Bipolar Disorder and Trauma: A Story

For Some, It Started Young

She was six when her parents recall expecting her to help out with all the work that came from having a father and mother who worked full-time, a baby brother with autism, and full-time school for dad. Maybe it was even younger.

Does this remind you of your mother? I hope not.

Does this remind you of your mother? I hope not.

Her parents don’t say what “help out” meant. The don’t talk about the cooking, the housework, the dishes which her mother hated to do and forced completely onto her sole responsibility. (Today, like her mother, she hates to do dishes, having done enough for a lifetime, and relies on others. But, perhaps like her mother, she also hates herself for hating to do dishes.) Is she the only one who remembers that “helping out” was on top of the expectation that her grades would be perfect? Always.

They don’t speak about the two-inch-thick black paddle, chosen for its sturdiness after less sturdy paddles were broken on her behind. They don’t talk about mother’s untreated swings between rage and depression. Or father’s eagerness to always always please mother and only mother.

Was your dad at work when your mom was flipping out? Did he ever learn what went on when he was away?

But then maybe dad doesn’t know. He wasn’t there. He was working full-time, going to school full-time. He wasn’t there except to sleep. Maybe that’s why she had so much to do. Maybe that’s why mother was so angry.

Is She The Only One Who Remembers?

Now, as an adult, sometimes she wonders… did dad know that his “housewife,” the one who prepared his meals, did his dishes and his laundry and vacuumed his carpets was six years old and scared to death? Did dad know his daughter was learning that the world was a scary place where the best defense, the only defense, was to be perfect? That even then pain could strike from out of the blue? That there was no escape from this demanding, exhausting, terrifying, lonely, hopeless place?

Is this what life is supposed to be like when you’re very young and learning what the world is about? Is this what you learned your place was?

Now, as an adult, she sees her mother (as she must because she is a good daughter). Her mother’s frail. She reminds herself, when she starts to panic, that her mother is in a wheelchair, connected to a cord that brings oxygen. Her mother cannot get the paddle and hit her over and over now. It is impossible. “But what if she really wants to? Would my dad help her? Could I fight him off?” She has to convince herself that yes, she could defend herself or she will flee the house. Even now, her mother terrifies her.

Was that the intent of all of those “spankings”? To instill terror that would last a lifetime? That would block love? That would support the deepening of emotional pain every day of the rest of that beautiful innocent child’s life?

Once the panic has passed — sometimes aided by medication for the very purpose — she wonders: “does my mother remember what she did? does she remember the depressions and the rages? does she remember the demands? the punishments for imperfection?” The answer is always the same: “No. If she did remember, if she were at all sorry, she would say something. Even something simple like, “you didn’t hit your kids, did you? I’m impressed.” But she never has. And she never will.

What Are These Spanking Debates About?

They call it “spanking” in debates about child discipline. But where is the line between teaching and destruction? She remembers the story her father told her about the only time he ever spanked her. When he saw his handprint on her bottom, he resolved never to spank her again. And he kept his word. How could that same father have allowed her mother to hijack her core sense of self through years of abuse? Was it really abuse? After all, it was “only spankings.” But look at the consequences. It was not healthy child rearing, whatever you want to call it.

Children Tend To Blame Themselves

When she was an older child… maybe nine… she used to dream about running away. But where would she go? As far as she knew, her home life was normal and she was the problem because she was disobedient and insufficient. No. She had no where to go. She was trapped. And the punishments were her fault.

The therapy and the pills seem to be a lifelong prescription

What We Learn As Children Stays With Us

So now she goes to therapy, years, decades, of therapy. She cries about feelings of sadness, rejection, unworthiness. She hyperventilates because in the safety of her therapist’s office, this adult woman feels trapped, doomed. Why? Where do these feelings come from? I know this: they’re always with her, waiting to take control.

For years, she outran them through achievement. Perfect grades. Perfect test scores. Perfect mothering. Ivy league degree. More success than anyone else. But eventually she couldn’t beat everyone else. Eventually she met people who were younger and more successful than her. She ramped her efforts up in the only method she knew to feel better. She left the office at 4am most days. But it was not sustainable. After a lifetime of dysfunction, misery and running as fast as she could to stay half an inch ahead of the paddle, she became officially dysfunctional.

She spent way too much but didn’t pay her bills. Her mind eventually started to lose its logical connections. And like yin and yang, the mania led to depression. Bankruptcy. A suicide attempt.

There’s No Cure for Bipolar Disorder; Not Even a “Sure” Treatment

New professionals were consulted. Her husband, who had supported her as well as he knew how, even staying on the phone until 4am with her night after night, had to start making treatment decisions for her because she no longer functioned as an autonomous decision-making adult. She was the screw-up she was always afraid she’d become. And nothing helped. Therapy. Therapy. Therapy. This pill. That pill. These seven pills together.

At least it’s not painful. It’s now done under general anaesthesia.

Her long-time psychiatrist told her husband she had “treatment-resistant bipolar disorder.” The only tool left in the kit was electroconvulsive therapy. But she would need 24/7 supervision. So, to save her life, he moved her in with him (they had had a long-distance marriage). Her children moved in full-time with their father.

She had finally failed at everything. Her first marriage. Parenting. Her career. What has she not failed at?

The shock therapy doctor warmly answered her questions. He told her that people respond differently. For some people, it takes six to eight sessions. For other people, it takes more. Her husband got up early three times every week to take her to shock therapy at 6am for a year and a half.

Suddenly, after that year and half, she was herself again. For a few months. When she backslid, more treatments. But the side effect was loss of identity. They tell you that you may experience some temporary memory loss. She forgot who she used to be. She forgot her children’s birth. She forgot her wedding day.

But she did not forget her mother’s implacable rage. It was an open sore rubbed against by the most minor of set-backs, perceived criticisms and imagined failures. When these ran together, one on top of the other, depression, even suicide attempts were the result.
sad older woman
There used to be reprieves – hypomanias and transformational hallucinations – but those are medicated away now. Why are pharmaceuticals so much better at medicating away good feelings than bad?

What does the future hold for her and other grown-ups who were damaged as children? Her current therapist says she can learn to distance herself from childhood feelings but that it’s a lifelong practice.

All of the books and magazines say these people must be compliant and take numbing ineffective medications for life.

Why does their parent’s loss of control and cruelty dictate a lifetime of suffering and coping with pain?

What Would the “Bipolar Brain” Look Like Without a Traumatic History?

Yes, yes, I know… genetics… chemicals in the brain… an amygdala cascade… but would these sufferers have bipolar “disorder” (in the dysfunctional sense) without childhood torture in their background?

Maybe they’d be extraordinary, happy and successful. Intelligent. Sensitive. Perhaps able to access unusual realms of experience. Able to achieve great things and see farther than many other people without those bipolar non-disorder genes. People like that exist; maybe they have the genes without the history.