My father found my sister hanging under the door, eyes bulging.  I see my son, my flaxen haired son, in her noose. It doesn’t matter which way he whips, it only makes the rope knot tighter. Hysterical, he called my mother seconds after the paramedics. She knew the message when the operator paged saying her ex-husband was on the phone.

Dad used fly to Arizona to dry my grandmother out. I understood ‘alcoholism’ before I turned five. But none of us understood ‘bipolar’. None of us understood that my five foot ten grandfather left because my four foot six grandmother came after him with a knife in the dark. And I see my baby standing at the foot, no the head of my bed, with a sharp. The blade burns my throat. My sister tried to kill her husband, her boyfriend, her own daughter before she settled on herself. My grandmother died of uterine cancer.

On the other side, my maternal grandmother never tried to hang herself or stab anybody, but she wept for days on end for no reason at all. The days she didn’t weep, she frenzied. After she had reason, when my uncle died in a freak fall, she sobbed even more. He screams, sometimes, and flails his arms around his head. “My brain is all THIS,” he tells me, and I understand, because some days, MY brain is all that. She blamed my mother for my uncle’s death, even though Mom was two states away. She was always jealous that Mom lived while her favored son died.

Sam’s psychiatrist jots in his file. “Bilateral maternal bipolar disorder.”

Dad left the music industry because he couldn’t hack the artistic differences with the rest of the band. He came home shouting, and blaming. Anybody but him. Anybody but him. He drank and he smoked, and I’m not sure why he didn’t hit, but I’m grateful for it. Sam is too young to understand the self-medication of alcohol and nicotine. But how can I teach him self-awareness? How can I convey ‘moderation’? He stopped drinking and smoking for a long time. He does both again now, more cigarettes than liquor, but not to excess.

Mom made melodramatic proclamations and leapt from one desperate situation to another, prioritizing money above time, because she had to, or we wouldn’t have eaten. But the cost was high. It came in a younger daughter who followed her father’s lead right up until she turned into her paternal grandmother. But it wasn’t until she wrapped her own path around the world that my sister died.

“I can see why you’re so worried about him.” The psychiatrist has known about my sister, but not my parents. Or he knew but maybe didn’t understand. He doesn’t have a word for “every single person on the maternal side, including Mom herself.” At least ‘bilateral maternal bipolar’ sounded official.

My arms aren’t bite-bruised now, but they were when I called back in June, ovals of six year old tooth marks stretching from wrist to elbow. “I’d be shocked if we made it to eight years old without a week in a pediatric ward.” And there, it’s out in the room, the thing I came here to say. I don’t think my son will go to sleep away camp like most kids when he’s eight or nine. I think he’ll go to camp “fix you”.

Sam’s psychiatrist, looking at the remnants of my scars, says, “Let’s up the Depakote and see what we can do. At six, institutionalization should be an utterly last resort. It’s only going to traumatize him, and I want him to be old enough that we can actually help him, not just make him afraid.” He does not say, as he did when Sam first entered treatment, that my son is too young to predict such an outcome. He hasn’t named any institutions yet, but he’s probably mulling our options. He’s a muller, this man.

“He came at me with scissors the other day. When I took them away, he was eerie-calm. He said, ‘I was going to cut you. I was going to cut your head off.’”

The psychiatrist flinches. “If you have to, call the emergency room when he’s that out of control. You can document incidents like that, if nothing else. You’re both doing the best you can. You’re good, loving parents.”

I want to tell him “‘Good’ isn’t enough here. My Mom was a hell of a good mother. The best. And she only got one of her kids out alive. My Dad’s loving. He’s kind of fucked up, but he loves me, and he doted on my sister, spoiled her, made it worse, but never unloved her.” I want to tell him that good loving parents’ children die every day, that I will only be in control of Sam’s medical choices for so long, that when it all comes together, Sam will be the only one who can keep himself out of my sister’s noose. Just like, in the end, my sister was the only one who could put herself in it.

But I don’t say any of these things.

I don’t need to.

I can tell from the scars on his arms that this psychiatrist already knows.

The Friday Fright Write

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Comment by Joe Scott on August 16, 2013 at 11:17pm

I got lost in this - in a good, albeit painful way.  Sometimes I wonder what I might have been diagnosed with at six, with today's advances in developmental psyche and whatnot.  And still, it sounds like a riddle with no answer.  That interminable frustration comes through in this piece.  Very well-written.

Comment by Jester Queen (Jessie Powell) on August 16, 2013 at 2:51pm

I think the hardest part is sorting autism from mood disorder from normal-six-year-old-frustration-and-boundary-testing some days. (Like this morning.) 

Comment by Katy Brandes on August 16, 2013 at 12:00pm

Thanks for sharing this post with us, Jessie, and "putting yourself out there." Having a six year old boy myself, I can only imagine your dealings with the disorder (if it isn't already hard enough to raise them).  You are stronger than you know. 

Comment by Jester Queen (Jessie Powell) on August 15, 2013 at 3:24pm

I like our shrink because he's pretty much proof that you CAN come through and figure out a measure of stability on the other side. Also, I let the realities run wild with the fears here. Sam really is only six. While yes, he DID come at me with scissors and offer to cut my head off, he had also forgotten it completely forty five minutes later. And while the family history is rather devastating, he's also got Scott's whole side of the family, and they are notoriously stable. So it's only as bad as this once in awhile (mid-June to mid-July most recently here), and he has an advantage that my sister, my grandmothers, my parents, and I all lacked: early intervention. Scott and I have been on top of this shit since he was two. So the worst case scenario, while bleak as hell, isn't guaranteed. I'm terrified that I won't be able to teach him right from wrong and self-care; but I know I've got a better shot than the people who came before me, too.

Comment by Laura Alonso on August 15, 2013 at 2:39pm



Beautifully written.

I would be amazed to find someone not touched by this writing, whatever their experience and situation.

Comment by Marie Nicole on August 15, 2013 at 2:24pm

Whoa fuck. This is a horror story. I knew from some of your posts, and some of your comments here and there that you had your hands full. But I never knew to which extent it went. My heart goes out to you, I wish I could send you all my love and courage via email for when you'd need it most.

Well written too. Very powerful! I'm shaking. I went through similar ordeals with Isa, my ex's daughter, but she got out of it. Luckily. Maybe Sam will find peace and joy as Isa did.

Comment by Jester Queen (Jessie Powell) on August 15, 2013 at 11:05am

I love you, too, Kir .No need to worry about me, though. I have wanted to go into more depth about my sister's suicide for some time, and the ways in which it connects to my knowledge of and fears for Sam. But both my folks subscribe to Jester Queen, and nearly anything I write would be painful to them. Dad would go the 'agonizing but true' route. Mom would go the 'I don't know why you have to put all those things out there' route. 

And OY this summer has been rough with Sam, as all summers are.

Comment by Kirsten Piccini on August 15, 2013 at 10:46am
Oh Jessie. Oh my good, amazing, inspirational friend, this is some of your most, I can't find the word beyond phenomenal, but knowing how true it is has me crying here on vacation. Because I care so much about you, worry about you, love you.

Thank you for sharing this with us. Xo
Comment by Cheney Giordano on August 15, 2013 at 10:25am

Wow, Jessie. Thank you for sharing something so personal. I hope that everything stays sane in your family. I know a few bipolar people and it is a very hard disease to live with and deal with. Hugs to you!

Comment by Jester Queen (Jessie Powell) on August 15, 2013 at 10:23am

Yes, story about my family. Nonfiction. I tried to write something I could put on my blog, but this is it - my greatest fear. I live this.

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