baby, we’re both teachers. My younger brother Luke and I were stunned andmortified at his audacity. We would have liked to slip under the table to hide our embarrassment and very red faces while we cringed. Years later we just chuckle about it. It was a trait of our father that was oh so irksome. The only thing Dad knew everything about was hockey. Every stat. Every player. Every game. It was truly fascinating when he got going.)
The kitchen in our new bungalow was completely substandard. Popcorn ceiling (stucco ceiling in a kitchen! Imagine.) Tiny, rotting windows. Single sink in rotting cabinet. Dark wooden cupboards and doors. Ancient washer and dryer, both missing knobs, right in the kitchen. The wall behind the lint-bomb of a dryer was crumbling and one of the wires to the 220 v outlet was bare. Throw a lit match back there and the place would go up. One teeny light fixture with a tiny fluorescent bulb that would flicker ad naseum while I tried to chop veggies for supper and no other task lighting to speak of. It was depressingly bad and needed to be fixed. People had warned us that kitchen renovations can be stressful. Oh Lord. We really should have listened.
After much shopping around for contractors and planning and budgeting, the day came for demolition. The idiot who decided to take down our old popcorn ceiling, for some inexplicable reason, did not seal off the room to the rest of the house. I arrived home from work to find a scene out of a post apocalyptic nuclear snow storm: about 3 feet of vermiculite on our kitchen floor and buddy (the idiot) shoveling it into plastic bags to get rid of it. His face mask was over part of his mouth only and all of the fibers were floating around the whole house. My first thought to accompany my racing pulse and rapid breathing was: Holy shit. That could be asbestos. Next I calmly asked the idiot when he thought he would have it cleaned up. Next I ran like a devil to find Dean and to get Leo from school. My friend Eric who is both a Master Electrician and a Master Plumber (and whom I had hired for the job) was my next call. He calmly told me to get on the internet and find a place that could test a sample of the vermiculite. He told me there are two types of vermiculite. One with and one without asbestos.
I was in luck. A scientist working in Halifax lived in the Valley and did vermiculite testing on the side. He told me to put a baggie of the stuff in his mailbox in Canning and he would have an answer to me the next day. He said there was a fifty fifty chance it was asbestos. I asked him what would have to happen if it WAS asbestos. He said quite simply, ‘you’d be forced to move out until it was all abated. The place would be off limits.’ Oh jesus…
Stress and more stress.
The next day I received his email. It was NOT asbestos. I had not slept the previous night. We paid the idiot and fired him and that did not go well. Next I heard that he beats up his wife. This is a small town. I did not wish to run into him again. Especially if I was by myself. I hardly slept and when I did, it was the idiot who was in my nightmares. A cough had developed and was getting worse.
So, the stress and the interrupted sleep began. With Bipolar disorder, sleep disruptions and sleep deprivation cause or exacerbate the symptoms of the disorder rapidly. So does stress. I was not on medication then and in hind-sight, I truly wish I had been.
After the idiot was fired, the work on the reno started to come together nicely. I would work alongside my skilled and talented friend Eric and we would chuckle the day away. I would just do things like retrieve parts from his van or the hardware store or screw this in, screw that in, move this, hold this…you get the idea. My cough worsened though and would wake me up several times a night.
At some point, I went to the doctor and was told I had developed bronchitis. I asked about my sleep interruptions and he explained that when I went into a coughing fit, my body produced the hormone adrenaline. The adrenaline would soar through my body and stop my sleep. Uh oh. It was thought that the soaring hormones in postpartum, as well as the difficulty and length of the birth, and resultant sleep deprivation, had caused my first psychotic episode.
I bet I was the only ten-year-old kid who knew that the address of The Toronto Star was 1 Yonge Street, Toronto. I knew this piece of completely useless information because at the tender age of five years old, I had a paper route – The Toronto Star. I exaggerate slightly. The route was actually my older brother’s but, I had been given the responsibility of delivering a single paper to one out-of-the-way customer: Mrs. Wilson– about ten doors north of our house. I got paid a hefty 5 cents per week for this. It was much to my embarrassment though, when the phone would ring while all nine of us were ensconced at the supper table and Mom would look at me and say, Martha, did you deliver your paper? Invariably I had forgotten. I would have been too busy at play to think of it. I had to then drop my fork and run off with Mrs. Wilson’s paper. As the years went by I was given more and more of the route to deliver and customers to collect from and one day I found that the whole route was mine – handed down from Matt to Mark to Job and finally, to me.
The Saturday Star was so heavy that, in order for me to be able to deliver all the papers from one load, I had to lug the bag to the top of our front, concrete stoop. I would sit on the third step and back into the head-sling of the loaded paper bag and then, leaning way over until my nose was almost touching the ground, I would stagger forward and allow the full weight of the bag to sit on my back. Not a parent-figure in site to worry about me injuring my neck. I often wondered how badly off I would be if I were to just fall the wrong way? Or, if I were to stumble, out-of-control onto the street, would the car that hit me be damaged by the sack of papers on my back or would I just simply be crushed beneath them?
Most of my paper route, thankfully, was in an eight-story apartment building, just down the hill from us that we imaginatively called, ‘The Apartments’. When I was still quite little, I wasn’t able to reach the buttons for the seventh and eighth floors on the elevator’s button panel. Alas, I had the ultimate solution. I would lumber into the elevator and somehow drop my paper bag off my head, without wrenching my wee neck, and stand on the full paper bag in order to reach the button for the top floor. I would then deliver the papers on the descending floors, using the heavy bag to hold the elevator door open as I progressed. When the bag was no longer heavy enough to hold the elevator door open, I would carry the bag, deliver the papers and then take the flight of stairs down to the next floor. The whole process was quite an art.
My career as an earner started then. I was a papergirl until I was 15. I started to baby-sit at the age of 12. I worked as a bus-girl at The Crock & Block Restaurant at the age of 15 while living with my sister Eva. I then had various serving jobs: Lafayette, O’Toole’s, Silky’s, and June’s Restaurant for five summers until joining the army at 19. Dad did not believe in giving us an allowance. We had to earn everything we ever got.
It was at Fancy’s in Barrie that I experienced working for the most dysfunctional couple of crazy people I have ever encountered. I hated working there because of it and dreaded each shift. Tom, the chief cook and owner would SCREAM at his wife, Darlene all the live long day: BUTTER RIGHT TO THE EDGE OF THE BREAD FOR FUCK SAKES! RIGHT TO THE FUCKIN’ EDGE!!! AND GET IT OUT HOT!!! YOU BLOODY STUPID BITCH. Oh Lord did I detest that place. The tension should have been on the menu because it was the most abundant item they produced. I just now googled the place. It is still open. Unbelievable. The food was fairly good though, unfortunately.
Why work there? I was in grade 12 and needed a job. My sister Amy had helped me get the job through a friend of a friend and I was ever so grateful. Amy always had so many connections made through her work as a hairstylist. By this time, Mom was living in a tiny apartment with her alcoholic boyfriend and working as a server for minimum wage at cafeteria-style restaurant in Woolworth downtown. I would go visit her and she would look so tired. So worn out. Oh god. It would break my heart. This was her reality after raising seven children and keeping a wonderful home for us for 26 years. She did not come out of the divorce nor the annulment well. I could not ask her for a penny. She worked so hard and made so little.
At that time, my younger brother and I had a bedroom each in the basement of our bungalow and Dad was upstairs. I had been getting a couple of shifts per week at O’Toole’s Roadhouse Restaurant, but, it went bankrupt and it wasn’t long before I was without money. One particular day, having spent my savings, and feeling crampy due to menses I had to ask Dad for money for necessities: menstrual pads. He said no. He would not give me five bucks for pads.
I was forced to use cotton t-shirts cut into rags. Nice. Not giving me money for necessities, when he had plenty of money, was just one of his many faults. The others were worse. Like when he would come barging into my room, even though my door was closed, and catch me half-dressed or naked but with the old sorry, sorry. I didn’t know you were dressing. Or he would forcibly hold me down and lick my face with his very wet, gross, warm tongue – his bad breath washing over me as I would struggle — I just want to give my daughter a little kiss. Or, he would comment on my developing body you’re getting rather hippy, M, you better watch it, you don’t want to get fat. Or, he would routinely reach out and touch my bum as I would be walking past him and then exclaim yippee in a falsetto voice. Then there were the many times his robe would mysteriously open and there would be his hairy privates for all to see. Oh god. I would be mortified when he would inevitably do this with teen-aged Kelly and Sally visiting. Accidentally show us his privates, and then giggle about it as he would sneak away back to his fart-stinking room.
With all that I have read, learned and experienced in life regarding body image and now as a parent, here is one truism: never comment on a child’s body except to say how lucky we are to have one that does so much for us. Our body is truly a marvel which should be loved, respected, adorned, nourished, cleaned, clothed and loved some more.
So, my relationship with Dad was strained for sure. At times I would love him for his silliness and his zest for life and enthusiasm about certain topics: sport, recreation, small business, celebration. Dad loved to laugh. He would often have us all in stitches at the supper table, recounting his Skollard Hall days in a falsetto voice. He liked that falsetto voice. I do truly think he was doing his best to father us the best way he could, considering the factors at play in his upbringing and his generation and with the added factor of the Catholic guilt monitoring all that he did. Another factor in the break down of his marriage was mental illness.
Mom had been a classic Bipolar 1 (Definition: A person with bipolar 1 will experience a full manic episode usually leading to psychosis). When she was pregnant or nursing, which was a lot of the time until she was 42 and weened Luke, she did not have symptoms of mental illness. But, then it hit and it hit hard. She was hospitalized with full on psychosis several times in the seventies. I remember waking up around age six and walking around looking for mom. No one would tell me that she had been taken to the hospital: 5C – the psyche ward. (Who would know then that in thirty years time, I would have my first big struggle with mental illness). She was there for weeks. We would go visit her and it was like she was a different person. She was in a fog. It was heart wrenching. I missed her so badly. I just wanted my mommy back. I would cry myself to sleep missing her so much. She would sometimes be smoking when we visited. I couldn’t believe my eyes. (Back then you could smoke in parts of the hospital.)
In the summer, at the lake, Mom would become more and more manic. Her manic energy was put to good use with cleaning and maintaining the ten cabins of The Camp that we moved to every summer. Lock, stock and barrel, all nine of us would move two hours North to the camp and live on the lake all summer – running the tourist resort – as it used to be known. It was truly beautiful there: 21 forested acres, half-mile of lake frontage, only 2 miles from a village for supplies, ten antique, rustic cabins on private lots with tall trees, most cabins on the water with their own dock and a sandy beach.
For many years we even had a diving tower and trampoline over the water. Dad’s idea. Dad being a teacher, had envisioned the need for a business and an escape from the city. (We would have killed each other staying in the city all summer. No doubt about it.) It was pure genius and is one of those things I loved about my Dad. He had these great ideas at times. We enjoyed idyllic summers – running around barefoot, swimming, boating, water-skiing, canoeing and socializing with all the campers. Yes, we had work and chores, but, we were paid for them as a business expense and it was just a couple of hours a day. Our summers at the camp were the envy of my friends. In fact, many of my friends would come to the camp, either to stay with us in the office or as paying guests and stay in a cabin or tent.
I remember waking up early to find mom’s twin bed empty. She would already be out there working. Dad was much more sedentary. He would do all of the business-end of things: letters, bills, payments, promotions. All this to say, that mom’s mental illness was raging on, unchecked for several years. From reading I have done, because I too am bipolar 1 (Crazy Train (part 1)…All ABOARD, Crazy Train (part 2) ) the more episodes there are the more easily an episode will occur. The brain makes these pathways that become easier and easier to follow and so sanity slips further and further away. So, to be fair, it could not have been easy dealing with this major impediment. When Mom finally went on lithium, and stayed on lithium, things were so much better. She was stable. Stable is good.
I wasn’t the first in my family to work at June’s Restaurant up at the Lake. My older sister Eva had worked there a decade prior to me. Eva would sometime recount one of her most embarrassing moments while working there. This man would come into the restaurant almost daily. He would take a seat beside the coffee maker in the kitchen in the mid-afternoon when it wasn’t too busy. He would just sit and chat up the kitchen staff and the servers as they would come and go from the kitchen. So, Eva walks into the kitchen this one day and slaps Buddy on the back and asks him how the heck he is doing today. That would have been all fine except that when she slapped him on the back his toupee went flying off his head and landed a few feet away on the kitchen floor.
Eva swooped to grab the toupee off the floor and deposited it directly onto Buddy’s bald pate. She smoothed it out with both hands and then told him sincerely but with a red face: ‘You have very nice hair.’ She then escaped into the dining room.