Bipolar Disorder: "Mental Illness" and Society: Me and Them

Me and Them
A Journey from Alienation to Meaning and Purpose
0 Comments / 12 Shares

The Thomas Todd Company was an old fashioned print shop in the Beacon Hill area of Boston. I was hired there shortly after I came to Boston after two years in a mental hospital. The business was on the fifth floor of an old building with marbled floors and lofty ceilings, and my desk was at the front of a cluttered and somewhat shabby office. Behind me were the salesmen's desks, and beside me were the production manager and the assistant director. I was hired as a kind of Gal Friday, to answer the phones and to greet customers and type their bills.

 I was starting all over again.Tabula rasa. During the second year of my stay at the Institute of Living, my husband had announced that he wanted a divorce. He also wanted custody of our two children, and he wanted to keep for himself the house in the Boston suburbs, with most of its contents. A few weeks later, when I was discharged from the hospital, I could not go home to Sudbury. I was obliged to move into a small room at a YWCA residence for women in downtown Boston.

It was the late Sixties, with revolution all around, but I had struggled to be a good housewife and mother. In the affluent suburbs, the Woodstock Festival was only a news bite over the radio. I was never able to rhapsodize over appliances and recipes, as did the other housewives in my town, and as was the culture promoted by all of the magazines and TV shows of the time. I did not feel like one of them. I envied the beatniks and flower children that I heard about on the news, but I always knew that I was not one of them, either. I had tried the bohemian route when I was in college, and that had only led to a massive nervous breakdown.

Starting from scratch was not new to me. After my manic breakdown in college, and six months in a mental hospital, I found that my college would not take me back. Without a college degree, and with no hope of pursuing a career as a writer, my best strategy for survival was to learn how to type and to find a husband.

I had thought that marriage would give me the belonging that had eluded me in my school days. Although my husband knew of my previous hospitalization, we both pretended that it had not happened. But it was always there. I still held onto the broken dreams of a writing career, and I still remained perpetually on my guard with friends and neighbors, afraid that they would discover that I was a mental patient.

I felt that I was only going through the motions as stepmother to my husband's son, and then mother to a daughter of my own. I could not believe that I was really a mother, much less a worthy one. I spent hours beside the radio, listening to the music of revolution and news of the Woodstock generation. I managed to fill up my days with trivial tasks, and stayed in the house most of the day, with no close friends and no inspiring projects.

A couple of years after my daughter was born, I was desperate for some meaning in my life. I began again to fall into extreme mental states, creating my own inner revolutions. This led to numerous hospitalizations in a local sanatorium, and finally to a long stay at the Institute of Living in Connecticut. The first part of each hospitalization involved crashing from my manic high and finding myself locked into what was euphemistically called a "seclusion" room. A better term would be "isolation."

A manic episode is essentially a reach for meaning. The energy, colors, and images of such an episode are often joyful, but they may also be terrifying, and they may be a danger to oneself and others. But the energy of mania is the energy of life, and the intent of mania is to make some connection with cause and effect in the world. By contrast, a mental hospital is an institution with the intent of extinguishing that energy. A seclusion room, with its locked door and blank walls, is not a padded cell; it is a tomb for the spirit.

I was locked into such rooms for hours, and sometimes for days and even weeks, with no human contact. It is hard to describe the sharpness of despair that I felt as I lay alone in those rooms. To realize the depth of my rejection and isolation from other human beings was frightening, and it was beyond weeping.

Once my mania had been extinguished, I spent the rest of my stay at the Institute of Living - almost two years - in a state of suspended animation. Technically, I was depressed. But there was no feeling, and no energy, to this depression. In the clinical notes that I obtained a few years later, my doctor referred to my condition as an "almost terrifying emptiness within her."

This terrifying emptiness followed me upon every release from a mental hospital. When I first came to Boston, just walking into the corner store to buy a pack of cigarettes filled me with the fear that I would again be rejected and treated like a freak. At the YWCA residence, I dreaded leaving my room even to go to the cafeteria downstairs. Again I spent hours glued to my little clock radio, listening to the music that I loved from afar, as an outsider. I remember listening at that time to "American Pie." Bye, bye Miss American Pie.

What finally brought me back to life was the love of my daughter. During most of the time that I worked at Thomas Todd, I fought with every ounce of my strength to be with Meg. When I first moved into the YWCA, it was a battle just to be allowed to see her. I was not allowed to see my stepson at all. But my husband's pulling the rug out from me when he asked for a divorce, jarred something in me. I realized that being away from my children for two years had done terrible damage both to them and to me. I wanted to make it up to Meg, and I wanted to make sure that she knew that she had a mother who loved her and who wanted to take care of her.

My father, who was a lawyer himself, referred me to an old classmate, one of the top lawyers in Boston, at the most respected law firm in the city. But I did not receive much help from the legal system. From the start, my attorney informed me that my chances of regaining custody were slim because of my history of mental illness. He generally would not answer the telephone when I called him, and my case was allowed to drag on for over two years. I constantly had the feeling that he, too, considered me hopelessly mentally ill and therefore incompetent.

In the meantime, I once again began to feel useful, and halfway human. I was lucky to have found the job at the print shop. The Thomas Todd Company was a respected organization, one that had been founded in Maine by Thomas Todd the elder, and now was run by Thomas Todd, his son. Mr. Todd was a big, gray-haired man with hair growing out of his ears and a wry smile in all circumstances. He created a family feeling among all of us, and I soon felt at home there. I became good friends with Marie, the production manager at the desk next to mine, and in the course of our work she taught me all aspects of the business, and the fine points of printing composition and production.

I never did develop the confidence in my skills to allow me to handle a printing job on my own. I was able to answer the telephone politely and inform customers of the status of their orders. But even in this work that I enjoyed, I struggled with an invisible barrier between myself and other people. Even with Marie and Mr. Todd, I was constantly on my guard, afraid that I would reveal my inherent defectiveness.

This alienation did not continue at home, however. I found a pleasant apartment in Brookline, one that was in a neighborhood with lots of children and good schools. The apartment had a second small bedroom that would be suitable for Meg when she came to live with me. Meg, now 5, began spending almost every weekend with me, and for the first time I felt proud and confident to be a mother. With Meg, too, I felt that I was starting with a clean slate. On her side, she hardly knew me as her mother, since I had entered the IOL when she was only three years old. On my side, I could hardly remember being a mother, because at the IOL I had received 30 electroshock treatments, with the result that a full two years' of memory were completely erased from my consciousness.

Meg and I spent some happy hours getting to know each other. At the age of five, she was a bright and friendly little girl, with curly brown hair and sparkling blue eyes. In the daytime we explored the sights of Boston, visiting museums and riding through parks with Meg on the back of my bicycle. At night we snuggled together in front of the TV, and watched the Partridge Family and the Jackson 5.

When at last the divorce case came to court, I felt that I had established my credentials as a mother, and I no longer doubted my desire or my capability to provide a good home for my daughter. I had listened to the warnings of my attorney, however, and I was prepared to lose. At least, I told myself, I had never abandoned Meg, and in the future she would be able to look back and know that I had fought for her.

I was not so prepared for the degrading treatment that I received in the courtroom. Although I had assembled a number of friends and colleagues to attest to my character, it turned out that I was the first and only witness called to testify. My husband's attorney called me to the stand, which was a box with no chair and no glass of water. I had to stand during my entire testimony, which lasted all day, during which I had to withstand the insults and accusations of a lawyer who behaved as if I were the prime suspect in a criminal case. Somehow, although I had not yet been able to obtain a copy of my own hospital records from the Institute of Living, my husband had obtained them with no difficulty, and he gave them to his lawyer to use against me. In the courtroom, the attorney proceeded to read from these records in great detail, illustrating how sick I was and how I had failed to be a good wife to my husband and mother to my children.

This went on for an entire day, with only a short break for lunch. When we returned to the courtroom the following morning, the judge called the attorneys to the bench. He informed them that he saw no point in continuing this painful process, and was prepared to reach his decision. The decision, of course, was that I would not be granted custody of my daughter. As the judge put it, "I don't believe that a woman who has received electro-convulsive treatments should have custody of a child."

It was a relief to be done with the divorce, even though I was not allowed to be a fulltime mother to my daughter. The outcome was no surprise to me, and I took pride in the fact that I had put up a good fight. I recognized that my husband's lawyer had deliberately adopted the tactic of prolonged interrogation, no doubt hoping that I would collapse under the pressure and reveal my mental illness. But I had kept my dignity, and, according to my attorney, had handled myself well.

Although I lost custody, I was still granted the privilege of having Meg with me over the weekends and summer. Over the next weeks and months, she and I continued to get to know each other and to enjoy our visits. My hope now was that, as she got older, Meg would decide to come live with me on her own. At the least, I felt that she would always understand that I wanted to be her fulltime mother, and had fought for that.

The day I came back to work after the trial, Mr. Todd called me into his office, and closed the door. After admitting that it was none of his business, he asked me what had happened at the trial and why I had not been given custody. As he noted, at that time (1972), mothers almost always received custody of their children unless they were prostitutes or murderers. Mr. Todd grinned wryly, and asked me whether I was either of these.

When I applied for the job at Thomas Todd, I had not revealed my mental illness, or the fact that I had been hospitalized for two years before coming to Boston. As far as Mr. Todd knew, I had come to work straight from the suburbs, where I had been a full time housewife. Now I hesitated before answering his question. I had just received a taste, in court, of the kind of stigma that operated against people diagnosed with mental illness.

Thomas Todd was a kindly man, and he waited patiently for my answer. I had just about decided to tell him the truth, when he spoke again, saying, "I know it's none of my business. You don't have to say anything. I just wanted to let you know that I respect the way you have handled all of this, and I want to support you any way that I can. We all value the work you are doing."

With that, I blurted out my whole story. Mr. Todd listened silently, with tears in his eyes, and when I was finished he gave me a big bear hug. "Well, you could have fooled me," he said. "Personally, I think you are probably the sanest person in this office."

I could think of nothing to reply except, "Thank you." We both sat silently for a few moments. Then, as I was leaving his office, Mr. Todd announced, "Do you know what you are, Sally-" I said I did not, realizing that Mr. Todd was about to confer upon me his version of a diagnosis: "You are a real character," he said, "That's what you are--a character."


Comment on this story using Facebook.