I Climbed it

Friday, October 9, 2009

My Mother, My Lara Croft

Part of this write up was published in a magazine called PREVENTION. Not many personal journals are available in the area of Mental Health in India. And so I wrote this. This is largely my journey with my family and friends. I must mention that this account largely looks like my family survived on its own with sheer medical support. That's not true. My cousin Dr Amit Sen helped me in understanding my mother. I will remain indebted to him for this all my life. My school friend Rupa, my first confidante,thank you!

My mother's colleagues & friends in her college especially Rekha Mashi a big Thanks!

A Big Thanks to all my cousins. And last but not least Swati, Anwar, Arunima, Urvashi, Gopal, Mammu, Rajneesh, Ravinder, Mimpa, Parvati and Suvojit! Thanks for hanging out with me endlessly!!

In chequred pajamas and olive green shirt my girl’s silver locks reflect her incorrigible optimism. I watch her bending over and picking up note -books from her three students. When she was young she taught in a Girls College. She taught there till she retired.

My mother in her twenties was a dynamic lecturer who was vivacious but not ambitious. She had seen many of her younger kith and kin die. In her twenties my girl was conventional in lifestyle but had a mind that sought company of the liberals. She was one of her kind in her neighborhood. Quite a Trend setter in her own right she was independence personified for her family and close friends. Her empathy and sensitivity made her very attractive. My father rose for this warm, curious and aware woman. Their marriage is one of the most endearing partnerships I have come across.

My mother is now sixty- nine. My brother and I have always believed that our mother is invincible. She is my Lara Croft. That we have believed this despite my mother’s Bipolar Affective Disorder for last sixteen years is our story.

It was just another vibrant teenage day and my mother had only complained of fever. Our family Doctor, however, felt that she was unusually gregarious. He met my father in the evening and insisted that we see a psychiatrist. It could be 'Depression'. My mother refused. There was no need my mother and I maintained.I thought our GP was over-reacting. She was so analytical how could anything be wrong with her. Mother recovered with our GP's medication. We skipped the psychiatrist. That was 1990.

In the meanwhile I joined college and took up psychology as a subject. I was nineteen and it was second year of college.My mother had lost her younger brother that autumn.I noticed her grieve. My mother and I used to sleep in the same room. One early morning I woke up to what seemed like Mother calling out to me. She looked very sad. We hugged. I told her I was extremely sorry about her loss or something like that. She repeated she was missing her brother a lot. I remember her reiterating it.

There was nothing unusual about my mother's grieving. However, I noticed that she was unusually scared. I noticed changes in her mood, energy and ability to function in the following days. This time I wanted us to go to a psychiatrist. My father thought I was over-reacting. But then what was so serious couldn’t have stayed hidden for too long. I remember the evening when my mother gave it all away. She shared with my father an incident that was disturbingly delusional in its content. I remember my father’s change of expression. I called my psychiatrist cousin that night. And my mother’s treatment began.

I was studying Bipolarity in my course books and watching my mother vacillate between manic and depressive state. My mother would sometimes feel very happy and "up," and was much more active than usual. This state is called mania. And sometimes my mother would feel very sad and "low," and would not be able to finish the daily chores effectively. This is called depression. One may think that life is a cycle about being sad and happy. However, Bipolar disorder is not the same as the normal ups and downs everyone goes through. Bipolar symptoms are more powerful than that. They can destroy relationships and make it hard to stick to school or work. My mother for instance had believed for one whole year that a certain course book had changed. She had waited for the new book to arrive in the book stores. One day I went with her to the book shop which had been sending her back saying the course books hadn't change at all. He showed me the syllabus. It was such a 'normal' misunderstanding. My mother was a little shaken when I told her that the course book had indeed not changed.

We all went through our share of denial. Ma’s denial would get stronger every time she would recover after a strong dose of anti-psychotics. She would stop her maintenance medication arbitrarily. She would also manage to convince her husband i.e. our father of the same. I may marvel at their bond today when my parents understand the significance of medication rather well. But back then I felt otherwise. Now I realize that somewhere deep within none of us, wanted to believe hers could be a recurring condition if Doctor’s advice was not followed.

Our denial and ignorance proved to be very painful for Ma. Restless nights, hyper- active mornings, delusions of persecution and grandeur engulfed our lives for almost a month in 91-92.

When Ma's Bipolarity was in its full bloom for the first time I experienced many complex feelings. One of them was that of shame. Till I was nineteen I had only seen people in awe of my mother. She was one of the most loved Teachers of her college. It was difficult for us to see Ma picking up what seemed then deliberate and petty fights. It took me a while to comprehend that the confrontations were consequence of delusions. It took me longer to understand how traumatic the whole experience must have been for my Mother when she was ill. Her delusions were her 'percieved' reality. It took us time to understand that a delusional sprained leg pained just the same as a real leg sprain.

For us the reality was something else. When she recovered after the first bout of Bipolar illness it was quite agonizing for her to be ‘normal’ and ‘aware’. She was petrified of losing her sanity and herself. It was difficult to assure her of something we had very little understanding of.

My father became very quiet after my mother’s first serious manic attack. He felt his wife was physically and mentally drained out because of over work. He blamed himself for Ma’s condition. But the big truth is People get unwell. Happens to the best of us. Guilt is a common reaction to most negative health news. When there is no explanation to a loss, blame game is the easiest refuge.

As a teenager I was invariably on my bicycle. I would cycle away to visit my friends. I would cycle back and forth from school and music school and tuitions. One day while my mother was recovering she complained that her fantasies of knitting with her daughter had all gone for a toss because of my nomadic ways. I had felt I had let down my mother. She had told me many a times that I should learn to be still. I was not still indeed. I was adventurous and happy. We didn’t know then that I also had a condition called Attention Deficit Hyperactive disorder. I was diagnosed the same in my mid twenties. Not because I really consciously sensed any hurdles but because my watchful cousin is a child psychiatrist.

As I had been apparently doing ok and have had no real pit falls because of ADHD I haven’t gone through much of treatment. What I have done quite regularly and voluntarily is psychotherapy.

I have been in therapy with a wonderful psychoanalyst for last two years. I have learnt some skills to deal with my hyperactivity and attention deficit behavior. The reason why I brought up my ADHD here is because I attended a Conference on Bipolar Affective Disorder recently. And I got to know that people with ADHD could sometimes later develop Bipolar Affective Disorder. And people with Bipolarity may develop Parkinsons in later life. Bipolarity and ADHD can be genetic. But then again you may never have been diagnosed with either of the first two and can get Parkinsons in your later life. So the element of probability is not to be discounted. Some of this can be genetic but then again you could be the first person in your family to experience any of these conditions.

My mother has developed Parkinsons in her late sixties. It was diagnosed two years back. Once she understood the diagnosis my mother once again became super regular with the new medicines. She is extremely consistent with her exercises, diet and optimism.

My mother, the life traveler, talks about her multiple health conditions if it provides information or support to anybody. Other wise she teaches kids, never misses her favorite soaps on TV and loves gorging on chaat & Kulfi.

Both my parents have a lovely world view. I give a lot of credit to my father for being the person he is. I look at them and see a life so well lived that I am confident that I can take on anything. Another important point is that my brother doesn’t have ADHD. I also know that with years passing by new researches will happen and when my children are born they will have their grandma’s strength, their grandfather’s playfulness and the support of the medical sciences.

While I may be genetically vulnerable to Bipolar Affective Disorder and Parkinsons it’s also true that I am more empowered than my mother. I have access to information and medication that my mother didn’t have.

I am not suggesting that I will develop Bipolar illness or Parkinsons. I am saying if such times do come I know I will be fine with medical support. My loved ones and I am more enlightened bunch today than ever before. So we will only do better.

Better than the times when our family and friends didn’t know what was happening with our mother. Better than the times when it seemed like the end of the road. Better than when we thought Mother would never respond to us again. We are better than all those times.

As I write this my mother in her sports shoes and pajamas takes small but watchful steps in the rain soaked garden. She fills sheets of paper with some happy and some poignant tales. My Ma's hug is warmer and stronger than ever before. And that’s good enough.


  1. Wow, Rukminidi, so beautifully written. I could imagine myself sitting infront of U and listening to U. felt a tinge sad about Jhetima. I, too, remember her as a super active lady. I saw Jhetu a lot of times taking rest, but Jhetima invariably would be doing something like stitching, even if sitting with us and talking.

    May God give Jhetu and Jehtima the best of health for the years to come. God knows when will we be eble to meet again?!?!?

  2. Feels nice that u read this piece!

  3. That was interesting to read.

  4. You're correct when you say that we the children have more information about the symptoms and treatment of the diseases as compared to our parents. Hence, it's natural for our parents to feel insecure at times. My father too suffers from parkinsons but thanks to medical science he's doing fine, despite his occasional fears about the disease getting worse with passing years....but then we are there to give him the strength.