Early one Saturday morning in March 2009, I went into the family living room to find the front door wide open and my mom covered in snow. She had purposely burned her arm and had been rolling in the snow to put out the fire. It was exactly what our family needed to jump into action. My dad took my mom to the ER and called her older sisters in Michigan to let them know what had been happening the past month.
I had never heard of bipolar disorder before my mom was diagnosed in 2009. I was a full-time freshman in my second semester at a private university in Tulsa, living at home and working part-time at the local mall when her episodes started. My stay-at-home mom was the heart of the family, the one who took care of everyone before herself. But on Valentine’s Day 2009, that suddenly changed: I woke up to find that she wasn’t home. When she returned six hours later, she wouldn’t tell anyone where she had been. The next day she disappeared again—this time coming back with new cell phones for the whole family. My mom usually managed the family budget and paid the bills: financial spontaneity was not her thing. But instead of dwelling on the problem, my dad, my brother, and I decided to play with our new phones, silently agreeing to ignore my mom’s behavior.
That became impossible, as her behavior got progressively worse over the next few weeks. She continued to go missing, talked in a strange voice—a voice she said that was not her own but that of a higher being—broke things in the house, threw away clothes, family photos, my brother’s guitars, kitchenware. She became violent, fighting my brother and me as we tried to stop her from destroying the house. I spent my first year of college barely sleeping, my room barricaded with a dresser, fearful that my mom might break something in the house, or worse, hurt me. My emotions were as unstable as my mom’s behavior: I was angry for the crazy things she did or said, resentful when she would act normally and try to be my mom again, guilty for resenting her—this wasn’t easy for her either. So I’d dry my tears and put on a brave face before I walked into class every day. But I was tired mentally, emotionally, and physically.
It didn’t help that our family tactics were divided. While I eventually took on a “we need to do something now” attitude, my dad and my brother took some time to accept that something was really wrong with my mom. My brother started working more so that he wouldn’t have to come home, and my dad seemed to only work and sleep. It felt as if they were leaving me to deal with a lot my mom’s illness, so for a while, I resented them both. It took time for me to realize that they, too, were trying to cope with their grief.