Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Thirsting for Love

Of late I've been thinking a lot about how to pursue certain issues -- the onset of the bipolar disorder and significant episodes that convey some idea of the subjective experience of the illness. But I've been concerned about how to do so without bringing specific persons into the narrative. Even if I omitted their real names and disguised certain of their characteristics, they would still be recognizable to friends and acquaintances.

In the main I think I can work around this. The unavoidable exception is my parents, both of whom are long deceased but whose lives I would like to address with fairness and empathy. Consequently before raising matters that involve them, I would like to introduce them a bit.

To start things off, here is something I wrote four years ago:
Seventy years ago today my mother was born in Norfolk, Virginia. I cannot say she led a happy life. Her childhood home was drenched in anger and abuse. Her troubled 23-year marriage ended in divorce. At age 29 she was institutionalized for several months with a mental illness diagnosed first, erroneously, as schizophrenia and later, correctly, as bipolar disorder. Ten years later she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The disease finally killed her a few weeks after her forty-seventh birthday.

My mother was part of the last generation of American women raised to embrace what Betty Friedan would call “the feminine mystique”: the idea that a woman’s highest calling was to be a wife and mother. She usually described herself as a “professional homemaker.” She never read The Feminine Mystique. She didn’t have to. She lived Friedan’s critique of it day to day. She would like to have escaped, but hampered by her bipolar disorder in addition to the usual difficulties of women of her era and station, she stayed in the trap. But she never stopped trying to get out. She immersed herself in self-help books. She drowned herself in religion. Once or twice a year she overdosed on sleeping pills. Through it all she composed short, didactic essays on how to live life and wrote a lot of clumsy poems.

I seldom think of her without recalling these lines from Spoon River Anthology, especially the last two:

I AM Minerva, the village poetess,
Hooted at, jeered at by the Yahoos of the street
For my heavy body, cock-eye, and rolling walk,
And all the more when “Butch” Weldy
Captured me after a brutal hunt.
He left me to my fate with Doctor Meyers;
And I sank into death, growing numb from the feet up,
Like one stepping deeper and deeper into a stream of ice.
Will some one go to the village newspaper,
And gather into a book the verses I wrote?—
I thirsted so for love!
I hungered so for life!

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