How I got manic depression

The chain of bad luck, the family curse, began generations before I was born. Ours is a dynasty washed in suffering, inexplicable sadness, insanity, suicide, and unnamed misery. If one were to draw my family tree, it would be a hangman’s tree, the symbol of final verdicts, not amenable to appeal. In the shadow portrait of the tree there would be, between branches, spectral wispy figures: ghosts. In the wind, snatches of colorful fabric would flutter, torn from the clothing of some sad soul or another during his last fall. Some of them were brilliant, mostly in the arts, but none were able to find peace. Their lives were as restless as their deaths, damaged on every front. Not one of them knew the name of his suffering.

I was born at the end of the 1970s, before the genetic revolution, when questions of nature versus nurture still were in the fields of philosophy, or religion, or sociology. “Bad blood,” said the neighbors, but it was an expression, not a scientific statement.

I was the first-born daughter to the village’s “crazy family,” and the only reality I knew was the capricious changes in moods that seemingly blew in through the windows of our house, sweeping up with them my father and bringing in attacks of rage, of interminable sadness. Without the walls, I felt the eyes of the suburb upon us, waiting to see the next incident that would provide them with gossip for the coming week. Perhaps my father would sob in a bar, or my grandmother would shoot out the tires of someone who yelled at her in the street. And between them, I stood: the child prodigy at school, the genius, the girl who could do anything, afraid to ever be angry or disagree, afraid to show anything that could be construed as reflecting the fiery temper in her blood.

Childhood was spent in the shadow of that wild beast, the primitive nightmare monster that ceaselessly stalked my family, breathing hotly down our backs, generation after generation. I promised myself one thing; a singular, obsessive, unwavering vision guided me: I would not be like them when I grew up.

They flew into rages for no reason? I would never get mad. They got into trouble at work? I would be the best student ever. They were weird artists who dove deep into themselves to bring back strange, dark creations, full of wicked humor? I would give up writing and choose the most conservative, stable, boring, serious, and above all, respectable career that I could. To have a dignified life, to behave responsibly, was all I ever wanted. While the monster chased after me, I chased an image of what I saw as salvation with no less tenacity.

After my early successes, nothing seemed impossible. I could break the hand of fate itself. Not everything was preordained in those naive days. If I had known the name of the demon then, however, maybe I would have identified this “can do anything” attitude, the fanatic energy in which I threw myself into everything, the fiery stubbornness, not as proof that I would manage to escape, but rather as what they really were: signs that the demon had already cast its eye on me. Bad omens.

Because I didn’t know the name of the demon or its nature, I didn’t know that it was coming for me. I went through life like the girl through the fairy-tale woods, deaf to the snarls of the monster at my back, blind to his shining white teeth, not through bravery but rather through the firm belief in her own invincibility, granted by her tremendous force of will. I went out into the world convinced that I could conquer any challenge, bend anything to my own will. For a while, the universe agreed with me, and put up no wall I couldn’t break through, no mountain insurmountable. Sooner or later, I got everything I ever wanted – or at least everything that depended on my will and work.

But the beast was always there on the horizon, not impressed by my bravado. When I was still tenderly young, I started to storm from within. The tectonic plates of my inner geography began to shift around my boiling core. From year to year, all the while keeping up outside appearances, I became more and more aware that the beast had tasted my blood, that he was already in full pursuit.

When it got close enough for me to see its fangs, I did the one thing that I could with a demon breathing down my back: I ran. In shock and fear, I fled. By then, I knew that I couldn’t save my family, that that particular success, despite being deeply desired, was beyond me. The monster had its claws too deep in their flesh and lives, even before I was born. I spread wings of terror and flew. I hid in jungles that spoke in strange languages, hoping the demon would be confused. I wandered lost in the comforting desert. I crossed continents and roiling sea like a child stuck in a dream in which a primordial creature chases and chases and chases, unbound by the laws of physics, crashing after her through walls and over mountains. I fled, my heart in my throat.

The central theme of my youth was fleeing. I didn’t know that by the time I started to run, it was already too late.

But I did manage to escape for a few good years. Any time I felt the uneasiness, the inner violence, begin to well up, I tore up roots and ran again. Like any journey with no destination, my flight brought me unexpected treasures on the way: the poetry of Ruben Dario, the chance to develop my ability to adapt to any situation, adventure, bravery, and even this city I love. But I still didn’t know the nature of my pursuer. I did not know that it was already with me, in my genes, every step of the way. It had known how to find me since before I was born.

* * *

I tried so hard to run from them, to be saner than them, to be better than them – and I loathe those judgmental expressions for what they express about me, that deep down I thought myself better than them. But it is the ugly truth. Hubris will always lead to downfall. Always.

Naturally, the genetics did catch up in the end. Today, after my long, failed odyssey, I find myself alone, at the end of a dead-end street. I have no other option than to turn around, breathe deep, and try to live with my inheritance, the monster that lives in my mind. For the first time, the unstoppable girl, who could find a solution to any problem, who could do the impossible, cannot find her way out. In the marrow of my bones, I knew this was how it would end. I think I knew before I even started running. Now, all that remains for me to do is to surrender to what was decided before I came into the world. Like a wounded animal, all that remains for me is the instinctual desire to retreat, to go to a secluded corner, head down in defeat and mourning, and lick my wounds in secret, ashamed at my own weakness.

Despite this, I torture myself in the early sleepless hours of the morning, seeking my fatal mistake. It is hard to believe that I am totally innocent in the story. What could I have done differently? When should I have started running? When I was 14, it was already too late. At ten? Maybe that would have been early enough, but at that age, the monster was something wholly external, something that lived with my family. I didn’t know it was coming for me, that I was marked. When was that magic moment I missed, when I could have identified it, but still gotten out in time?

Or, as my hindsight torture continues, maybe I ran to the wrong place. Maybe I should have run west instead of east, to the sun-drenched islands in the South Pacific. Plenty of demon-chased people of all kinds have found a measure of sanctuary there. Perhaps demons don’t thrive in certain latitudes.

Or maybe the error was in running at all, trying be different. Maybe I should have just accepted the inevitability of the demon catching me, and gone into a more creative field, instead of trying to escape the demon by disguising myself in responsibility, rationality. At least in an artistic field – writing, the theater, there are many strange souls with demons in them. There, they are used to them, and know some of the enchantments and spells to calm the beasts.

Or maybe trying to escape was a bad idea. Maybe I should have fought from the beginning – diet, vitamins, exercise, sleep. Maybe I should have tried to learn more about what had happened generation after generation. Instead of calling it misery, sadness, desperation, exuberance, bad blood, demon, maybe I should have sought out its true name: manic-depression, and by knowing its name, obtained some kind of power over it, or a better weapon with which to slay the dragon, or even knowledge that would have helped me plan a better escape. But even today that is far off; I cannot say the name aloud, and when someone else says it, a wave of nausea and tremors wash over me, and a sharp desire to silence the speaker. I fear that calling its true name will somehow conjure it, call it into being. Clearly, the power of the true name is still in its hands, not mine. I am no closer to being able to wield the magic of the name than I was when I didn’t even know it. I cannot escape the feeling that if I could only remove the terrible power of the name, make it stop being able to freeze my blood, then maybe I could soften its influence over me, come to know it, and, maybe, come to some kind of peace with it living in my mind.

But the demon and I, we have no such cease-fire, and I am as tortured by it as by the words of the doctor who saw me this week, who pointed out damage to functions that I had hardly noticed, but that I cannot deny. I know that they weren’t there before, that they are now. How much of me has the monster eaten? How much more until it is satisfied? Will it leave me enough to live? To remain me? Enough to destroy my life?

And if all of that isn’t enough to keep me up at night, there is one more thing that I know deep down: that someday – and I’m not saying soon and I’m not saying that I won’t resist – but someday, this could certainly kill me. I think I have known that for a long, long time, perhaps, since before I even knew I was caught. In good moments, I am full of life and plans, and I see a long future and a million things I want to do. But it could come to pass that I won’t see any of them. I cannot predict whether it will be in the fire of mania, in my shipwreck in the middle of the Aegean sea, sunken by a storm that I entered in ecstasy, or in the silent, slowly crushing snowdrift of sadness. But the possibility, even on the days when the demon is silent, hovers over everything I do.

I wish I could go back to the child I once was, before the demon came to live inside me and broke my…my what? My sanity? My life? My will? My freedom? I want to go back in time and try again to identify the mistake, the misstep, the fatal juncture where I turned wrongly, the unidentified moment when I lost the battle. I want to know where, where, where I failed. More than anything, I want to be once again the girl who knew no boundaries, who challenged the very stars when they aligned against her, who thought she had a chance to beat her fate.

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6 Comments

  1. I’ve thought all of these things, and am in the process of accepting the illness, since fighting it and ignoring it have not allowed me to succeed. Now, I’m trying to live with it, work in a more creative field where I can take a nap mid-day if I really need to. And despite the inevitability of genetics, I am still angry at my parents for “giving” me the disease. I have, however, stopped trying to second-guess myself. I don’t have to believe there wasn’t anything I could have done better, but it doesn’t make me better, so I’ve decided to just let it go.

    Wishing you some peace through your struggles.

  2. The legacy of artists does not seem to soothe much, does it. You swing from the highest branches though… so wrenchingly talented.

  3. Thanks. I just feel shitty for so much wasted life/time…

  4. Please don’t bang you head on it: you did’nt ‘get it’ or ‘catched it’ anymore than you got your left foot or your right eye. In these years of immense medical stupidity, at least you can rest on the fact that genetics is genetics and nothing you could have done would have prevented this from happening. Living with it, that is entirely another matter…

    Good luck.

  5. how genetics creates monsters….i dunno….but it does……i live with it to……day and night

  6. watched it destroy my father…….while it vicioulsy attacked me since childhood…..now i have a daughter who i watch over with all my heart…………genetic code malfunctioning or literal monster…? both


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