Code Word: Another Room

By Kerry Neville 04/26/17

My kids weren't afraid that I had a mental illness. All they wanted was a tool to help me to contain it. So they could help me help myself.

An upset mother on a couch with 2 small angry kids on the floor.
"Maybe when you start yelling, or before you start, you should just go into another room."

One night, the kids and I were cuddled up on the couch watching 60 Minutes and a segment came on about untreated schizophrenia and its links to most of the mass shootings in the past 15 years. In hindsight, I probably should have switched over to America’s Funniest Home Videos so we could watch babies snort spaghetti from their noses and poodles ride skateboards, but all three of us seemed transfixed by the expert psychiatrists’ testimonies on symptoms of schizophrenia and the history of the treatment of schizophrenia and how it could be better treated.

To be honest, I wasn’t really thinking about why my kids were so compelled by this segment until Sophia turned to me and asked, worriedly, “This isn’t the kind of mental illness that you have, is it, Mom?”

“Yeah,” Alexander said, “do you have this kind?” He kept glancing back and forth at the screen watching the photos shuffle the faces of recent shooters suspected of being mentally ill—D.C., Colorado, Arizona, Virginia. Was he waiting to see if my face would preemptively appear? His hand crept across my lap and found my hand.

“No, no, no,” I said. “I have Bipolar Disorder, not Schizophrenia. They’re very different from each other.” Though not so different chromosomally. Close cousins, really. In fact, I’ve taken the same medications that Schizophrenics take, so I’m not sure how different we are, except for the hearing voices part. Because in the horrific depths of depression and at the heights of mania I’ve had, what some might consider, psychotic episodes. But I don’t tell the kids this because I can see that they’re weighing the mental illness that they know their Mom! Their Mom!!! has against the mental illness these mass shooters have and they want me to be as far and away different from them as possible.

“That’s right,” Sophia said. “You have that one. You have the mood swings one.” She inched closer to me on the couch as if that would close the gap between what might be threatening about what was still unknown in my mental illness and what was known in her mom. She had visited me in the hospital when I was spent from mania and depression and sat with me in the bland, communal visitors’ room watching for my smile to return. She had sent me a drawing of an immense green dragon, with its wings spread in fierce determination. At the dragon’s clawed feet, she wrote, “Momma, Come Home!”

“Because,” she continued, “your mood swings can be really bad. Sometimes you just get really angry at us for no reason.”

Alexander threw both his hands in the air. “Yeah! You do! Like sometimes we’ll be sitting on the bed and you’ll just start yelling at us we won’t be doing anything but sitting on the bed.”

I closed my eyes. I might not hear the voices of Schizophrenia, but I have the voices of punishment and self-loathing, the voices that say: See? This disease will ruin your relationship with your children. It’s the wrecking ball, swinging through love, punching holes in walls, knocking out cross beams and support beams.

I opened my eyes. The kids were looking at me like I was crazy.

“I know!” Alexander said. “Maybe when you start yelling, or before you start, you should just go into another room.”

“Yeah,” Sophia said. “When you feel a mood coming on, so you don’t take it out on us, you can just go into another room. And then it’ll be okay.”

I smiled at them. They weren’t really afraid of me winding up on that television screen. They weren’t even afraid that I had a mental illness, that I was Bipolar. All they wanted was a tool to help me to contain it. So they could help me help myself. So they could feel powerful instead of powerless.

“I have an idea,” I said. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to know when a mood is happening. I’m not always able to spot it right away. But you guys are experts. So how about we have a code word for when you think I need to go to another room for a time out and I’ll go?”

Alexander smiled. “But we won’t use it if you’re angry at us for being crazy and we need to calm down.”

Sophia said, “Or like when we won’t stop fighting with each other.”

“Right,” I said. “It’s for when I’m getting angry or a mood swing is happening that has no good reason and maybe it’s scaring you so you think I need a time out. So all you have to say is ‘Another Room.’ Okay?”

They both nodded and we shook on it. Then Alexander sighed in relief and threw himself on me in a hug. I hadn’t realized my mood swings had seemed so scary? overwhelming? engulfing? I forget, sometimes, that my son, while not fragile, is more delicate than me—he’s a butterfly or moth and his wings beat on the outside of his body for all to see and vulnerable to damage.

I forget that the wings my children see beating outside my body are not the ragged wings of some storm battered butterfly, but the colossal wings of a Bipolar dragon, furiously flying into the heavens, then folding back for the dive down into the black well. And just the day-to-day effort of keeping aloft? Enough to make a mom tired and stupidly, unthinkingly angry. Enough to know when it’s time to go to “Another room.”

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix