Children with raised hands in a classroom

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“D’you ever worry you’ll have it?”


I hesitated. This was something I hadn’t considered until now. “Not really.” I answered blithely. I was fourteen and had just delivered a class presentation on my father’s Manic Depression.

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A few weeks earlier my mother sat me down at the table, “I think you’re old enough now to understand… your father’s not well” she said, before launching into a brief explanation of the mental illness with which he’d been diagnosed: known as bipolar these days, but back then, manic depression. “I don’t know much about it,” her tone signaled the conversation was drawing to a close, “if you want more information you’d have to contact a mental health group.” She rose from the table, pushed her chair in and walked towards the door. “‘Mind’ I think they’re called” floated over her shoulder as she left the room.

In truth, he’d actually been diagnosed seven years before – back when we still lived in Ireland – by the feted psychiatrist and TV and radio presenter Dr. Anthony Clare, no less. And to be honest, you’d have to have been an amoeba not to deduce something was up given all the ‘incidents’ over the years: the Christmas-that-never-was, the break-in, the poisoning accusations, the times David, his boss, returned him, shrill and mirthful, to our house halfway through the day, “Because,” he said, business suit incongruous in our kitchen as he looked at my mother, sisters and I with a mixture of pity and apology, “he’s just not fit to be in the office in this state.”

A hoot of manic laughter told us my father found this hysterical.

…“Is he fit to be here?” I wondered.

He’d spent thousands on jewelry, leather jackets (??) and a state of the art computer none of us could figure out how to work. He’d convinced my mother he was having either an affair or a mid-life crisis, and had been in and out of hospital enough times for us to have a decent collection of raffia-work housewares.

The writer in me knew this would make for a killer presentation.

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I wish I still had those A4 ruled and lined pages with the clearly printed sentences that let me glance up and make eye contact without losing my place. Would the words give me any insight into my tender comprehension of something that would impact the rest of my life? It’s a faintly romantic notion and highly unlikely. I really didn’t give it much thought; after all, I’d been living with the reality for most of my life – giving it a name didn’t change my ordinary.

I put together some information from pamphlets and reference books: a description of manic and depressive episodes, the possible causes – genetic, neurological and environmental, mixed in some personal anecdotes to make it relatable and rehearsed a few times for a smooth delivery.

Most of the other presentations were about my classmate’s holidays or hobbies – that was their ordinary. Mine held the room in rapt attention and when I finished speaking the questions carried on until the bell went. Only one gave me pause for thought.

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“D’you ever worry you’ll have it?”

I look back and wonder at my childish disregard for something so potentially devastating. Whoever asked that pertinent question, though close in age, showed far greater maturity and foresight than I.

But perhaps I’m being too hard on myself. Not only did my mother’s ambivalence make it seem nothing untoward, but by then I’d moved house five times in as many years, been removed and put back into schools, lived with the ticking time bomb of domestic violence and the threat of divorce or being put in a children’s home. Is it any wonder I’d resigned myself to the unpredictability of life?

Living day-to-day with no thought for the future was the only way I had of coping with such instability, for if the future was anything like the present it was unthinkable (as it did indeed prove to be. In the coming months I would be strangled into unconsciousness, and there were still three more years of steadily escalating violence and misery to get through before I was to break free). But for some reason that question remained, lodged firmly in my memory.

I received an A grade for my presentation, but that wasn’t all. As though tripped by the trigger of innocent enquiry, that was the year I first grew conscious of the dread-drenched chill of recognition I felt when the periodic black veil of fear and hopelessness descended, cutting me off from the rest of the world.

Twenty-four years later and I no longer worry – I know.