A Sort of Welcoming

By Karen Benning

José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva cups his hands and blows into them, the hot breath of hope on a cold day. Far from his native home of Brazil, he walks along the edge of a tiny island off Sweden. This is no leisurely stroll on some sunny, sandy beach. The frigid Baltic Sea surrounds him, and a cloud-filled sky offers winds with a northern chill. Yet Andrada is thoroughly enjoying himself. Bundled against the elements, he gingerly steps along the rocky coastline, bending down on occasion for a closer look. He is a geologist; he knows what he is looking for. Andrada is searching out undiscovered minerals.There. In some old tailings from an iron mine. An unfamiliar gray chunk stands out from its surroundings, a slight shift in hue. So often that’s all it takes, a small differentiation from the norm, for people to take notice. The rock catches Andrada’s eye. Sharper edges, probably not plain old tailings, but neither sparkling like a gem. He stoops, picks up a piece, turns it over in his rough hands. Pulls out his pocketknife and slices. It’s that easy. The freshly exposed edge glints silver in the cloudy light, a moment of brightness. As he watches, it quickly turns from silver back to gray, dull and indistinguishable once more.

Dubbing it “petalite,” Andrada places several sharp-edged nuggets into a small pouch and continues his search for intriguing minerals. For other scientists, those hunks will eventually led to one of the Earth’s most basic elements: lithium. Upon his return from Sweden, Andrada will become busy with more pressing issues. He will later be remembered by his fellow Brazilians as instrumental in the nation’s independence from Portugal in 1822. As much as he loves geology, a few new rocks cannot compete with the work that must be done for his country. Andrada never returns to those petalite rocks. He never digs into their secrets, their essence.

The world forgets his discovery, gives the credit to another scientist years later. Lithium has this effect – it creates gaps. For every story unearthed, another one lies just underneath, remaining hidden from view to all but the most obsessive seekers. And sometimes, even from them.

That my parents had a wedding album came as a surprise. The album, with its iridescent, puffy white cover, sat on an end table in my mother’s vacated living room. My parents had divorced decades earlier. The one-bedroom apartment looked and smelled like what you might expect of any elderly woman scraping by on government subsidies. A faded couch in a floral print, an often re-upholstered rocking chair with scuffed wooden armrests, directly facing a dusty TV screen. The stubborn odors of earlier meals, fried meats and eggs and starches. A large collection of knick-knacks acquired over years of flea markets and thrift shops, a portable radio, its antenna searching skyward, sitting on a kitchen table with painted yellow legs and a formica tabletop made to look (unconvincingly) like wood.

I had never seen the wedding album before, had not known it existed. I had come here to decide for my mother which of her belongings should accompany her to the elder foster home, what to donate to charity, and what to throw into the outside dumpster.

The nearly fifty-year-old album had acquired a brown stain along the binding somewhere in its history – spilled coffee? Minor flooding? The cover still proclaimed in gold script, A Record of Our Wedding. Opening it, I found instead color snapshots of unsmiling adults on Funny Hat Day or receiving a visit from Santa. Mom’s captions in red block letters transformed “Photographs of the Bride” into BOWLING BANQUET. Even the pages for the family tree had given way to BEACH TRIP.

Driven by her longest-lived companion, severe mental illness, my mother had tried to conceal any hints of a wedding album. The disease had taken charge, making her its mere accomplice. She taped SCENIC POSTCARDS of places close to home in the inside cover. In annoyance, I started removing them carefully, trying not to rip the old pages. But I kept one. On the copyright page of the album, dated 1947, she had placed an old black-and-white postcard of the Redwood Highway. It wasn’t clear whether she had inserted this picture recently, or shortly after the wedding. Maybe the picture depicted their honeymoon destination. The postcard came with a pre-printed caption, the only one not written by my mother: “Mid-day Enchantment.” In it, tall, straight redwoods reach well beyond the photo’s upper edge. Rays of sunlight hurl themselves down to the road, the glare becoming visible matter and obscuring the hearts of the giant trees.

She filled many of the rest of the pages with pictures of people and events devoid of white taffeta, black tuxedoes, or brightly colored streamers. No wedding shots here, keep moving. The photos and their captions buried original headings like “Good wishes and felicitations.” What did her wedding invitations look like? Did she have a bridal shower? Which of her girlfriends attended? That page now housed only PORTLAND ZOO.

The people in the photos were always the same. A small group, they had in common this one thing: they had been in a psychiatric facility – some once, others many times. They each had an illness that required them to take heavy-duty medications. Antipsychotics, antidepressants, serotonin reuptake inhibitors, all kinds of anti-this and inhibitor that. Plenty of lithium.

Looking through an old book on diseases translated from the Latin, I come to a chapter titled simply “Mania.” The language in this chapter today might be associated with bipolar and schizoaffective disorders. One sentence catches my eye. I have seen this sentence before. I am specifically seeking its origination in this book. Use should also be made of natural waters, such as alkaline springs, particularly those free from any pungent odor which might injure the membranes of the brain. This sentence has been quoted in numerous articles and book excerpts about the history of lithium. The original dates from second-century Rome and a Greek physician there by the name of Soranus.

Once I locate this passage in the context of Soranus’s chapter on what he called mania, I feel as though perhaps I have at last uncovered a missing link between my childhood spent with a schizoaffective mother and a larger history. I think back on the shelf of a narrow kitchen cabinet reserved for prescription bottles in opaque white or transparent rusty orange. I prided myself on knowing by heart the names of three drugs my mother took several times a day: Mellaril, Pamelor, lithium. I had no idea our household participated in a medical tradition dating back almost two millennia.

I am wrong about the connection between Soranus and lithium, of course. Neither Soranus nor anyone of his era identified lithium as such. Even his reference to alkaline waters is misrepresented. Soranus also suggested bathing in or drinking water from such springs to help headaches, earaches, toothaches, jaundice, arthritis, epilepsy, paralysis, malnutrition, and obesity. Besides, the lithium content in many mineral springs is much too low to have therapeutic value for anything. Still, so many scholars have hinted at Soranus as the indirect ur-father of lithium that I cannot shake my attachment to him. He describes mental illness so well that one can easily see Soranus as not only gifted, eschewing dogma for carefully considered treatments, but also compassionate toward the mentally ill. I cannot help but like him.

One of several physician sects in Rome, the Stoics, described mental illness as “an empty twitching of the soul.” My soul twitches occasionally with an emptiness I can neither define nor salve. My empty twitching feels not like mental illness so much as the chasm across which desire and human limitations stretch toward one another but cannot quite touch. The movement into mental illness must be a matter of degree. Living with my mother it seemed more as though something in her mind, not her soul, experienced twitchings while reaching for an unknowable reality. Underneath the symptoms lay a soul that felt far from me but also far from empty. My mother may not have read to me or hugged me much or helped me with my homework, but each night she tucked me into bed, reciting, “Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite,” and then she would kiss me on the cheek. Every night, until I reached adolescence.

Soranus disagreed with the Stoics. He said of mania, “the disease defiles the patient.” The disease. Soranus treated mental illness as an affliction with an organic foundation rather than a superstitious one. “Those who imagine that the disease is chiefly an affection of the soul and only secondarily of the body,” he said, “are mistaken.” This in a time when others thought effective treatments for mental illness included forcing patients to ingest mind-numbing drugs, beating them with sticks, locking them into windowless rooms, binding them, starving them, bleeding them, and torturing them, procedures that Soranus called “futile and haphazard.” If I had lived in ancient Rome and suffered from mental illness, I would have sought out Soranus and run like hell from just about anyone else calling themselves a physician. He charged those other doctors with being “madmen themselves instead of physicians of madmen.”

Today we defer to a tome called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, or the DSM-IV. Hundreds of separate diagnoses have been named, categorized and codified, from schizoaffective disorder to depression to caffeine addiction. Soranus kept it simple. To him, mental illness meant that patients thought they were something they were not: a sparrow. An earthen vessel. A rooster. A stalk of grain. A brick. A baby. A god.

My mother never acted like a stalk of grain. I would not have known an earthen vessel if she had mimicked one to perfection. She did, however, provide a constant source of confusion. She expressed pride at my adolescent accomplishments such as acceptance into the high school jazz choir. But though I made good grades she ranted about how I would end up a dropout like my older sister, who had long since grown and gone. My mother often worried that a strange man was following the two of us as we walked home from the grocery store or library or movie theater. The mere sight of a strange man approaching would force her hand out to grab mine and pull me along as we crossed the street. Yet she might smile at the same man had she met him at church or a single parents’ outing, practically fluttering her eyelashes and then looking away like a demure teenager with a crush. She was a giggling schoolgirl one moment, a paranoid recluse the next. Like an alcoholic, her reactions could never be predicted – yet she never drank a drop. Soranus summarizes what I witnessed as if he had grown up in the same household: “When mania lays hold of the mind, it manifests itself now in anger, now in merriment, now in sadness or futility, and now, as some relate, in an overpowering fear of things which are quite harmless.” He serves as my witness, my invisible ancient sibling. In a way, then, my history begins with this Greek in second-century Rome.

I think of schizoaffective disorder, to put it simplistically, as bipolar meets schizophrenia. With schizoaffective disorder, the continuum of moods runs from grandiose mania to suicidal depression, but with the added element of delusions and hallucinations. Contrary to popular myth, schizoaffective disorder and schizophrenia are not the same as multiple personality disorder. Disorganized speech and behavior can show up as symptoms, however, which may be how the old joke, “I’m schizophrenic and so am I,” came into existence.

I looked at the photos in my mother’s wedding album and remembered the drop-in center and some of the mentally ill clientele I had met there as a child. Their faces blurred together, mouths medicated into a uniform inexpressiveness. Thrift shop clothes with fraying threads. Social unease, either too boisterous or too timid. In other words, they all resembled my mother. After release from the hospital, they had to try to make a life for themselves. Many could not hold regular jobs, even with the help of the medication. They would end up on public assistance if they were lucky. The drop-in center was like a recreation facility for the mentally ill. It served as their social outlet, and for many it was the only such contact they had. They weren’t dangerous, unlike another popular myth, but it didn’t matter: They scared people. They scared me.

They came to the drop-in center, had Halloween parties and Thanksgiving dinner there, and occasionally ventured out on field trips, chaperoned like schoolchildren. Where were those people now? Some might be dead. Others, living out their lives in an institution. Or on the street. Maybe a lucky few remained in their own apartment, living independently.

Once they emerged from the doors of the center, they had to try their best to “pass,” to appear normal and avoid another bout in the stark, sterile state hospital. Many failed. I know your secret, I thought as I scanned the photos. These alien color snapshots filled the pages of my parents’ wedding album like bandages that didn’t help heal an injury so much as remind you of its existence. What originally filled these pages? Like so much of my mother’s history, the album remained infuriatingly silent.

Nearly two decades after José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva’s visit to Utö, another scientist, this one a Swede closer to home, goes rock-hounding there and picks up some of the petalite substance. He decides to enlist help with its identification, thus ensuring that he will also receive little to no credit. Chunks of the stuff find their way to France, England, and of course a lab in Sweden, where they arrive in the hands and equipment of one Baron Jons Jacob Berzelius and his lab assistant.

Berzelius, approaching 40, looks like what I’d expect of an early nineteenth-century baron: somewhat heavy, with dark, wavy hair and sideburns like outstretched tendrils. He has a notable cleft in his chin. Many of the elements later placed into the Periodic Table will carry the symbols given them by Berzelius. The baron will, by the time I come across his name nearly 200 years after his first encounter with lithium, have long been considered “one of the founding fathers of modern chemistry.” Although he started out in medicine, he has had a leaning toward chemistry from the beginning. His thesis explored the use of electric shock as a treatment for disease.

Johan August Arfwedson is only in his mid-twenties, but he will become the one who finally takes the lion’s share of the glory for lithium’s discovery, even receiving an award from the Swedish Academy of Sciences. But here, tonight, in this laboratory, he and the Baron hunch together over their tubes and samples, frowning in consternation. They are especially careful not to rub their tired eyes, which are already red, for the substances they work with are irritants. They may even be toxic.

So close, so close. They are ninety-six percent of the way to breaking the code of this rock. It is, it turns out, a compound: silica, alumina, and… wait. What is this leftover residue? A white grainy powder, odorless, soluble in water and about half as dense, which they have never seen before. The new compound they name lithion, Greek for “stone.” If only Soranus, the Greek physician, could stand with them here at the naming, to see the makeup of what he always suspected lived in those healing waters.

Lithium, it turns out, is a metal. A metal that floats. And now another scientist enters the scene, a Brit named Humphry Davy. He gets to be the first to isolate the metal, gets to see it for the burst of an instant. By using a new process, electrolysis, Davy “separated globules of pure metal,” states one biographer. Davy calls it a glorious “flashing and crackling.” Instant enlightenment. A brilliant moment in the history of psychiatry. It is often overlooked in Davy’s listed accomplishments. He discovered nitrous oxide, what we call laughing gas. He invented a safe-burning lamp for miner’s helmets. He is credited with isolating potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium, and barium. Lithium rarely shows up in synopses of Davy’s (later Sir Davy’s) career. Five different men helped bring lithium to light, but only one is commonly mentioned in connection with the element’s discovery. It is as though lithium itself forms the holes in knowledge, in history.

The wedding album could never be reconstructed, yet I could not help peeling the tape from the edges of the pictures and lifting them away to see if some hints might remain about my mother’s pre-illness self. She had recorded on the gifts page, among other traditional wedding presents, four toasters and two sets of towels (red). On the guest page, she had written checkmarks (either one or two) next to each name. At the top of the page she had taken a tally:

“33relative (18)”
“3friend (25)”

Its meaning was lost on me, but maybe for her it represented a kind of map legend conveying the extent of her reach in the world. Studying the list and the twenty-five marked as friends, I could not remember ever meeting a single one. Many of the family members I had never met or did not recall. People who had steered clear for a long time. Her brother-in-law Dave, a decade older, wrote, “Best of luck kids.”

The word stopped me. Kids. Hard to imagine. Not for the youth so much as for the image of two eager newlyweds (not my parents, surely) envisioning a rosy forever ahead of them. Uncle Raymond, then a teenager, had signed his name and in parentheses written, “your brother,” a joke, as if she might forget who he was. The sidenote turned into a prophecy of sorts. I could count on one hand the number of visits with Uncle Raymond and his family while I was growing up. But it seemed he had done the forgetting, not her.

A skinny man hunkers over a hidden, static-filled radio, checking over his shoulder every few seconds. He memorizes snippets of news he will later recite back to his fellow prisoners of war. It is 1945, and he has been in Changi Camp for three years now. He must be discreet about the radio’s use. Australian John Cade, thirty-three years old, has made this a part of his nightly routine, except when his Japanese captors hover too close for even his refined stealth to escape detection. If he is caught, it might mean no food for several days. Or worse.

His two boys would now be approaching school age. It will be another six months before his captors free him to go home and get re-acquainted with his sons. No easy task after so much time away. By the time he is released he will weigh less than 90 pounds. For the moment, he spends his time acting as surreptitious news anchor, as well as close but discreet observer of his peers.

If anyone has our sympathy for exhibiting signs of mental illness, it is prisoners of war. John Cade watches his fellow captives, their outbursts and withdrawals and despair, as one year turns into two and then stretches into three. He has good reason for paying attention to their symptoms. Before the war he worked as a psychiatrist at a mental hospital. His father, too, spent twenty-five years working in mental hospitals, so Cade grew up with a highly tuned awareness of mental illness. He also saw his father suffer from “war weariness” after serving in World War I. Today we might turn to the DSM-IV and call it post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sitting in that POW camp, malnourished and watching his fellow prisoners exhibit symptoms of both physical and mental afflictions, Cade, weary himself, begins to wonder about possible connections. Might there be physical causes for mental illness? He silently vows that he will find a treatment for victims of mental illness. He is especially troubled – and intrigued – by mania, the most challenging and, so far, least treatable of mental illnesses. His is not an empty promise made to God during a prayer for food or freedom. Cade makes this vow to himself, and he means it.

To call it a lab sounds ridiculous by modern-day standards. It is a pantry. In 1949, John Cade has been back home in Australia for several years. He has become a squatter of sorts in a small room of a brand-new hospital ward. The new ward remains otherwise vacant. He does have a few basic lab instruments and some jars of chemicals, lithium among them. The pantry also contains a sink and a bench. The guinea pigs he keeps at home in the back yard. His children will remember them as both pets and experimental subjects.

To think of this process as medical research one must step back to that time before ethics committees and research committees, cautious hospital boards and department heads. This research consists of the most basic of elements: a man, his makeshift laboratory, and some guinea pigs. He will say, many years later, “I was able to go my own way unhindered by advice, criticism or caution …. I don’t think it could happen these days.”

Personally ingesting a substance before trying it out on others is not unheard of; historically, it’s not even that rare. Cade doesn’t say much about his experience other than that the dosages he took “produced no discernable effect” on him. Satisfied, he decides to proceed, giving lithium to nineteen mentally ill patients. Ten have mania.

Manic patients are notoriously hard to treat. One doctor reports of a manic patient: “He did not sleep, shouted commands and abuse, stripped, kicked the door … and banged the bed on the floor.” Cade describes his patients, pre-lithium, with words like noisy, irritable, elated, euphoric, grandiose, aggressive, violent. The first person ever to receive lithium as a treatment for mania is a 51-year-old man who will forever be known to the world only as “W.B.” Cade refers to him as “restless, dirty, destructive, mischievous and interfering.” Similar words are often used to describe homeless people, criminals, and people we just don’t like. Cade called W.B. “the most troublesome patient in the ward.” With physical ailments, the concern is the effect of symptoms on the patient. With mental illness, it’s often about the patient’s actual or perceived effect on others. If interfering and troublesome were symptoms, there would not be enough treatment to go around.

At the same time John Cade prepared to inject mentally ill patients with lithium, another man, an American, was adjusting to life back home after the war in a more mundane way. William stood just under six feet tall, was naturally thin, and had a winning smile and a prankster’s sense of humor. He played guitar and the piano. He even composed music.

A few years after his return to Oregon, he met Catherine. She loved music, loved to laugh, and fell in love with him. While an Australian doctor measured doses and stayed up late nights writing of results, my mother and father stayed busy planning a wedding.

Not all of the wedding album’s substitute snapshots consisted of drop-in center clients. One photo had the bright red caption, FLOWERS ON FENCE IN FRONT OF CATHOLIC CHURCH FIRE. Neither my mother nor father was Catholic. They had been married in a Protestant Church in another city, seventy-five miles north. The picture was not well focused and had the look of a vacation shot, the kind you stare at when you return home, wondering why it failed to convey the grandeur and beauty of a place you had thought so easy to capture within a tiny frame. The photo and caption, placed into the wedding album, blazed her mental illness, yet something else lay hidden there. The execution may have been flawed, the theme clichéd, the caption long-winded to the point of nonsensical. The artistic impulse, however, now there was something worth keeping.

The album commingled with twenty-year-old phone bills, yellowed newspaper accounts of celebrities, letters from her mother in California, letters from me in Alaska, and piles of old photographs. These photos were different; they actually bore a connection to her life rather than merely to her illness. In one, she sits in a canoe, laughing as she either rows or merely pretends, it’s hard to tell which. Her brother, Raymond, nine or so, sits behind her, grinning. In another, she and a friend mug for the camera from a park bench in Portland, sometime in the late 1940s judging by their swept-up hairstyles and the round-ended cars parked on the street behind them.

These photos insist my mother was more than her illness. More than her obsessive need to keep every scrap of paper that had come her way for decades. Maybe more than her mismatched plates and drinking glasses from the thrift store, her clashing trinkets, the postcard pictures, cut out from magazines and taped to her apartment walls, of places she had never visited and never would.

Was my mother born with the fate of schizoaffective disorder? Or did the events of her past drive her over a cliff edge nobody else could see coming? I had heard rumors.

While they were alive, the people who knew the details – Grandma Jessie, Grandpa Ralph, Aunt Elaine, and my mother – never talked about it. I heard about it first during a visit with my brother when I was a teenager. The way I first heard it, the story went that my mother and Elaine were babysitting their little brother. He went exploring in the world of concoctions in pretty bottles. Coming upon a container of liquid laxative, he decided in that toddler logic to drink. A consensus somehow passed down the family grapevine that my mother and aunt would take the blame for not keeping a closer eye on him. Another brother was born a couple of years later. Again my mother and Elaine were put in charge, and again the brother found his way to a toxic substance – bleach, or maybe he was the laxative fatality.

I couldn’t accept such meager details, and wrote to a great-aunt who had become the meticulous keeper of the family tree, whose recorded branches reached back to a time before the American Revolution. I learned the dead boys’ names for the first time: James and Bruce, would-be uncles. They were real. They had indeed both died as young children. But the dates carved into our tree created more questions, not answers. James died in 1931 at age two; that much lined up. But my mother and aunt would have been five and seven, respectively, when he died.

In the Great Depression, perhaps there was no money to pay a babysitter. But seven and five weren’t old enough to look after a two-year-old. Maybe my grandparents were away looking for work. Or trying to scrounge enough money to eat that night. No records exist either to spread or diminish the blame. Was it normal during the Depression to leave very young children in charge of toddlers? Or did it, even under these desperate circumstances, constitute neglect? It doesn’t matter now. Blame is blame, and it stuck.

People didn’t have child-safety locks during the Depression era. They didn’t have scowling-face stickers to place on containers of dangerous substances. They didn’t necessarily store medicines and cleaning products up high, out of the reach of curious, chubby fingers. No pictures of James would survive, no indications of his existence except on the family tree. Only a hand-scrawled line on a piece of paper: James, born 9 June 1929 in Boise, Idaho. Died 13 August 1931 in Salem, Oregon.

Four years later, Catherine would have been nine, Elaine eleven. Bruce, two years old, imitated the brother he never knew and drank. Really? I ask. I know that after the second death, my grandfather showed signs of depression. My grandparents divorced, a rarity in those times. What part of the story has never surfaced? There are no photos of Bruce, either.

My mother’s relics could not tell me the full story of her childhood. They could not fill in the journey of her adult life before schizoaffective disorder. She herself could not offer reliable reminiscences. Other family members offered only snippets, which I have had to fatten up with imagination:

She transforms from a somewhat introverted wife and mother into a highly reactive, volatile nervous wreck. Who knows what will set her off? Maybe the trains that slice through town, disrupting traffic and now her brain’s impulses.

My father works for the railroad. He is out of town overnight as usual. One moment the two children sit quietly watching Ed Sullivan or maybe Bugs Bunny; the next, my mother is hustling them toward the basement, her voice rising in both volume and pitch like the Doppler of an approaching locomotive. The train is coming, we have to hide! They look at her utterly confused but do not move. Now she is screaming at them that they will die if they don’t get out of the way of THE TRAIN, it will KILL THEM unless they move NOW. So the three of them scramble downstairs and wait, backed into a corner. Nothing happens of course. But just try telling that to her. She convinces herself, and them to some extent, that they have narrowly averted disaster.

And this: Several years before I was born, my mother decided on a whim to take my brother, ten-year-old Walter, on a long weekend without bothering to mention the trip to my father or sister or anyone else. She whisked her baffled son off for a whirlwind trip from their dreary town to more alluring (for the moment) Victoria, Canada. Spontaneity would rule the day! Until, that is, she found herself gazing over the rail of the ferry and coming to, in a sense. Only a few dollars remained in her purse. Her son peered up at her for a hint of the mom who came to his baseball games and school plays. One of the last remaining glimpses that he would ever see of that mom reassured him that yes, they could go home now.

And this: My father calls his two children into the living room. The dark fake wood paneling always seemed cozy, but now its falseness closes in. He feels it confining him, closing him off from the world of the real and the options that world offers. He has no idea how to tell his son and daughter what has happened. They probably won’t grasp its full impact. He will not let them see the slow panic he feels rising up, like the Greeks’ black bile, in his throat. Will the children understand a sickness of the mind?

Walter and Diane sit on the faded couch and look worried. They think they’re in trouble (Diane: again), but for what, they cannot fathom. My father decides to get right to it: “Your mother has gone on a spending binge,” he tells them. “We have three cents left in the bank.”

That’s it? That’s the big news? Diane thinks. She knows this isn’t exactly great but feels mostly relief that for once Dad is upset with someone other than her.

Walter is the younger of the two. Still, he understands the situation much more clearly. It’s not the money, although things will be tight for awhile; Dad has a decent job. Money is actually the least of their problems. It’s the strangeness of his mother’s most recent chaos that unsettles his stomach. She’s been so moody and unpredictable and strange, and now this. On some level, Walter senses his family unraveling. “Why?” he asks, but the question has nothing to do with a mere spending spree.

My father maintains an even tone. This is unusual for him, a man prone to going off at the slightest inconvenience. “Your mother is sick,” he manages. At this early stage of my mother’s decline, he knows next to nothing about how the mind works or how it sometimes shorts out and wreaks havoc. He will maintain this new calm façade through many more such episodes. My mother’s illness has started its gradual consumption of his once-fiery temper. By the time I am born, my mother’s illness has won over the both of them. I will grow up knowing a much more subdued man than did my siblings.

When Walter learned of my mother’s third pregnancy, he felt only dread. He didn’t fear his own displacement in this increasingly bizarre family. In fact, he distanced himself from my mother more and more, and distinguished his behavior from that of my wayward and downward spiraling sister. He immersed himself in baseball, theater, basketball, chorus, any extracurricular group activity that would create for him another type of family and delay the need to return home. No, his trepidation came from knowing that of the many things this family needed, another child was not one of them.

There should have been a warning label: Manic and schizophrenic episodes do not mix well with a new baby. The divorce was probably inevitable by then anyway; my mother left before my third birthday and took me with her. She took the rock, albeit a soft one, of our family and sliced us away from it.

In my mother’s empty apartment, the last place where she lived more or less independently, I tossed knick-knacks into a box for charity and then started packing up the few actual wall hangings that were not magazine pages. Decades earlier, my mother had embroidered a large sampler: a bouquet of red, yellow, and lavender tulips. The cross-stitch bouquet not only offered an image of stability with its perpetual blooms, it also acted as a settling presence, accompanying us from trailer to residential hotel to apartment. It was one of the few visible constants in our new nomadic life. Now, certain petals had faded while others remained vibrant. I removed these blossoms from their cheap frame as if at any moment the petals might flutter off. I rolled up the yellowing fabric and gently set it next to the wedding album.

I also held onto a pair of watercolors depicting an anonymous pair of ballet dancers in a pas de deux, holding position for decades. The dancers, too, had occupied every space my mother and I had inhabited. They felt in some ways more like family than did my father, or my two much older siblings who had not joined my mother and I in our new venture as a sovereign family unit. One of the watercolors had a blackened corner from a long-ago house fire before my memories began. But she had kept both paintings. They remained as the only surviving memento of my parents’ wedding other than the ruined album. The dancers looked almost lost to their deep gray-blue background, as if swirling into a permanent fog.

My mother loved ballet. She had enrolled my older sister in lessons, which hadn’t worked out. Much later she tried to place me in a ballet class as well. I was four; I lasted one day. The teacher told my mother, “Try bringing her back in another year.” That extra year, as it turned out, changed everything. I never went back.

Even with all of her pushing and shoving my sister and me toward dance, I had no idea of the extent of my mother’s love for the art form until after her death. When my mother died at age 71, my grandmother was still alive. She was 94 years old. She had already lost three of her five children, including her eldest daughter. Yet when Uncle Raymond, her last surviving child, informed her of her younger daughter’s death, she gasped, “Oh! My little ballerina!”

How could I let those paintings, old and fading and partially burnt, go? They were among the few possessions my mother had kept without purposely altering their original identity. By keeping them I might be able to hold onto a small connection to the person she was before the illness took shape and enveloped her.

I imagine being able to get so close to the paintings of the dancers that I can see the pixels of their eyes, their hair, the cells of their skin. I want to see the droplets of their thoughts as they were being painted, see through their eyes onto the living room of my parents’ home when they were first married and happy. The ballet dancers were there through it all.

Sometimes we try to get too close a look. We lose focus even as we zoom in. I step back and try to take in the whole scene. A single drop of paint cannot tell the whole of the story, not the artist’s intention and not the unintended outcome.

If my mother had contracted cancer or a brain tumor, she would have remained the whole person, Catherine, with an illness, and would have received an outpouring of empathy. The disease would take the blame. With mental illness, she came to be perceived by many in our family as the one to blame. We lost focus as we made of her a distorted close-up, one corner of paint called mental illness. The corner was the thing. She became an outcast almost immediately upon her first hospitalization, in her mid-thirties. The only family members who continued to regularly correspond and refused to engage in demeaning gossip about her were her sister, who also suffered from mental illness, and her mother. Most of us could not see the woman for the disease. No, I take that back. We could have. We refused.

Not long after my mother died of kidney failure, I came across a mention of lithium, a drug she had taken for years. That was it. That became my new quest: not to know my mother directly, impossible through the thick fog of her illness as well as my years-long resistance of her, but to know a drug that had been as present in our home as the family-size blocks of government cheese and butter.

Without my ever taking it, lithium provided me with a distraction after my mother’s death. Here was a substance far removed and yet somehow an integral part of me. Lithium also offered something tangible and objective. A recorded, unalterable history. Recognized scholars in psychiatry and medicine. Words and statistics on paper. When you have a history that is at best muddled and at worst impenetrable, you might just grasp at anything that provides some sense of logic no matter how tangential.

Lithium sits near the top of the periodic table, element number three, a metal that weighs less than every other element except helium and hydrogen, both gases. Here is an alkali metal that seems to be everywhere. It is in our flashlight batteries. If we were to look around the house, we’d also find lithium in our air purifier and the dehumidifier. It lurks in that overpriced ceramic cookie jar, and in our tires. And in the ubiquitous plastic that we so easily toss into the garbage when its useful life is over.

It is fundamental. There is more lithium in the crust of the earth than there is lead or zinc. Huge amounts of lithium can be found in various spots around the globe: North Carolina, Canada, Russia, the Congo, Sweden. Tiny bits of it lie in such unexpected sources as seaweed, sugar cane and tobacco. Traces of lithium exist in lakes and springs, in the earth, the ocean, the spectrum of the sun, and – yes – even the human body. Some bodies need more than the mere trace that naturally resides within. They need a boost, or rather an anti-boost. These are the people who suffer from manic episodes, either alone or as part of bipolar disorder or, like my mother, schizoaffective disorder.

Lithium is easy to cut. A simple knife will do it. As soon as it is exposed to air its shiny surface tarnishes and dulls. It only remains unmarred as long as it can stay closed in on itself. The reason has to do with the element’s outermost shell; with only one electron, lithium is so close to being complete that it cannot help but reach out to anything that presents itself from the outside, even if such spontaneity causes permanent damage. Lithium is so highly reactive that it also ends up in hydrogen bombs and nuclear reactors. One scholar identifies the difficulty of “dealing with pure lithium … its tendency to combine with everything in sight…”

My mother was far from an anomaly. Schizoaffective disorder is estimated to strike about one in every two hundred people. (When I extrapolate this number, I come up with anywhere from half a million to nearly one-and-a-half million people in the United States alone. It is considered one of the more common disorders found in psychiatric hospitals.) And she was not a walking, breathing incarnation of the illness itself. My mother did not pass her illness on to me, but she handed down other traits that I could not see when I was younger and am just starting to recognize as parts of her. Facets of a painting I am allowing myself to view in its entirety. A love of books and new knowledge. Empathy for the underdog. A quirky sense of humor. She gave me the best gift possible under the circumstances: selective heredity that excluded her disease.

Schizoaffective disorder does not appear because an individual lacks intelligence or fortitude, or because someone simply refuses to “buck up.” There is chemistry involved here, and I wish I could tell you exactly what it was. But nobody can yet. If we knew that much, we might finally prevent or cure the disease instead of merely allaying it with lithium and other drugs. For now, we fight brain chemistry with lab chemistry.

Even the symptoms of schizoaffective disorder are often contradictory to the extreme, making diagnosis difficult. Imagine seeing only one episode, much like the blind men and the elephant who think the lone section they touch defines the whole. Here, a patch of euphoria. There, a smooth spot of depression. The raised blemishes of grandiose notions, suicidal tendencies, hallucinations. Paranoia.

I imagine the paranoid delusions are the worst. Someone or something is out to harm the afflicted person. Yet everyone else in a room can see only what’s real. They can talk reason to a schizoaffective person all night long and it will affect nothing. The strange man with a knife lurks just outside the window – on the third floor where no landing exists. Or Satan has taken human form and has come for them. Maybe he has chosen the body of a friend, or a neighbor.

A common sentiment in my family: It’s in the past. Why can’t you just leave it behind? To a large degree they are right. Even so, a little of my mother’s mental illness continues to travel with me on my own life journey. It jolts me – an adrenaline rush of embarrassment – when I say or do something socially inept. Was that a sign? It endures in the way I question every unusual passing thought, wondering whether it was normal or not. It persists in my resistance to medications of any type, because to me they represent human frailty. A headache must plummet to migraine before I will consider swallowing a pill. Lithium or aspirin, drugs equal weakness. I am forever trying and failing to push present back into past, where people tell me it belongs.

Our room is dark. The two of us have been living for several months in a single room in this residential hotel some might call a flophouse. Mother and me against the universe. The visit from a neighbor tonight started off well enough – the woman often baby-sits me, and they have always gotten along well. Things have taken a turn for the worse.

The four of us stand like game pieces: my mother and the neighbor, like two countries facing off; a five-year-old mediator standing between them; and the disembodied voice that hovers and whispers into only my mother’s hypersensitive ear. She pulls me toward her. Am I a child she must save, or a flotation device grabbed to prevent her from going under?

You’re the devil get away from me get away.

Me: Tugging at my mother’s arm. Trying to reassure her. Thinking she is just momentarily confused.

Catherine, it’s me. The neighbor lady. My ally.

No, you’re the devil here to kill me, don’t get any closer.

I am the world’s youngest negotiator. I am JFK during the Bay of Pigs. Or the prophecy of the Manhattan Project. Everything – the world – depends on my next move. An unseen force threatens a chemical reaction that will burn us all.

But I don’t get to save the world. The militia has been called. A uniform appears, and then a second and a third. The uniforms are the dark blue of a lightless night, not quite pitch black but yearning to be. One of them scoops me up and carries me down the stairs of the old residential hotel as if I am a bundle of firewood. Now I too am charred. I am, in this instant, taking my rightful place alongside the other members of my family, all of us burning in our own way.

In his book Listening to Prozac, Peter Kramer discusses the theory that “scars are not, or not only, in cognitive memory …. the scar consists of changed anatomy and chemistry within the brain.” The scars of her little brothers’ deaths changed my mother’s chemistry so much that she could never again see anything clearly.

The night I first witnessed, up close, my mother’s mental illness became the nucleus around which my own brain chemistry reshaped itself and from which everything else emerged. From this one event came the need to try and fit the pieces of my mother back together. I know it is destined to fail. But my synapses continue reaching, grasping for elements with which to bond, and now they have found lithium. It is the first time something has reached back in return, a grasping that appears to me as a sort of welcoming.

My mother’s descent into mental illness took place in a year that fell somewhere between psychiatrists’ unofficially treating their patients with lithium and its approval by the FDA. The doctors just could not wait. I don’t know when in that gap my mother’s psychiatrist decided to put her on the drug. Here’s what I do know:

While I sat in a police station reciting my father’s telephone number and address, officers drove my mother to the state hospital. They restrained her with leather straps around her wrists and ankles. For her protection. When she arrived there, the electroshock therapy was also for her own good. Imagining each convulsion, I feel a small piece of me reshaping itself, or maybe being cut away, shining briefly but quickly returning to my more natural, tarnished exterior.

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About Karen Benning

Bio to come.

One Comment

  1. Gillian Zylka
    Posted March 2009 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    It has been a long journey, from there to where I am now.
    I was diagnosed as having a bi-polar affective disorder, when I was just sixteen. It defined who I was unfortunately; a person with an undeserved mental illness.
    My initial breakdown was met with rejection and judgment from those who least understood it, my peers. The stigma of mental illness followed me for a long time, through childbirth, postpartum depressions, psychosis, and a few hospitalizations during my twenties. It did not make for a lot of confidence or great self esteem. I was certain that I was responsible for my own demise.
    In my thirties came treatment, in the form of a renowned clinic, with great professional mental healthcare. I was able to understand that my illness was a chemical imbalance, that I was in no way responsible for and that taking medication was just like treating any other medical illness. I was the first patient to be treated with a drug still in research stages. Until then, no other medication had worked for me; I had been isolated, unable to establish a reliable social network. Loneliness was my best friend.
    However, the new drug opened up a whole new world for me, one of clear headedness, stable moods; a life I formed with friendships and activities such as running, and writing. I was able to undertake a demanding career and have faith in God. I raised my three sons with love, care and attention, and my marriage flourished. When trials presented themselves, I prevailed with inner resources that I was able to develop with assurance and rely on. With help from professionals and my faith, I have triumphed over my illness.
    I have embarked on a writing career in my late forties that is taking me on a quest I had no idea I would ever go on. My illness no longer defines who I am and what I am capable of doing. I know I am an intelligent, faithful, caring person; a fine friend, great mother and loving wife capable of achieving good and wonderful things. It is gratifying to share my experience with other women and to know that the accrued understanding of my illness and wisdom achieved may be of benefit to others.

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