My mother’s life was a “puzzlement,” as the King from “The King and I” would have said. When she was in her mid-thirties, I was a teenager watching her career take off.
She worked full-time as staff writer and art critic for a major daily newspaper. She was also a columnist and travel writer for an international syndicate, a house author for a publishing company in New York City (which meant writing medical encyclopedias), and a freelance writer for professional journals and periodicals. She also took a million photographs and made art.
It’s a wonder she got any sleep at all, if you consider her nonprofessional projects like the relatively large house we lived in, her two kids, a husband, various pets, a regular Saturday-night singing gig at a local restaurant/nightclub, and art exhibitions in various venues in New Jersey and New York. Making art was one way for her to, uh, relax.
One evening she got home from the newsroom, stood at our kitchen bar and ate a bowl of Cheerios, did a bit of housekeeping, washed both cars in the driveway, then settled in at her desk to write some article, book chapter or whatever until after midnight. My grandmother, who was visiting that night, told her, “Boy, no one could ever call you lazy!” The peculiar thing is, she felt lazy. While my dad watched prime-time TV, he used to say to her, “You’re buzzing. You’re always buzzing.”
Whenever and wherever she traveled, even for pleasure, her camera and reporter’s pad were always at the ready. “Can’t you just stop working for a minute?” Dad would ask for her sake as well as for the sake of their relationship. “Does everything have to be a work project?”
But it was truly fun and exciting for her to be able to create paying gigs out of just about anything. She adored having by-lines, and felt happier for a sense of accomplishment.
The next “accomplishment” turned out to be more of a crisis---their rancorous divorce after 30 years of marriage. And throughout the whirlwind, she had chronic bladder infections, migraines, fibromyalgia (which wasn’t formally identified at that time) and bouts of other ailments. By the time the divorce was nearly finalized, she got laid off her newspaper job, which sent her headfirst into a cloud of depression. But it didn’t take long to find a new stressful job.
Eventually she moved into her own little house and set it up as quickly. Patience was not one of her virtues. As a survival tactic, she resigned from the ridiculously stressful job and began working as an editor at a weekly newspaper. But her mania didn’t end there.
At night, she wrote the medical books and articles on numerous topics. And she had more bouts with anxiety and frequent chest pain that compelled her to drive to the nearest emergency room in the middle of the night. She was relieved she was not having a heart attack, but now that she was in her early fifties, she considered herself a prime candidate for a cardiac event. She was sedentary but for walking her dog, and was always in some sort of pain.
Buzzing had begun to eat her alive until she was unable to function beyond taking various medications prescribed by a psychiatrist and sleeping alongside her sweet Shih Tzu. Then came the diagnosis: major (biological) depressive disorder. Her brain was not producing enough serotonin and norepinephrine. She was granted disability, for she had officially “crashed and burned.” Buzzing was now a faint memory.
After years of therapy and psychiatric care, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which explained the buzzing as hypomania (mania is the Greek word for madness) that went on for more than a decade. New meds were prescribed until her system calmed down.
We had wished for her to be calm as opposed to tormented, but not the new dull-as-a-shovel brand of calm that took over her personality. In fact, we all grew to miss her mania---the impetus to write more than 30 books---and her Eveready Battery for fun. But I have to wonder if her mania would have been as attractive if we had known it was actually a chemically induced mental illness rather than her nature.
So much has happened since then. Perhaps the most helpful element of her stabilization was thanks to her therapist, who introduced Dr. Marsha Linehan’s theories of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), mindfulness and the “wise mind.” Dr. Linehan’s ideas discovered from her own experience of having borderline personality disorder, help Mom stay grounded, so she can sit from time to time on her laurels without missing the mania at all. Her fun-loving personality has not returned full-force, but instead, exists in the spirit of balance that favors quality over quantity.