THE DEJA VU CONVERSATION
Dyane Harwood (California)
I was born in 1970, one year after the close of the “Swinging Sixties.” I grew up in Pacific Palisades, a beautiful Southern California town that bordered the Pacific Ocean. I was the daughter of a speech therapist mother and a violinist father; as the much-wanted first child, my parents doted on me and I felt very loved.
Ever since I was a little girl I had been particularly close to my father who played in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Dad had manic depression, the former name used for bipolar disorder, and many of his colleagues had mental illnesses. None of them spoke openly about their mood disorders for fear of losing their hard-won jobs in a fiercely competitive environment.
My father’s longtime stand partner had bipolar disorder and tragically, she took her own life. Dad grieved over the loss of his ebullient friend, a brilliant musician who hid the depths of her despair from everyone. After her death, a ravaging bipolar depression incapacitated Dad for several weeks. He holed up in his stuffy bedroom where the heavy velour curtains were drawn shut. When I peeked into the room I couldn’t tell if it was daytime or night.
I came of age in the 1980s when there was a lack of public education about mental illness. At sixteen, I drove to the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Psychiatric Unit where my father had been hospitalized for his depression. Most sixteen-year-olds were preoccupied with clearing up their acne instead of visiting a parent in a “Cuckoo’s Nest,” but I forced myself to go to that foreboding environment because I loved Dad with all my heart.
I wanted to cheer him up, and I thought his beloved Stradivarius violin would help lift his dismal mood. I was reprimanded by hospital staff for bringing the million dollar instrument to the unit. I was naïve; I didn’t realize his fellow patients could crush the piece of 16th- century wood in a heartbeat.
My father’s diagnosis wasn’t discussed by anyone in our family due to stigma and a profound lack of social awareness. Back then I had an intense fear of the mentally ill. I never thought I’d suffer from a mental illness, let alone be hospitalized in units similar to the ones my father stayed at during his life. If someone had told my sixteen-year-old self about my future bipolar disorder, peripartum onset diagnosis, I would’ve been more likely to believe I’d become a world-famous movie star.
During my years as a student at Palisades High School, I spent my free time watching “video jockeys” who promoted rock videos on a brand-new music television channel called MTV. I went to the beach, played Atari video games, and cruised clothing shops in trendy Westwood with my friends. I never heard my teachers discuss mental illness at school. Moreover, none of my friends mentioned they were struggling with a mood disorder or that they had a parent affected by a serious mental illness.
If I had been asked to give a definition of manic depression I wouldn’t have been able to do it. Ironically, I walked through the same high school hallways as another student who would become one of the most respected bipolar disorder authorities in the world. That student was Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, clinical psychologist, author of the bestselling memoir An Unquiet Mind, and Co-Director of the renowned Mood Disorders Center at Johns Hopkins Medicine.
As the years passed by, I remained ignorant about mental illness. Based on observing my father’s depressive blackout days in his room, I had a concrete example of what depression looked like, but I didn’t fully understand his manias. Once when Dad was manic, he bid on a $30,000 violin at an auction and he won it. However, he didn’t have the money to close the deal. My mother, a teacher who worked with autistic children, begged the auction house for mercy, which she thankfully received due to her tenacity and charm.
My father’s depressions frightened and disturbed me to no end. I felt it was my mission to bring a smile to his face, and I worked extra-hard to get him to chuckle when he felt down. Whenever Dad fell into a depression, it wasn’t easy being around his pain. I was extremely sensitive to the moods of those who surrounded me. I’d absorb his sadness to some extent, but it was a powerful ego boost for my fragile self-esteem when my father said I brightened his tough days.I had moments in which I was certain the darkness that enveloped him would someday smother me.
I asked my father, “Will I get it?”
Although I didn’t say the term “manic depression,” my father knew exactly what “it” was. The day I asked him if I’d fall prey to his mental illness he replied soothingly, “No, Dyane, someday there will be a cure. I promise. Don’t worry!” I believed his reassuring words; I refused to contemplate the possibility he could be wrong.
Twenty years after that pivotal conversation with my father, I gave birth to my second child. Within a day of my daughter’s birth, I became hypomanic and hypergraphic, a condition associated with mania in which I wrote compulsively. Six weeks later I was acutely manic, and I admitted myself to the local psychiatric unit where I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder one, peripartum onset.
After I was informed of my diagnosis by Dr. King, the chief psychiatrist, I used the unit’s beaten-up community pay phone to call my parents collect. They lived three hundred miles south in Los Angeles. It was a time before cell phones were ubiquitous, but in a stroke of luck my father was home to answer the phone. My mania acted as a buffer that prevented me from feeling disturbed about telling them my significant news.
Not surprisingly, my father was upset about my big news. Extremely upset. He believed he had genetically passed his bipolar disorder to me, and he felt responsible. I had never seen or heard my father cry until that day. After I told him about my talk with Dr. King, he briefly wept until he was able to speak.
“It’s all my fault you have this, my Little Dyane. I’m so sorry,” he said, using his childhood nickname for me. Mania kept me from feeling remorseful about his reaction, and I brightly reassured him I was fine.
Despite the upbeat tone of my voice, I hadn’t convinced my father I was “fine.” He knew my diagnosis was as serious as cancer, diabetes, or any other chronic illness, and he didn’t want me suffering from the mood disorder that came close to destroying him on a regular basis.
I endured six more hospitalizations over the next seven years, over thirty medications, and two rounds of electroconvulsive therapy that helped me out of suicidal ideation. My young girls were robbed of a present, active mother – I was not myself during most of those precious years.
Now it has been five years since my last hospitalization. I look back at the unforgettable phone call I made to my father about my bipolar, peripartum onset diagnosis and I pray I’ll never receive the same news from my daughters. Unlike me, they have been educated in a sensitive manner about my bipolar disorder. They know I live with serious chronic illness of the brain. They understand that their grandfather (who died in 2009) had bipolar disorder and that it’s often genetically passed down from generation to generation
“Mommy, will I ever get bipolar disorder?” my eight-year-old daughter Marilla asked me one afternoon.
“My sweet girl. That’s a good question. While there’s a chance you could develop it, if you do, we’ll know how to help you. Plus there are researchers working hard to find a cure.”
I felt compelled to tell Marilla the truth. I knew she wanted an honest answer, plus my precocious girl could tell when I was lying to her. If I fibbed, she’d see right through me. While I didn’t want to give Marilla false hope, it would help her to know bipolar research is a priority for many scientists and a cure is possible. I was most concerned that Marilla understood that bipolar disorder is a manageable condition.
Our conversation generated a strong sense of déjà vu within me that brought tears to my eyes. I recalled the few minutes I had sat with my father on our old plush couch when I asked him if I’d get “it” – if I’d become mentally ill. All I felt during that talk was anxiety about the unknown. However, when I spoke with my daughter about bipolar disorder, I felt empowered. It was essential to give Marilla a truthful explanation about her chances of having this mood disorder, and I did that. My father only had the best of intentions in telling me I wouldn’t become manic-depressive, but it was an erroneous promise. I changed the core element of our family conversation, and I know if my father were still alive, he’d be proud of how I spoke with his curious granddaughter.
My explanation seemed to assuage Marilla’s fears for the time being. I continue to hope neither she nor her older sister will suffer from bipolar disorder. While I believe bipolar disorder can ignite creativity and generate other positive traits, in every fiber of my being, I don’t want my children at the mercy of an insidious, sometimes deadly mental illness.
Dyane Harwood holds a B.A. in English Literature from the University of California at Santa Cruz. A freelance writer for over two decades, she has interviewed luminaries including Madeleine L’Engle, Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, Anthony Bourdain and SARK. Dyane was diagnosed with postpartum bipolar disorder (bipolar, peripartum onset) in 2007. She founded the Santa Cruz, California chapter of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) and has facilitated free support groups for moms with mood disorders for nine years. Dyane’s memoir “Birth of a New Brain – Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder” was published by Post Hill Press in October 2017. It is the first book to discuss a woman’s experience with this rare form of bipolar disorder and overlooked postpartum mood and anxiety disorder. Dyane is raising her daughters Avonlea and Marilla with her husband, the author Craig Harwood, and Lucy, their Scottish collie, in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California.