Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Just Another Manic Mom Day

So mental illness is a myth, huh? 

"How do You Grab a Naked Lady" is a gripping memoir by Sharon L. Hicks that is hard to put down. It mostly centers around her crazy-making relationship with her legitimately bipolar mother, particularly during the mother’s manic episodes. Her mother certainly did not have bipolar, myass disorder, or bipolar “spectrum” disorder (B.S.).

Of course, having a parent with a severe mental illness can itself lead to severe family dysfunction that adversely affects other, completely normal family members, particularly children. What follows are a couple of examples of Mom’s behavior while in the manic state. Ask yourself how you might turn out if your mother routinely did things like this in front of you - and often in public:

"Sharon, are you listening to me? I had a 24K gold necklace made for me with the letters   F-U-C-K to dangle across my chest. It cost me $15,000. Let's go pick it up."...

"I'm sorry Mrs. Hicks, but management would not allow us to make the necklace." 
"Oh yeah, well fuck you!...Mother spun around and headed for the escalator or the 2nd floor...In one fluid motion, Mother pulled her muumuu over her head..
"Yes, sir, completely naked."
...As she paraded down the escalator, she yelled, "You're all a bunch of shitheads."

Or another time: “I’m calling President Kennedy. He absolutely must take these pills! And I’m calling everyone I know to tell them about the divorce [from the author’s dad]…And the flies on the wall agree with me…I know because they are fluttering their wings. That’s how they talk to me…I’m the only one who understands how they communicate…they have names. I’ve named them all. They really like their names. They told me so.”

And no, people with personality problems do not act like that, or seriously say things like that. Seriously.

The patient’s childhood was further complicated by the mother’s behavior when the mother was in the euthymic state (neither manic or depressed). In the euthymic state, bipolar patients are just like everyone else. Their moods completely span the normal range. They can have the same problems as anyone else. They can be very functional, or they can have severe personality problems. They can also react poorly to the consequences of their own crazy behavior when they had been in the manic state.

In the case of the author, her mother is described as having been very narcissistic and self centered while euthymic, and as having rarely asked her daughter how the daughter felt about anything. Furthermore, Mom seemed to love being in the manic state, even though it frequently led to her being arrested or thrown into a mental hospital and given electroshock treatments. (This was during the 1940’s, 1950’s, and early 1960’s when patients had few rights, and there were few effective medications).  

But later, when there were effective medications, the mother would refuse to take them. She seemed to feel that even the depressed episodes were worth it, because there would also be those exciting manic highs. While manic, she particularly liked the hypersexuality that came with the territory, even when that meant running naked in public.

At times, the author felt that maybe mother really had control of her behavior even while manic, and was using it to get what she wanted. She read Thomas Szasz, who wrote about how mental illness was a myth. For a short time, she considered it. 

Naaah! She knew her mom was just crazy during manic episodes.

Another factor that affects both the way diseases like bipolar disorder present themselves as well as their effects on other family members is the ambient culture. This idea in no way diminishes the FACT that psychosis is a brain dysfunction. 

The author was born at a time during which gender role stereotypy was the norm. The dream of the author’s father was that she would marry a professional man who made a lot of money, move into the suburbs, and have lots of children. Sort of what her mother did, although she complained about it her whole life. She loved telling her husband what a sh*thead he was.

The author actually didn’t really like the whole sexist white picket fence fairy tale, wanting rather to get her doctorate in philosophy and do great things. On the other hand, she did not want to be anything like her mother. Yet somehow she spent most of her life living out the worst of the two worlds. Her career aspirations were halted when she got pregnant - several times - and married two men whom she did not love but who provided the picture perfect world that her father wanted for her. 

In this world, even men who appeared to be supportive of women's careers nonetheless saw them as lesser beings. When the author had to quit the graduate philosophy program (because she "accidentally" allowed herself to become pregnant, of course), the department chair said, "We need women like you to become professors. So the men can do the research."

In line with the family dynamics of someone without a psychotic parent, the author allowed her husbands and even her son to verbally abuse her, much like her mother frequently did whenever the author had to rescue Mom from her manic escapades. Between husbands, the author became somewhat hypersexual herself, though not nearly in the same way that her mother did during mania. After spending much of her life trying – and failing for the most part, even while not being mentally ill herself in the least - to be everything her mother was not, she came to realize that she admired her mother’s free spirit.

As she struggled to break free from her sexist upbringing, the author brilliantly describes the existential terror that results when someone tries to do something like that: “…might strip away a lifetime of beliefs about who I was, who I was supposed to be. Then what?  What happened after that? That’s the part they didn’t tell you. What happened when you didn’t recognize your life or even yourself any more? When there was only a smoldering void where familiarity used to live?”

So are all of the people society labels mentally ill just eccentric folks who just do not fit in with society?  During her many trips to mental hospitals to visit her mother, the author relates the following conversation with another patient:

“Don’t eat the food,” he told me.
“Why not?”
“Because it’s poisoned.”
“How do you know?”
“The aliens told me. They communicate with me through the fillings in my teeth.”
“Thanks for the advice.”

The thoughts of a functioning normal brain?  Yeah, right.

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