In recent weeks, I’ve been researching mental health – manic depression (now called bipolar disorder). In my second novel, The Two Sisters, one character (one of the Sisters) has struggled with manic depression most of her life, and has been in and out of hospitals and halfway houses over the years. Her name is Rose, and by the time her nephew (and the novel’s main character) Jack Owen meets her, she is a long-term resident of British Columbia’s provincial mental health hospital.
Rose is based, to some degree, on my experiences with my mother, Angela Huntley Love (nee Clarke), who struggled with manic depression, depression, and alcoholism continually through her life. Mum seemed to always be somewhere in the middle of extremes of behaviour: happy, laughing, loving and normal sometimes, and loud, loopy, drunken or depressed at other times. As a kid, it was difficult to know who she was, or how to feel around her.
Mum was an enigma to me. I can honestly say that I cannot remember having more than one or two actual conversations with her in the 12 years she lived with me. Perhaps it is unfair of me to think that way. Kids’ perceptions are often very subjective and skewed. I wish I could have known the lovely, charming and talented musical performer that Mum’s friends and family got to know. Anyway, water under the bridge…
After bouncing in and out of a few private hospitals over the course of a year or two, Mum finally landed in the Burnaby Psychiatric Centre on Wilingdon. Dad explained that this facility was essentially a “holding pen” for patients who were bound for Riverview.
Riverview. That name was a caution to me back then, something to be feared. Dad used to warn Mum “Angela – behave yourself, or you’ll end up in Riverview!” I never took this to be an idle threat. Dad’s voice conveyed the worry and stress that told me Riverview was not a good place to go, and it also sounded like the kind of place that you didn’t come back from. These are the words that form stereotypes that stick with you. And they did.
Mum was admitted to Riverview in 1980. The first few visits were extremely difficult. Looking back, now that I am almost the same age Mum was when she was admitted, however sick and brain damaged she might have been, she knew what was happening to her, and she was scared to be left alone in that place. Once or twice, we had to leave her while she was crying and calling for us to take her home again. It was absolutely brutal, and I’ll never forget her face and voice in the little window in the centre of the door.
Back in 1977, not too long after her father, Ernest, died, Mum went into a prolonged depression, rarely rising from her bed or the couch, except to get up to eat, drink, or vomit. Eventually, she stopped eating altogether. We lived with this for a long time, and it was rarely ever acknowledged. Finally, one day, my little sister couldn’t wake her up, and her protests got Dad to call the Doctor. My few happy memories of my Mother are all I have, and my little sister has no personal memories at all.
Mum’s liver had quick, and she’d have died if she had been at home for 24 hours longer. She’d suffered permanent brain damage and a fair amount of recent memory loss. After she detoxed and received a transfusion, her personality had changed noticeably. Her personality was almost like a clean slate. She was much more direct and basic in her needs, and she never ever brought up the past anymore, the way some people do (raising old issues, or chuckling over old shared memories). The person she had been was changed forever, and now, it was almost like we had a new, different Angela to get to know.
Mum didn’t have a concept of how her own actions or inactions might have put her in that situation, and she didn’t seem to get that she’d never be able to live alone or independently again. How could we leave her alone in the house during the day? She never blamed anyone else though. There was no bitterness directed at her situation or towards anyone in particular either. She just wanted to come home. She cried for it.
The character of Rose is a bit like Angela, and shares an event which happened to Angela. In “The Two Sisters”, Rose’s meds are adjusted on the advice of a new Doctor, and she changes from her regular quiet, almost vegetative state, and becomes much more lively. During this time, Rose has slight episodes or mania, but otherwise seems quite normal. It’s during this time that Jack is able to ask her questions about her past, and about his late mother Barbara, who was Rose’s cousin.
Jack’s Aunt Rose becomes something of a surrogate mother figure for him, and has her own brand of road-worn wisdom and street smarts to impart. After a week or two, Rose has a particularly bad manic episode, complete with hallucinations and violence, and reluctantly, her Doctor is convinced by his peers to reinstate Rose’s original drug regime, which returns her to her passive, almost vegetative state. Jack feels as if he has lost Rose, but continues to visit her periodically, providing her with some companionship and care in his own way.
Rose’s “Awakening” episode is based on my Mother’s similar experience. Around 1991, late one evening, when I was thinking of going to visit Mum, I got a phone call from a Riverview Nurse, telling me that my mother wanted to talk to me! This had never happened before, and I listened with a pounding heart as this slightly excited, frantic-sounding yet familiar voice greeted me. I spoke to her for a few minutes, and told her how nice it was to hear her voice. I told her I loved her, and that I’d see her as soon as I could. Then she said goodbye, and immediately after I hung up, I phoned my sister and we laughed, cried, and were generally amazed by the whole thing.
However, when I went up to see Mum, she’d already been put back on her old regime of meds, so had returned to her non-communicative, vegged out state. So, that phone call is the only window I got into who my Mother might have become.
I decided that when I had Rose go through the same transformation, I would give Jack a few weeks’ worth of that wonderful awakening. I think he deserves it.