I remember sitting in a psychiatrist’s office when I was 12 years old. My mother and my father sat on the chairs beside me. The Psychiatrist, though I thought he was just a very tall man who kept asking me questions, turned to my parents and asked them to explain our family tree. I wondered if he might give me some crayons. I liked drawing and maybe I could make the perfect picture of a tree and he could hang it on the wall. It might be green or yellow, maybe both, I smiled at the thought. But nobody else was smiling.
My father spoke first. He explained that his father suffered from severe alcoholism and bipolar disorder. I wondered what alcoholism was. Did I have it? Would I catch it?
My grandfather got better, he told the Doctor, who was now scribbling things down on paper. I wondered if he was drawing trees. My father continued to explain how 3 of my grandfather’s brothers committed suicide. I knew what suicide was because at the age of 12 I had decided it might be the only way out of my mind. They all had bipolar disorder.
I stopped listening (I couldn’t hold a train of thought for mere seconds) as he described other family members who were ill. Some of them got better. All of them took lithium. I wondered what lithium was. Would I learn about it in school? When could I go back to school?
At 12 years old I could rarely leave the house. I experienced rapid-cycling and was up all night and slept all day. Initially, they decided I had attention deficit disorder and prescribed me Ritalin and I became floridly manic: Running up and down the stairs, screaming at everyone, threatening to jump out my window.
My father stopped talking and my mother chimed in, though her voice was timid, tired and timid. She explained that she had sisters addicted to drugs. One of them had bipolar disorder and she would not take her medication. She is very ill my mother explained, her hands wringing in her lap, she won’t ever get better.
“Natalie” the Doctor states.
“How do you feel?”
I look down at the carpet. I tell him I want to go back to school but I cannot sit still. I want to have friends but I’m not able to talk to people. I want to be an acrobat and a Doctor when I’m older.
We leave the office, my mother holds my hand and my father is tight lipped. They look sad. I still want to draw the tree.
Two months later I will sit in the same room and this time, a new psychiatrist, will tell me I have bipolar disorder. I ask her what that is.
“Oh” My mind spins in circles as I recall my mother father detailing all the suicides and sick people. I have just turned 13.
“Will I take lithium?” I ask her. My mother looks toward the psychiatrist.
Two months later I will be in the children’s psychiatric hospital. I will have taken many different mood stabilizers. Each giving me different side effects and none of them working properly.
I wasn’t able to return to school. I forgot what school might be like. I was in the hospital more then not and tried different cocktails of medications. I was not put on lithium until I was 15. By that point I was not sure who I really was. I was two people: I was Natalie and I was bipolar disorder.
Lucky for me the lithium worked. I still needed to take another mood stabilizer and an additional antidepressant but by the age of 16 I was back in school. Not high school like I had wanted for so long, but a little school for kids like me who had missed a lot for varying reasons. Many of them had abused drugs and alcohol.
Until the age of 21 I would do the same. Addiction became my life as I worked to forget I had an illness which would never go away. I tried to forget about the little girl who was in the hospital. She was so scared. I was so scared.
But I could not forget. The memories followed me throughout life. The drugs and the alcohol stopped working. At the end of each day I was still me and I still had bipolar disorder.
I slowly got sober with a lot of support from my family and things slowly got better. I had to accept the illness. I had to understand that I would need medication for the rest of my life and I would not always be well. Each winter I falter and my mood slips. But I consider myself lucky, in a small but significant way.
Because I was diagnosed at such a young age, though the experience was painful, I have the rest of my life to look forward to. I think that’s important for people who are diagnosed with juvenile bipolar disorder to understand: we can and we do get better. We are not much different than other kids, we just need help sometimes, and we just need some time to recover.
And we can.
Natalie Jeanne Champagne
Natalie Jeanne Champagne has published poetry in various anthologies and regularly contributes to mental health and addiction publications. At the age of twenty-six, after many years struggling with a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder at the age of twelve and various addiction later in life, she walked the road less travelled and somehow found her way home. You can find out more about Natalie, contact information and resources on her website, www.thethirdsunrise.com. She currently lives in British Columbia, Canada. The Third Sunrise is her first novel.
I was 9 when I was taken away from my mother, our studio apartment on Huntington Avenue, my quiet existence as a kid in a city public school. Her diagnosis was Schizophrenia. It defined the early parts of our lives. It still does.
I left my pets, two chunky cats: Pepper and Lady. I lost my favorite book: Henrietta Wild Woman of Borneo. I moved to many places, suburbs, city centers, places with multiple syllables and few public means of transit. I lived in MA, in FL, in NY. To places with and without space to park a car, or fly a kite. I moved to Harlem. A suburb outside (way outside) of Boston. In just that order.
I missed my mom.
My mother remained within a 3-mile radius of where we lived in my childhood. She remains there; tied to the land, the concrete, the common pathways her feet have always taken her.
I tried to remain in touch, in the typical sense, calling, letters, stopping by. And some years I couldn’t. She wasn’t able to receive me, didn’t recognize me. And some years I couldn’t because I wasn’t able to overcome our early years, the violence, the sporadic homelessness, the hunger for love as well as for food. We lost touch as much as we regained it.
Having a parent with a diagnosis as profound as Schizophrenia has impacted my life in many ways. In many ways my reality has been a mirror-opposite of her own lived reality. In many ways my reality is mindful of the many hardships she experienced and the beautiful spirit that is within her.
Like her I have a daughter; an only child; a sensitive and seeking kid who picks up on subtle emotions. Like her I’ve exposed my child to reading, to sharing made up stories, to fantasy. However, because of her I’ve taught my two year old to grow tolerance and understanding to not shield herself from the knowledge of Nana’s diagnosis, but to accept it, and to accept Nana as a loving center in our lives.
Because of my mother, and how far I was taken from her, and how early, I hold on to memories more deeply than if I was in her presence daily. I can recall with certainty specific and mundane facts:
How many winding steps I once took to get to our apartment.
How the lighting was so dim it was my first analogy of a country-fog. How it felt to be hungry, over-full. How it felt for my tears to swell and seep into my ears when laying in bed causing a warm and hallowed near-deafness. How to anticipate in my mother’s then wild eyes if she’d be violent that night, or passive; if she’d need me to mother her. How it came to be that I’d love cats, and loathe pigs, and learn to smile though my head was full of city sounds. How I was, and will be if forever only in my heart: a small, city, child.
And, of course, how my mother mothered me, even when she could barely mother herself.
But she did. As well she/we could.
You can read more of DMR’s blog at http://mymothermakeshats.blogspot.com/