BIPOLAR: MATER MELANCHOLIA
Oh, how this mother swells up to my heart!
Hysterica passio, down, down, thou climbing sorrow! [King Lear, 2.4. 55-56]
I Excursus Autobiographicus
When I was a boy growing up in Austria it didn't strike me as odd that my mother talked to herself a lot: "I'm going to put more coal in the kitchen stove," "this pan is so hard to clean," Trixi (the Dachshund) has to be let out," "I'm going to do the vacuuming." It was basically a continuous monologue when I was alone with her, as she carried out her daily domestic tasks in the confined space of the combination kitchen/living room in which we spent most of our time (the formal dining room was for Sunday dinners and for special visitors). Her vocalization was a steady stream consisting mostly of descriptions of what she was doing and thinking at the moment. It was as if there was no censor or filter between her thinking and her speaking.
She was born in 1900, and I in 1943, so she was quite a bit older than the mothers of my friends, but somehow that never struck me as odd either. I knew that my mother was different, but as a child I did not really give this any thought. Her illness was a fact my family—father, grandparents, and two older sisters, one of whom was a schoolteacher and lived with us—accepted without discussing, at least with me. By today's diagnostic criteria, my mother was bipolar: during the depressive phase she would retreat into the bedroom, and stay there for days on end; during the manic phase, her talking would accelerate into a high-pitched and frantic verbal barrage, coupled with an emotional vehemence that would land her in an ambulance that would spirit her away to the nerve clinic in Salzburg (about two hours from where we lived), and where she would stay for weeks or even longer. I don't recall any visits to her in the hospital, or messages from her. Her being taken away was both dramatic and traumatic, at least from my boy perspective: I seem to recall one occasion where she put up stubborn resistance, and the ambulance orderlies had to subdue and spirit her away by force. Other than the emotional stress and turmoil of such an episode, I don't recall any particular feelings about my mother regarding her absence from or return to our home. Presumably I have repressed the emotional affect and the memories associated with her absence(s). Her not being there is simply a blank or neutral space in my mind, filled with other memories: the cleaning lady who came every few days, and who was quite friendly and who even told me I could take her family's rowboat out on the lake, because they were not using it. I did so, and spent long and lazy hours drifting in the sunshine on the small lake. Even if the scars on my psyche were like the craters on the moon, I managed not to be aware of them.
The metronome of my mother's steady talking is the background noise to some pleasant memories of her when she was doing well, i.e., neither depressive nor manic. She would take me with her to the local grocery chain store (Konsum Union), and I would help her carry back the shopping bag with looped handles we had brought with us. She would usually buy me some of the hard candy I craved, and I always looked forward to her cutting into the loaf of freshly baked dark bread when we got home to give me a still-moist slice. When I had a cold she would give me hot tea with a tea-spoon of rum—and if the lungs were affected, she would put fried-onion compresses on my chest. Sometimes on a weekend afternoon, if my father was having a beer, she might have a glass with a spoonful of sugar mixed in. One of my earliest memories is walking up to a mountainside farm with her, where she bartered for eggs and butter when these were either scarce or not available in the stores of the economically depressed post-World War II Austria. The excursion has also fallen through a memory hole, save for the gaggle of the farmer's cackling geese that crowded around me and seemed to want to nibble at me with fearsome beaks. I must have been three or four at the time. Several years later my mother took me on a trek in the summer to the upper part of a local mountain across the lake from us, accompanied by a female friend of our family from a neighboring village. This was a merry, if strenuous, day-long excursion which involved climbing over some fences, gathering alpine flowers, and also, so I seem to recall, a pleasant picnic with some folk songs in a meadow above the lake. I don't recall what the songs were, or if I joined in, or simply listened to the two women singing. To see my mother enjoying herself on such an excursion was a rare experience. But did we really stop to eat sandwiches in a mountain meadow, and sing—or is that an enhanced or even fabricated memory, my imaginative recollection shaped by the sentimental overlay of Julie Andrews cavorting in the alpine meadows above Salzburg in The Sound of Music? I know we went on that mountain-climbing trip, but I can't vouch for the veracity of the alpine meadow scene.
I have other pleasant mother memories as well from early childhood: when I was very little, she would sing to me a popular song at the time, "Mammatchi, schenke mir ein Pferdchen, ein Pferdchen wȁr mein Paradies" [Mammatchi, give me a little horse, a little horse would be my Paradise"]. I never wanted a horse, but I loved to hear her singing that song to me. Some years later, when I had gotten good at skiing, and not long after I had been surprised with a new pair of skis for Christmas, I decided I also wanted to learn how to skate, because some of my friends had taken up that sport. Since my family was still tight for money in those post-war days, my father nixed the purchase of skates, asserting that I had already received new skis, and that was it for gifts for the season. My mother, however, went out on the sly and bought a pair of used skates and skating shoes, telling me to go skating but not to let my father know. The very first time I tried out the skates in the town rink, I had trouble maintaining my balance, as the shoes seemed to wobble on the skates they were clamped to. I promptly fell down and landed hard on my left arm. During the night my sister, with whom I shared a room, heard me moaning in my bed, and a visit to the doctor the next morning revealed a hair-line fracture. I don't recall if we made up a story of how I broke my arm in order to keep the truth from my father, or whether he was told what really happened. With my arm in a cast, my skiing days for that winter were pretty much done.
My mother's mood disorder was a constant sword of Damocles hanging over our family. The most traumatic memory of her being taken away to the clinic in Salzburg is one that I have been able to reconstruct with the help of my school teacher sister, who played an important part in this episode. It was in late summer, and I was six years old at the time; my father was away at work in his insurance office in a neighboring town, and my sister was at home when my mother was starting to become extremely agitated. A local doctor was called, and he saw my mother in the bedroom. He and my sister tried to calm her down, and he gave her an injection (presumably a strong tranquillizer) with the unexpected result that she passed out. My sister isn't sure whether her heart had actually stopped. In any event, he was able to revive her, and decided that she would have to be transferred to the clinic. However, she insisted on seeing me before she left, and they reluctantly agreed, assuming it might help to calm her down. When I was brought to her bedside, with her black hair disheveled and her mesmerizing, Fury-like black eyes tense with emotion, she pulled me to her, held me in an iron grip, refusing to let go. All I recall is that this clutching woman who held me so fast was a stranger I did not recognize and whose refusing to release me terrified me. I think they had to pry her arms off me, and shortly after that the ambulance came and she was whisked away. Nor do I recall how long she was gone, or the circumstances of her return.
In hindsight I consider this dire and haunting episode one of the decisive experiences of my childhood. But again, I can't entirely trust my retroactive interpretation. I know the episode was important, but perhaps I'm making too much of it. I'm pretty sure that at the time I simply put it out of my mind. Though I'm not certain about the long-term psychological impact it had on me, I do know that I've always been reluctant or leery of people moving in too close to me, or touching me unexpectedly. I can give and receive hugs and be affectionate, but I've always been wary and stand-offish about letting people breach the boundaries of my personal space: and not only in a physical sense. Though I think people have generally found me friendly and affable, I've also managed to keep my distance in the sense that I've let very few people "into" my inner self, which has been a kind of inviolable sanctum. I've been good at putting up psychic walls to keep people at arms' length, so they can't really get to me or know me in any intimate way. In other words, I learned not only to keep to myself, but also to keep myself as it were untouched, inviolate, remote, inaccessible. Perhaps this is an innate character trait, but I'm inclined to think that my manic mother so desperately glomming on to me had a lot to do with my not wanting to be touched.
Another result of this frightening experience is that, to the best of my recollection, I kept my mother at a distance—or that I emotionally distanced myself from her—from that point on. This became relatively easy when I went to live, just as I turned twelve, with my other sister and her American husband in France, coming home only on holidays and for some weeks in the summer. My mother was clearly not right, and without consciously making this decision, I kept myself emotionally aloof from her. On the surface everything was fine, but underneath, there was a wariness about engaging with her. She was banished from my world, never really to be let back in again. She still talked to herself, but I no longer paid her any heed. In the wake of my mother's desperate clutching onto me, when my father and mother engaged in loud arguments, as they sometimes did, I also drowned out their raised voices. This was their life and their struggles, not mine. I was inviolate. And I suppose by the time I was an adolescent, I knew enough to know that my mother's mental illness stigmatized her, and I must have felt some shame or embarrassment about having such an abnormal parent.
I do know that during her repeated stays in the nerve clinic my mother had to undergo a series of electro-shock treatments that she claimed destroyed a significant portion of her memories. She died in a hospital in Salzburg of a brain tumor several weeks short of her seventieth birthday in the summer of 1970. I was a graduate student at the time in the U.S. and had booked a charter flight much earlier for later in August—and as it turns out, too late even for her funeral. For over two years she had suffered from both physical and mental deterioration. Due to poor co-ordination, two years before her death she had fallen down a set of stairs at home and suffered a bad concussion and serious bruising. Several months before her death and her final hospital stay, I called my parents (in those days transatlantic phone calls were an expensive and rare luxury), and when she picked up the phone she was unable to say more than a few hesitant words to me before passing me on to my father. That was the last (non)conversation we had. Perhaps her rapid physical and mental decline during her last two or three years--black and white photographs of her in her late sixties show a worn and furrowed face with very pronounced, raccoon-like dark rings under her eyes—was the cumulative result or effect of the earlier electro-shock treatments.
It is now a well-known fact that during the years of the Third Reich, the physically and mentally handicapped were subject to a secret euthanasia program. Thus I find it an interesting fact that my mother was never sent to the Salzburg nerve clinic during those years. Had my family heard some rumors about those genocidal prophylactic practices and made sure that my mother was not sent away while the Nazis were in power? As it turns out, some years after the end of World War II it came out that her favorite psychiatrist in the nerve clinic had in fact been involved in the euthanasia program. Had my mother been institutionalized during the Hitler regime, I might not be here writing these troubled recollections.
During my time as an undergraduate in the U.S. in the Sixties I only made it back once to Austria for a Christmas visit to my parents during my sophomore year, spending most of my days skiing and visiting local bars in the evenings. I don't recall any meaningful conversations with my mother. However, when I was awarded a two-year fellowship to pursue graduate work at a British university, my visits to my parents became more frequent. Now a young adult, my attitude to my mother was largely a compound of pity and embarrassment. I don't recall any significant communication between us, except for one rare occasion which came about at her initiative. I occupied a guest room on the third floor of our house, and one day my mother came up to see me. She clearly wanted to have a serious conversation—a soul-to-soul talk--but unfortunately, most of what she tried to say escapes me. What still stands out for me nearly five decades later is the sadness or pity I felt when she told me that she was reluctant to go out in public because she thought people were looking at her. I think she was trying to tell me about her difficult situation, to explain to me as an adult who she was and how she felt, and how she had suffered due to the burden of her mental illness and emotional instability. However, her shrinking fear of being out in public touched a sore spot in me, because although I can be very sociable, this self-consciousness is also a tendency I am prone to and that I have tried to resist and combat (up to a point) all my adult life—and one that has certainly proven a challenge for someone who has taught undergraduate classes as his profession and has thus had to deal with the public almost every day of his academic life. What my mother told me about herself reminded me about something in myself that I did not want to hear, so I did not sympathetically engage with her in her one attempt to have a serious talk with me a few years before her death. I didn't say anything negative; I simply turned a deaf ear. What she said was too close to home. The wave of compassion I felt for her was powerful and genuine—a kind of emotional vortex--but I could not afford to give in to it, because it threatened my psychic balance, and my very ability to function in the world. My mother's life-long plight was something I had to ignore in order to avoid being sucked in. And ignore it I did.
When my wife and I made the trip to Austria several weeks after my mother's funeral, we stayed in the same guest room in which my mother had tried to have a conversation with me several years earlier. I don't recall having felt any particular strong emotion at the news of her death, which had come in the form of a short telegram from my father. If anything, rather than real grief, there was a sense of relief that her suffering was over. However, during one night in the guest room I had a powerful dream--more like a waking nightmare, because I didn't know it was a dream—in which she appeared to be present in the room and was approaching my bed with outstretched arms. I recoiled in shock and terror at what I assumed was her actual presence, shouting "no, no." And she disappeared. My nightmare had of course woken up my wife, and only then did I realize what I had experienced was a hallucinatory dream, and not the actual presence or ghost of my mother trying to approach me. When I told my father about the dream the next morning, he casually said, "Ah, I see she's paid you a visit."
II Postscriptum Reflectionis
There hasn't been any such visitation since that night in August 1970, though she makes occasional and passing appearances in my dreams, but not as a threatening or even significant presence. The fact that I'm now actually older than my mother when she died is a somewhat sobering thought. When I consider the larger impact of her bipolar affliction on me, I must conclude that it not only resulted in my well-worn defensive strategy of being affable on the surface but completely private or inaccessible in my inner being, but also in my decision, more instinctive than conscious, early on in my adult life not to pass on the gene that carried my mother's mental illness by never fathering any children. The fact that my eldest sister also briefly succumbed to mental illness when she was in her late thirties and had to be institutionalized for several weeks when I was an adolescent and living with her and her American husband surely reinforced this resolution. Contemporary medical and neurological research (brain science) seems to indicate that there is a clear genetic component to mental disorders by way of chemical imbalance(s) in the brain, and thus offers some justification for my choice not to pass on my genes. (Given this genetic family inheritance, I'm also not unaware of the irony of my first name, Eugene.)
As for the biological burden of my mother's bipolarity on me, the only indication of the gene playing out in my life is a tendency to depression, which I've managed to counter for the most part by keeping very busy both in my professional life, and with lots of physical activities (especially walking, tennis, racquetball) which have not diminished, but increased from my early forties up the present. This extensive exercise regimen has paid double dividends, as it were, because it's been very beneficial for both my physical and my mental health. Another and larger impact of my mother's illness is a non-genetic one: my choice of the profession of teaching and researching literature as a means of understanding human nature and lives, and sharing that acquired knowledge with others—with special attention to bright but vulnerable students who are dealing with family and mental demons of their own. Even my choice of the area of literary studies to specialize in, Romantic and Autobiography studies, is connected with or influenced at some level by my mother's lifelong affliction. Many of the famous Romantic writers, including the English Romantic poets, are poster boys for bipolar syndrome, especially the depressive phase, with melancholy (Keats) and dejection (Coleridge) being prevalent and privileged modes in their confessional poems. It's not for nothing that my favorite Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, on whom I wrote my doctoral dissertation, famously asserted, "We poets begin our youth in gladness/But thereof in the end come despondency and madness."
But my mother's heritage extends even beyond my professional life, because no doubt one of the reasons that initially brought my wife and me together and helped us to bond early on in our relationship—though we may not have been fully aware of it at the time—is that we both carried the psychic burden and scars of mothers suffering from depression. So even though I tried to deny and reject my mother from the time she grabbed such a desperate hold of my when I was a child, and pushed her away as a young adult after her death in the nightmare in which she approached me with open arms, I can acknowledge at an age when she was already dead that she indeed has, largely unbeknownst to me for the greater part of my adult life, had a huge and enduring impact on me. At the age of nearly seventy-one I'm finally willing to embrace that knowledge with open arms—as opposed to crying "down, down," as I did in my earlier defensive rejection--and to affirm and honor the love that she manifested when she pressed me so passionately to herself by way of a desperate farewell as she was on the verge of being institutionalized yet again. Not being one who believes in post-mortem reunions in any afterlife I am willing to imagine or script, I can only now, at this late stage in my life, conclude that the memory of that then-traumatic embrace is the most poignant encounter with and lasting imprint on my psyche of a long-suffering but loving parent.
Author's Commentary: I wrote the first draft of "Bipolar" several years ago when it occurred to me, very belatedly, that my mother's mental illness had a big impact on me, both as a child and an adult. As a professor teaching Autobiography courses, I had students write down recollections of their childhood, and noticed how many of them were still deeply impacted by their (sometimes traumatic) relationships with their parents. I suppose this may have motivated me as well to think about the impact (largely ignored or repressed) of my mother's bipolarity on me. This conscious realization, reflected on in this essay, has come quite late in my life: but, as the saying goes, better late than never. It's also a way of honoring her in and for her suffering in a way I was never able to when she was still alive
Eugene Stelzig, Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus of English at SUNY Geneseo, was born in Austria in 1943 and grew up there, in France (where he attended an American school for four years, and a French lycee for two) and in the U.S., to which he came permanently in 1961. He has degrees in English literature from the University of Pennsylvania, Cambridge University, and Harvard (Ph.D. 1972). He has published five books and some fifty articles in the areas of Romanticism and Autobiography Studies, as well as four essays in academic life writing journals, and two small-press collections of poetry.