CN: Mental health, violence
Lithium probably saved my life. I was never in danger of not taking the drug during my many depressive episodes. It was during the much rarer – and possibly rarefied – highs that I was vulnerable, because it was then that I thought I was invulnerable.
I am a manic-depressive. That’s not the PC term. In polite company it’s now called having bipolar disorder. But a rose by any other name...
Coping mechanisms are a vital part of living with the condition. So what really works? In a depressive state I’ve found the most important step is getting out of bed in the morning. In the clinics where I’ve stayed, that is the policy. No matter how gloomy, threatened or bleak you’re feeling, they insist you get up. When I haven’t been bad enough to need a clinic, my sister has stepped in to help. She would sit on my bed for however long it took for me to rise. Once up, things do feel different. I’ve never really understood why.
Those people who don’t have any back-up – the cruellest predicament – are most at risk.
Another vital coping mechanism is taking meds. But bipolar is a condition of extremes. You’re either up or your down: Arctic, Antarctic. No nice warm middle ground. Middle ground is where the rest of the world lives. So as soon as you’re feeling better, the classic response is to throw the lithium away. That rarely has a positive outcome.
Therapy? It’s never really worked for me. I now see a benign therapist once every four to five weeks. She prescribes and I take the medication. We chat for a while and afterwards I do feel lighter, but in the depths or at the heights there’s not much she can do except adjust my cocktail of meds.
Bipolar is hereditary, but just because it runs in the family does not mean the next generation will necessarily inherit it. Environmental factors – abuse, mental stress, loss of a loved one or any number of traumatic events – may contribute to or trigger bipolar disorder.
While I was not a victim of abuse, I nevertheless ticked too many of the above boxes. My mother had it. I believe my maternal grandfather also had it, but we’ll never know for sure because he died in the Holocaust and my mother was too young to recall him clearly. The rest of my ancestors are long dead at the hands of that same enemy, more bitter than illness. There’s no way of discovering how their cerebral activity functioned.
I think the Holocaust was the trigger for me. I didn’t live through it. I am what they call a second-generation survivor, who grew up with both parents dealing with PTSD from what they had experienced in the death camps. Of course, in those days no one called it ‘PTSD’. Identifying post-traumatic stress disorder was a long way in the future.
How could anything in my life approximate the terror and the passion, the beauty and the obscenity experienced by those who had endured to give me life?
A family friend, who also supplied zippers and yarns to my parents’ clothing factory, used to besiege me at every opportunity, for reasons I still don’t understand. ‘If ever there was a lost generation, it’s yours,’ he would say ad nauseam, each time believing he was telling me something new. His accent fractured his speech. ‘I know it was my, my generation who lost you. Some even say that all we managed to pass on was pain from the camps. But if we admit it, will it stop you from keeping psychiatrists and divorce lawyers in business? You’re lost and sick. Blame us? Sure. But the point is you’re the ones who are sticked – stuck – with it.’
As soon as I could, I would flee from him because, at some level, I knew he was right. I was sticked with it.
I was a teenager when it first began, in my tenth year of school. I didn’t want to go out, let alone participate in the elaborate pre-mating rituals of my peers. I found I could not study or even engage in class discussions anymore. I failed every mid-year examination.
When my parents berated me for my academic failures, I remember thinking: ‘I came across some figures once, Mum, Dad. Did you know it was the ones with degrees, the Jewish academics, who perished first in Germany? They were so well-educated, they knew they would always be safe in das Vaterland . . .’
But I never dared say it.
Between episodes of darkness or a light that was far too bright, I understood the ache beneath those volatile surfaces of mine. I knew that trying to measure up to people who had become rag-trader millionaires after surviving Hitler was a feat of death-defying magnitude. And more, they had done so in a strange land, learning a strange language, at the end of the world. How could anything in my life approximate the terror and the passion, the beauty and the obscenity experienced by those who had endured to give me life?
My mother came to Auschwitz at seventeen. She watched her mother and baby brother being forced by Mengele into the line that led to the gas chambers. The soldiers dragged my mother to the right, into the line for the young and strong. They pulled her hands from her mother’s as they both cried, an image that plagued my dreams for many years after my mother shared that information with me (she was manic at the time).
The first tale of romance I ever heard was that of my parents meeting across the barbed wire of a labour camp. By the time it was told to me, I had developed a concept of reality that was congruent with that of my peers. I grew up in the company of second-generation survivors and most of us had evolved to find the abnormal normal. At a class reunion not so long ago, someone read out a list of those classmates who had died before their time. The number of suicides was disproportionate.
Then there were the feelings of impotence which exacerbated those interminable times when I visited the dark side. I could not have saved my parents. I could not have prevented that whirlwind of blood and slaughter in which they became caught up. There was nothing I could have done. My anger, combined with a toxic mix of self-reproach, shame and guilt, hurled me deeper into the gloom.
There was nothing I could have done. My anger, combined with a toxic mix of self-reproach, shame and guilt, hurled me deeper into the gloom.
I felt impotent too, when confronted with the opinions of those people who deny the Holocaust, the David Irvings of the world. It does not matter to them how much evidence Spielberg, Wiesenthal, Ságvári, Paulsson and countless others accrued. In the times when equilibrium shone its brightness upon my brain, I was able to accept that it was beyond me to change anything about the phenomenon of Holocaust deniers. At some level I knew they did not believe their own words. I understood that their goal was not freedom of expression, that they were malevolent and hate-filled towards persecuted minorities in general and Jews in particular. By arguing that six million never died, that the Holocaust never happened, they conjured another reason for Jew-hatred: lying Jews, silver-tongued and deceitful Jews. If Hitler had wanted to persecute them, he would have been entitled to, but he hadn’t and his reward was Jewish lies. Or so the denier narrative maintained.
But the blue numbers tattooed on my mother’s forearm, which I saw every day of my childhood, were proof. As were my father’s cries in the night be as he fought with sleep-generated spectres of the baby brothers he had lost – the ones he couldn’t save from those Grimm Teutonic ovens.
Once, a sympathetic psychiatrist told me that when he asked my mother if she thought it would be a good idea to have the numbers removed – surely it would help her forget? – she looked at him in some surprise. ‘I don’t want to forget. That would give them victory,’ she said. ‘I survived in spite of their ekldik numbers.’
I am a high-functioning manic-depressive. I did nothing to deserve bipolar, and by the same token it was good fortune rather than good deeds that made me one of the high-functioning ones. It’s simply the hand I was dealt.
My father told me – his mind still hustling, agile – ‘Think how many died in the camps. Just because we survived doesn’t mean we were braver, stronger, smarter. Maybe we made a sharp choice or two, but in the end we were just luckier.’
I have lived with this rose by any other name for fifty years.
I take the lithium.
I read somewhere that it works on 80 per cent of sufferers in their early manic phases, but the success rate is far lower in its use as an ongoing treatment. It doesn’t work for everyone.
It does for me.
Just luckier, I guess.
Yvonne Fein holds an MA in History (Monash University) and Diploma of Creative Writing (Prahran College). She has written three novels (April Fool, The Torn Messiah, Rachel Running Time) and a short-story collection (Choose Somebody Else). She has written for theatre and the screen. She conducted creative writing workshops for people with mental illness and advocates for those with mental and physical disability by performing stand-up to raise public awareness.
If this story raises issues for you, contact Lifeline: 13 11 14
This is an extract from Growing Up Disabled in Australia, edited by Carly Findlay OAM, published by Black Inc. Books, RRP $29.99.