In this bonus episode, Danielle Diamond shares a powerful essay, Behind Closed Doors, about an early memory of her mom, who had bipolar disorder and depression. This essay is poignant, honest, and punctuated with humor. It provides a window into the challenging role that loved ones navigate when caring for those with invisible illness, as well as the realities experienced by those who have them.
Danielle Diamond, Behind Closed Doors
When I was little my parents would say, “She’s four going on 40.” But my sophistication wasn’t born by copying Abba’s dance moves or reciting the periodic elements. I grew up fast because my mother, 29 years old, was like a child. She had all the accessories of an adult life: the high heels, the perfume, and the pillboxes; but many days she cried like a baby, for hours. I remember one particular morning; my father was wearing a suit, which meant he had a meeting because working in the music business usually required just jeans and a t-shirt. My dad was boyishly handsome, but once he knotted his tie there was a movie-star quality about him. He stood outside the bathroom door, with my mother’s favorite mug full of coffee, and spoke to her calmly and softly. “Honey, please open the door; come to sit on the deck with us and have some breakfast- it’s sunny outside.” Nothing. He knocked again, and I saw his face fall in frustration.
In between sobs, her rifling through drawers was barely audible, but he knew what she was doing. He pounded furiously on the door. The slamming of drawers was the sound of her scavenging for pills, a sound that, on occasion, was an overture to an ambulance roaring in the driveway. He noticed me in the hall and stopped pounding. “Dani, go downstairs and watch TV, I’ll be there in a minute.” I didn’t feel like watching TV. After all, there was a real-live soap opera with no commercial breaks right before my eyes. So I walked down the hall just out of sight and watched him run around their bedroom looking for the bobby-pin shaped key to the bathroom. My mother always had a new hiding spot for it, but she never made it so difficult that he couldn’t find it and rescue her. Suicide attempts played out the same way. She would “kill herself” just enough to get attention and go into the hospital, but not enough to actually die. Well, at least not the first 17 times.
He finally broke open the lock and found my mother crying on the floor in her nightgown, mascara running down her face like a sad circus clown. With her soft golden hair, sculpted physique, and turquoise eyes, she was the Olivia Newton-John to his Travolta; by all outward appearances, the perfect couple. He coaxed her out of the small stuffy room; she smiled faintly at me, sitting in the hall, as my father walked her to bed. Once she was calm, he walked me downstairs and turned on Sesame Street. He kissed the top of my head and said he’d be back before dinner. At a young age, I understood he had to leave for work. He was on a mission to start his new guitar company, the one that would eventually rise to number one and make him so much money he could buy my mother anything she wanted. In his Pollyanna mind, he actually thought he could make her happy; but as I found out much too late in life, you can’t find happiness in a handbag - even if it’s from Prada.
As he left, I pressed the volume button on the television until it reached 10. I was hoping to drown her out, but even the sound of Cookie Monster counting chips at that decibel didn’t help. The echo of her unhappiness infiltrating the vents in my room made it impossible to ignore. I couldn’t sit another moment and listen to her weep. I had been here countless times before, but never felt responsible for the situation; today I felt different. There was something in her eyes as she passed me in the hall - a certain level of sadness that I hadn’t recalled seeing before. I thought about how she took care of me when I was sick. I wanted to reciprocate, to make her feel better.
I went into the kitchen. Staring at the top of the fridge, barefoot in last night’s pajamas, I focused on only one thing: how that long loaf of bread would make it’s way into my tiny hands. Never one to be intimidated by a challenge, I was not going to let this large appliance stand between me and my mother’s happiness. Hanging over the edge was a fresh loaf of Wonderbread. Its white packaging covered in blue and red circles reminded me of the circus. How could you not be happy with a loaf of circus bread in your kitchen? But that loaf of Wonder was just another sign of my mother’s depression; it meant my father had gone food shopping. My mother would never have let me eat white bread. I was the kid who had her peanut butter and jelly on weird, brown bread encrusted with wheat germ.
I hiked my princess nightgown up around my waist to step on the chair I had dragged over to the adjacent countertop. Hanging on to the side of the fridge, I leaned around the front just enough to swipe the loaf to the floor. “Ah, happiness will be hers,” I thought with optimism. I jumped down, then victoriously picked up the bag and took out two soft slices. Just the smell of it felt naughty as I laid them on the plate. Then, because I didn’t know how to cook, I grabbed the two ingredients that were available to me: carrots and mustard. Eww, you say? I don’t disagree. But at the time, I thought that any sandwich, no matter how strange, was better than nothing.
I placed the carrots and mustard on the butcher block, then took out my little, pink, plastic, knife and tried to cut the first carrot. It did nothing but make a small dent. I went over to the knife drawer and cautiously pulled it open. I stood there and wondered if I was allowed to use the “big” knife — but really, at this point, who was going to stop me? I wrapped my tiny fingers around the large handle as the big, shiny, blade cut the carrot into little discs. They flew all over the floor. I had seen my mother scrub those tiles obsessively, so there was no issue with following the 5-second rule. Once I had made the bread fluorescent yellow with mustard, I piled on the carrots and covered them with another slice. I took the lunch tray out of the pantry and placed it on the floor. I then grabbed a rose out of the weekly arrangement and put it on top - something I had seen my father do many times before. I placed the plate on the tray with a yellow napkin; her favorite color because it reminded her of sunshine. By all outward appearances, one would think this was room service from The Ritz. But that’s the problem with appearances; you never really know what’s lying underneath the surface. This tray was like our family. On the outside: happy, beautiful, people living the glamorous life in a fancy house, driving exotic cars and vacationing with celebrities. Inside: a sad, mentally ill wife and mother, trying to find a way out of her misery while her exhausted husband and confused child looked on.
I reached the top of the stairs and paused, not knowing how she would react to my gesture. I felt like the “mommy” now, responsible for her health and happiness. I will never forget the look on her face, sitting there in her fancy nightgown as I placed the tray on her bed. Her lips formed the biggest smile I had ever seen as she thanked me profusely for my efforts; even managing to take a big bite just to show her appreciation. In my mind, with that smile, she accepted my assistance. Never mind I was only four years old; a role-reversal had taken place.
At four years old, I didn’t realize the impact my mother’s illness would have on my life. There was no fear, no anticipation of what tomorrow would bring. At four years old, you don’t think. You just do. You bounce on a trampoline, you dive into the deep end, or you take care of your bipolar mother like she once took care of you.