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Darkness Visible: An Essay by Abigail George

Bipolar by versionz

Image: Bipolar by versionz

And so we come to the gist of the story. My father the writer and me, his daughter who is also a writer.

My father gives a unique, relevant and compelling voice to the invisible voice that prevails when it comes to the invisible thread of mood disorders. He has suffered from bipolar mood disorder from his late teens. During his own personal life experience he has triumphed above all overwhelming odds that confronted and challenged him.

Everyone suffers from ‘emotional baggage’ but there is more to it when it comes to bipolar disorder (or any other mental illness including a mood disorder).

My father has always taught me to dream big. Growing up I always knew that there was something special about him. He has suffered and lost, gained from personal blows to his ego and throughout his many life experiences his indomitable strength has always shone through. In my eyes he has always been nothing but a saint. He was the perfect father when I was growing up. I remember all the things that he taught me. He taught me how to love most of all and that the human heart is indecipherable though the keys to unlocking it are numerous.

He often came, and still does to this day, under fire for spreading the awareness of mental health in our community (he puts and pours his heart and soul into it) but he deals with it on a daily basis as best he can.

There is a dual relationship between mania and depression when it comes to bipolar disorder. They are inseparable. They are bound, bonded together like Siamese twins. The mania gives rise to behaviour that is reckless, wild, unpredictable, unforgiving; it makes you think that you are exceptional and despair. A slump in your mood and desperation comes with the depression. Depression is fast becoming the sickness of our time and of this generation. It has become a silent killer with indeterminable triggers and setbacks.

From my own personal life experience living and growing up with a father struggling with bipolar disorder was far from easy. It taught me hard life lessons: if you are suffering from a mental illness you can still be strong on the surface of things, keeping it together, functioning in a stressful workplace, a household filled with children creating chaos and mayhem in the kitchen. But you can still feel empty and frustrated from the depression you are suffering from.

One thing I have learnt is that there is hope even when you feel rejected, helpless and alone. When bipolar disorder becomes such a struggle that it becomes difficult for you to function and survive, there are people around you who can motivate you with positive words of encouragement when you need it the most; people who see you not just as a nameless, faceless person but who see you as a human being with all the flaws and imperfections.

On some days when I was still a child and sometimes confused by my own father’s behaviour it would feel as if I was looking into a cracked mirror; that was the place I called home. Although my father still made me feel safe when I was small and as long as he kept his demons at bay he kept my own far away from my own childhood mind.

There were the five of us caught in the middle of this raging storm at sea with no lifeline in sight sometimes; my mother, my sister, my brother, me and my father. There were days when the only link we had to each other was my father. The battle against the depression was an uphill struggle. Visits to the clinic where my father was hospitalised for his mania were a regular occurrences when we were growing up. So were family counselling sessions. We all had to see and sit down face-to-face with a family psychologist every week while he was there but this very quickly became normal for us. In these sessions nothing was sacred or held back. Everything came under scrutiny that happened in our house but we never gave away much, all of us tending to be quiet and withdrawn. This was obviously learned behaviour. We were taking our cue from our parents. As children we didn’t know how to recognise a helping hand that could soothe the situation we found ourselves in.

These times gave us false hope sometimes that perhaps this would be the last time; just maybe. But that wasn’t to be. The illness always came back with a vengeance. Even now I can see how my father’s daily suffering affected and impacted my siblings. As adults we all carry the deep emotional wounds and scarring coming from childhood. We internalised our father’s sadness, melancholy, depression, manic state of mind, the restless and frustrating mania that we and he had no control over and slowly we learnt to accept it as our own.

My father makes everything around him beautiful. It spills out of his mind, his tenderness, his kindness, his tolerance, his calm, cool, collected head, his words and his language in the books he writes prolifically, out of the devastation and wreckage that was and is bipolar and his genes and his spirit. It has not diminished with age.

Being bipolar has not tarnished his image in the community. Instead it has made him a beacon of hope and an example to others who live daily with the denial of having a mental illness. When he was unafraid to discover who he was, he put the spotlight on the illness that he suffered from. He relived his manic episodes in terrifying flashbacks while he was awaken struggling with dreams that came from his subconscious when he was least expecting it. There are those who cower, who refrain from exploring the ghosts that haunt them from their own past but he took it in his stride.

When I think back to my childhood a whole deluge of images swim in front of my eyes; it is sometimes a manic blur frame by frame by frame. My childhood was a crazy place to live in. I can’t even imagine what it was like for my younger sister and brother growing up. The only way all of us could deal with the ‘bipolar’ was not to say much about the subject; for it to remain a moot point when it came up for discussion in front of the psychologist.

My father is still after all this time my hero. He is a writer, a father, a teacher, a futurist, a nurturer and a protector; noble, patient and wise and my best friend.

Bipolar disorder holds your body and your mind hostage. There is no way that you can go back to the previous life that you lived without it coming back to haunt you. It clutters up your brain like a game of pick-up-sticks; erases happier memories, your head space, it doesn’t make you hold back on the small truths and big lies that you hold inside your head and your heart. It takes a long while before your dignity, health and integrity is restored. It is always a healing work in progress.

This mood disorder can render you helpless and senseless at the worst of times. It makes you want to project a healing crusade onto the yoke of bondage that you throw off when it comes to bipolar, one that you want to project onto the feelings, emotions, actions, reactions and responses that rise up within you when you are either faced with a high head on or a bluesy low. You can never go through moodswings without it leaving its indelible mark behind for the whole world to see, especially your loved ones and your close family. Reaching a fine, subtle balance when you suffer from bipolar disorder can sometimes be just out of reach. You have to learn how to deal with the frustration, the distress that comes with the illness and the lack of control all in one and learn to let go of it. Learning to surrender is all a part of it.

It is hard to live with, love someone with all your heart and grow up with someone who lives in such close proximity to you who suffers from this illness. When you are a child your own moods, your private thoughts make you resilient, make you bounce back consistently from things that trouble you, strengthen you from the inside out, and make your realise that facing this illness demands sacrifice on your part no matter what age you are.

You cannot discriminate. You are forced not to and cannot self-destruct or sabotage yourself in the relationships you have with other people, your family, your friends or the life your lead just because daddy isn’t himself today or doesn’t have the energy to spend any time with you. Yet as a child, you still have to find release somewhere. For all of us, the four of us, we fought our own way out of this illness that seemed fit to overwhelm us, pull us down drowning, forced us to put our hands up and surrender.

I cannot speak for all of us. My father’s moods could be electric, maddening and confusing. The journey for all of us was one towards the all-consuming presence of light that would shut out the invisible dark side of his nature that touched us. Bipolar disorder leaves families bewildered, heartbroken and marooned in an uncomfortable space between reality; what is normal and what is abnormal. My father’s experience with this illness was a very private one. One he did not share easily sometimes with the rest of the family but as I grew older he began to slowly confide in me.

The only way to transcend the painful revelations that come with bipolar is to realise that there will be days when there is depression, stressful situations in which conflict and challenges abound; moods that are terrifying and all at once lifesaving. There were moods that needed to be killed with pills.

The freedom that comes from having this knowledge is a comfort and it transforms us daily. It can also drive you slowly insane sometimes when everything normal, happy and cheerful is out of your reach.

There was always a radiant smile behind which my father hid and while he suffered in silence we all did in a way. We covered up this family secret, bipolar, with secrets and lies. Even if we didn’t mean to, we went out of way to do it.

My father teaches me every day how light can be illuminated, how it can co-exist in fragile systems, hurtling through space and between bodies at indeterminate speeds, always infinitely expanding and contracting to the universe’s own breath, not unlike our own breath and how some people call this light God.

The human condition is also a great teacher. It teaches us that human beings suffer needlessly, life is unfair and that sometimes bad things happen to good people and there’s no reason that anyone can come to for why this happens. We can’t explain it. We only see it, the illness, as a blessing in disguise. It has taught us all so much about love and acceptance. Lessons we wouldn’t even have conceived of if it didn’t happen to our family. Every family has heartache of their own and their own problems that they deal with.

My voice is just one in a million. My father’s valiant struggle with this mood disorder, bipolar, is also just one in a million.

The journey we have all been on has always been and is the destination. He has always been larger than life and his spirit invincible. His love so strong, his vibrant laughter, his bedazzling, enchanting smile comes daily shining through brightly even when all there is is gloom in the day and it burns unashamedly, giving off invisible, yet intense, almost blinding vibrations like the white sun. I can see it in his eyes; sparkling like glitter or sequins.

Lost inside of him somewhere is still a little boy who grew up with a father who was a barman at an elite country club and a mother who was a housekeeper.

He is all mine and I am so thankful and grateful for that. I am grateful for his generosity and warmth. He is love and his love is inside of me. It grows from strength to strength with all the adversities that I face. I call him home. He is a gift. I love him for his courageousness, the sound of his voice when I call his name ‘daddy’, when he needs me, his oddball sense of humour and his humility.

And then I come to my father the writer and the genetic predisposition of manic depression, suicidal depression, and mental disorder.

Suddenly there is this uncontrollable shift; this mechanism in my brain, invincibility and everything that came before; stability, emotional balance, normality and coherency is lost.

The loss of relationships derails you but love will find you in spaces ultimately devoid of sacrifice. This town is poor, small, and uneventful. You seldom feel out of touch with the reality of it.

I have always felt that there is an intense radiance behind words, streaming through the invisibility of white pages, an aggression of trapped particles between phrases.

Everything in an illness is an adapted move to the social climate, not structured, then a rescuing force reaching, straining to make sense of the world around you in an embellished utopia or a hellish nightmare filled either with pure, unfathomable dread or adrenaline shooting through your body, powered by an inescapable thread, a disconnected feeling of separation from the masses. They include people who are sociable, in good health, unafraid of the stressful aisles at the supermarket, lists and the hum of shopping malls.

I have become a voyeur, a painter, a masochist because of my depression guided by inseparable common sense and my own vulnerability.

My skin is like velvet, food tastes bland, pretty dots of nothingness dissolve on my tongue, wet, rainbow-coloured, greasy. My teeth feel like plastic, my eyes strained. I feel intensely hungry all the time.

I am a writer as well who distils the essence of vanity and the eternal broken-hearted nature of the human condition. It’s a link, not a shortcoming.

My characters make choices that lead to their self-development, while I improvise. The films I watch on television are just pale reproductions of what a happy family should be. I tell myself often that I’m going to have a wonderful life. I am going to be happy. I am lost in thought, filled with fire and ice, indescribable shame, raw, compelling moodswings. With one contemptible look, I am confrontational. I become a sullen girl, mean, cerebral; my hair has the colour of rust.

Medicine 01 by Taki Steve

Image: Medicine 01 by Taki Steve

My medication is on the bedside table. I call it, ‘The Pharmacy’. Their physical shape leaves an imprint on your brain that says you are on dangerous ground. Their prowess like the end of a romantic affair is painful and like your beloved’s perfume it is remote and intriguing. It is like smoke, signalling a brittle, unforgiving outcome of a mysterious nature.

I learnt to be successful you have to have an aversion to needles, doctors, well-meaning therapists. My heart keeps pumping. It’s my mistakes that are unpredictable, that bring me psychological terror and not relief. In my head, in relationships, I tell myself, ‘I’m not in love’ or ‘You don’t mean that much to me.’ I convince myself I don’t feel anything. It’s the way men are, their frame of mind.

The worst times are when my creativity is dulled and compromised. If I could freeze-frame happiness, I would bathe in the heavenly glow of junk food and films starring sad women like Marilyn Monroe for eternity.

My father strokes my leg, my neck, drums his fingers on my knee, kisses my forehead, pats my head and I put my arms around my father’s neck. He has just come home from work. He is tired, withdrawn. I am 5 years old. We watch the news together holding hands. I sit in his lap. “I love you daddy.” But his eyes are watching the flickering images on the screen. A world I already abhor.

“Don’t look,” my mother says. She is pregnant with my sister. I defy her, numbing myself already at this young age to senseless murder and violence. I finally do look away because I do not understand this world. My mother is triumphant, “I told you not to look.”

I am not yet twelve but already I know no man will ever gaze as adoringly at me as my father, be as forgiving of my temper, my depression as he is or be as loving towards me. My father gives new meaning to the word, ‘unconditional’. For most of my life it is as if together we make up the two halves of a perfect whole. Dangerous spheres inflicting a harmful energy like pulsating neutrons. Within damage to the human heart, regret is almost always terminal. Our relationship has always been unconventional. When he kisses me as an adult, it is on the mouth, full contact that I inwardly flinch from. When he embraces me, he holds on too long before he draws away and smiles at me. “Don’t fight with your father.” My mother says. “He is tired. He needs his rest.” Her elegant fingertips tap-tap-tapping the kitchen tabletop, as she makes chicken curry for supper from scratch.

In my mind, as I grew older, violence became as intimate as sex. I think my father was abusive towards my mother but in ways that did not leave physical scars. I’d rather be defined by my work than relationships or love.

I fall in love with my therapists one after the other and then I leave. They are married, unavailable. I am afraid what will happen if they reciprocate my feelings. I am afraid I will fall in love. They are close in age to my father, well educated, cultured. I want men to think of me as vulnerable and out of reach. My life is a lie. On the bad days it is unconvincing. My eyes are weary, old before their time.

I would be dull. I would be very dull without my colourful childhood, the years I spent as a teenage hypochondriac, without my bipolar, brilliant father, my relentless mother and I wouldn’t laugh at jokes about tolerating someone who had a chemical imbalance or a mental illness.

Love is irrelevant to me. I’m estranged from the art of seduction, the brutal dissolve of parents fighting. What drives me, makes me look successfully into the future, turn down advances, avoid the cruelty and ignorance of men? Global images that radiate innocence.

The table was set for breakfast. My mother reached over and smacked my sister leaving an imprint of her hand on her cheek. It was the inherent traces of sadness in her mood that spelled trouble, which ignited a passion for a harmful craving, a physical caving into a surreal canvas or painting that she would drag the whole family into.

Without a trace of a pathway to a hopeful predestined destination, a line to the telepathic, a loss of reaction to sibling rivalry, the creation of dependency to rampant self-medication leads to a culture of death. It leads to the death of technology, childhood, loss of social life and innocence at the beginning of treatment for me at 19 for clinical depression. Swallowing pills that promised my mood would become patient in the perfect moment. This became a normal world loaded with daily cross-examinations in my journal. I could not eat, sleep or read a paragraph without feeling sleepy. My body was a domain governed by an age of innocence and an unforgiving wretchedness. It was bold, dynamic. If it had been a colour it would have been a splotchy inkblot, a domineering black hole veering towards a space defined by borders and infinity.

The essence of normality becomes a borderline suburban reality, blurred, distorted and unclear like a mannequin’s features, like the aftermath of feathers after a cat’s pronounced feast.

The vanishing pink traces of my mother’s fingertips against my sister’s cheek at the breakfast table, a lipstick smudge against her morning cup of coffee stretched my imagination beyond belief. Would I become her or would I cease to exist, as I knew it, dieting, shopping, living vicariously through characters in a weekday series on television or airbrushed pictures in a magazine.

The date between my mother’s fingers is the colour of runny molasses. She doesn’t sit down and eat meals. She grabs whatever has been prepared and snacks on that. She likes to eat exotic dried fruit, oily nuts, rich; dark boxed chocolates and transfers it daintily from her palm to her mouth. She drinks milky, powdery white like coconut flakes, Soya milk. Her diet seems to sustain her survival attitude. I wish my face could be that animated as I finished a plate of steamed fish and green vegetables.

My mother and I were like two bodies hurtling through space. To her, giving in doesn’t mean giving up. She feels a source of pleasure in every impulse to eat. The backlash I experience when I do the same is exhilarating and dangerous.

Just like that I was hospitalised for my depression. Did my parents know better? Yes, of course they did. They were trained educators. They taught children. It was their job; their purpose. Their training prepared them for that. To be forewarned about the unthinkable and the psychological traits of an unhappy child. To me my parents had an invincible power over me like the stars did in your daily horoscope. I always did as I was told. My inescapable sadness was once again misconstrued as ill health. Once again my creativity, my giftedness, my talent, my poor life skills was not seen as a challenge that needed to be directed, encouraged but as something to be ashamed of.

Some people are doomed to follow the path of least resistance. It’s in their blood. It feels like stone. It tastes like wine does. It doesn’t matter if you’re not happy, not attached, single, miserable, frustrated in the workplace, all that matters is that you’re sane. And that the blood coursing through your veins is made up of a pure, vital thread with no spell of madness there. Many times I felt broken, down on my luck, as if I didn’t have an ego, a sense of worth, near madness, which is a width of a thread away from suicide. It was a journey into hell and torment. My younger years were turbulent times. It’s near unspeakable what I went through to get here. That passage of time is forever cemented in the fabric of my consciousness. I think that literally the first time I ever felt any sense of healing was when I felt a deep sense of spirituality and when I began to meditate. It helped. I often wonder if I will have children. All women have a nurturing spirit.

I don’t think that having a mental illness is the most perfect environment to raise a child in. My father also has bipolar disorder, but there were instances when there were strains of the illness that were similar to each of us and other times not. I have left it all in God’s hands. I don’t go to church so other Christians would probably say that how can I believe in God if I don’t go to church but I have made it my priority now to think that it is none of my business what people think of me. I am the virginal suicide. Once I was as pure as dew when I remember the times when I was a child, those days when I was most free and innocent and pure. I grew red when I blushed and an olive brown when I returned to my normal colour and then when I grew up a blue, beautiful woman took her place. There were days when I felt as if I was stashed quite literally in a casket not a bed or a bedroom. With my teeth like pearls, lips that say eat, I’m hungry, famished, can no longer be ignored. I have hungry eyes. I can get drunk on hamburgers. I can thirst for chips.

Once I came upon wild girls and stooges in books I was mesmerized and could relate to them. Their rebellious natures were never obscure to me. I thought to myself who would grant my wishes now. Books and the art of a higher sense of learning have aged me magnificently. I’m in my thirties but I feel as though I’m closer to seventy. I always think of Shakespeare when I become depressed. I search for specks of meaning in his plays, the characters and for a light to cast out, ship out figures of truth, not dust and that earthy sensation to boil in my blood. He’s a wonderful ghost of a writer. He makes grieving over the loss seem poetic. I have blood on my hands like a Lady Macbeth, a ghost-in-waiting, walking gently, cutting through a dark house, blinded by madness or thunderous depression. The depression’s god watches the surreal and blurred, slightly out of focus ‘me’ pass by furniture and appliances with slow desire. We gather together meeting their shadows. I am not so fragile after all. The depression is only a cover up.

Thoughts raced through my head. They were my drugs. I was making notes on serviettes, receipts, keeping lists and hoarding them. I made as if I had a contract with them. Every single word had a story to tell. I told myself that everyone who is alive must read Khalil Gibran. They must go for the search of their own personal truth in the Sufi poet Rumi. I cradled Coelho’s Veronika Decides to Die in my hands. I watched Jodie Foster’s Little Man Tate until my eyes were glassy. Most of the time I held the book or books, the ‘it’ with its powerful mojo against my heart as if there would be a physical, jarring connection there instead of where I usually felt it, in my heart. Veronika and I had things in common. In her I found a secret confidante. I spied on her and in return I imagined that she spied on me. It laced my broken down heart with the gift that there was a well of infinite hope there in outer space for me.

While I drank tea and ate peanut butter from the jar, I listened to Schubert and Tchaikovsky, paged through Athol Fugard’s plays wondering if I could ever write just one brilliantbrillaintbrilliant tour de force and outstanding, bring the house down on opening night play in my lifetime. I timed myself, counted the laps in the pool I swam, ate French toast and so cooking became the less invasive therapy I never had. And because I never had anything better to do or because I was bored I went into my father’s study and delved into his collection of books. I rifled through this veritable collection starting first with his textbooks before pounding on his unpublished manuscripts, Depression: The Sickness of Our Time and My Bipolar Experience. He had also written a series of booklets on stress. He wrote on its development (it’s all in the mind, the pain of the mind). It’s dynamic and interaction and how it affected educationalists, learners, their parents and tragedy of people living with Aids in Africa.

If people only knew about life and coping skills they could be given the tools to single-handedly transform what they thought and felt. He also wrote about teenagers who lived on the edge with thoughts of suicide racing through their heads. Young people who felt that they weren’t good enough for the world they lived in. I could so relate to that. There were books, thick tomes on psychology, education, physics and chemistry from his university days. I discovered that in those days he was dying to belong just as much as I was right now. I used to think that being a teacher was everything he knew. Teaching wasn’t just a part of his life; it was his whole life. I read his diary that he kept at London University but there wasn’t very much I could glean from it. He was lonely and depressed. He couldn’t understand the London way of life. He felt isolated and torn between reality and depression. He thought the English students were racist. They sat by themselves in the canteen, and in groups in library, they huddled together.

There was no connection between the world he had come from and the world, the society he was now thrust into. The Continent had a lot of things going for it in terms of culture maybe but the inherent feeling of being accepting of others just was not there. He was homesick. His only friend was Jones. On the days when they didn’t have classes they would go to Dillon’s and scrutinize the books that were banned in South Africa, eat a steak and kidney pie in a tea shop and drink tea with the blue collared workers of England.

This is what my own father had told me when he reminisced. But why am I bringing this up. Didn’t I want to go to England once? Once, didn’t I want things, material things? I wanted to study creative writing at Columbia University in New York and work in a restaurant where I could flip burgers, work in a restaurant that sold chilli, French fries, macaroni and cheese, lasagne, bolognaise, fattening pastas, fried chicken with hot sauce, meatballs, and home-made pie served with ice-cream.

There were black and white photographs taken of the two of them, Adam and Jones facing the unknown, the world they had escaped into together standing together in Trafalgar Square feeding pigeons. It gave me a dazzling feeling inside to see the two of them standing like that together. The world they found themselves in was dazzling to me. I wanted to be a part of it, that despairing loneliness, paired off with another stranger the same gender struggling with the issues of identity, cultural identity. I wanted to lose myself in the British Museum and history but this morning I only got as far as pulling a comb through my hair. I only got as far as watching reruns of Mission Impossible this morning and China Beach. It’s become intrinsic to my survival. I must make notes. I must make grocery lists of words. Otherwise I will go mad, bleep, off my head, bleep, nutty as a fruitcake, bleep. In retrospect when I glimpse, just glimpse into the past it seems as if I did everything wrong to get here.

Now when I look back it seems as if there was a detailed plan hidden in everything I did. When it comes to issues of faith and spirituality they are always crypticcrypticcryptic. From my coma, my near-death experiences and living on the streets, they say you see light at the end of the tunnel or experience some kind of feeling of God-consciousness. From my insomnia, to running away, to living at the Salvation Army, finding myself at a shelter for abused women and abandoned children, helping out at organizations called Movement 76 in Hillbrow, Johannesburg and Women of the Sun in Braamfontein, bringing the arts to a wider community. From being homeless and a volunteer, perhaps it was just God, a god or higher self, higher power aligning this infinite universe in jest. Perhaps this god knew that I was crying out to be born again. Telling me that pain is merely a temporary shortcut to reaching that sacred contract between the soul and eternity and that when we dream, that raw energy has a deep intelligence and understanding of its own.

 

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2 Comments

  • Ailments especially of the chronic kind do not comprise the staple of African writing nor do they it seems preoccupy many an African author, it is refreshing indeed to find one who is not bound by the script and digs in deep to unravel this aspect of life in our lives as Africans. We cannot ignore the topic of health in our writing! I say Kudos to Abigail George for being a willing to lead by example.