I was in my late teens when I first heard the word bipolar attached to my great-grandfather, during a Christmas visit to my extended family in New Jersey. In a room warmly lit by the electric candles at each window frame and the blinking Christmas tree, I was inside the womb of self-starvation I had built around myself, wondering how I would avoid the various traps set by the sugars of the holidays: wafts of my grandmother’s almond paste-filled boterletter, dishes filled with silver-wrapped Hershey’s kisses. I wore a very big parka that year, smoked cigarettes, and tunneled into myself.


My mother and my aunt were talking about my great-grandfather’s diagnosis. His time in a psychiatric institution had been traumatic for his son, my grandfather, who rarely spoke about it. No one did. Recently I interviewed a close relative who knew my great-grandfather in his later, more mellow years, she was shocked to find out that he’d been in Greystone, the place everyone then called “the nuthouse”. “Oh no,” she told me. “You went into Greystone, and you didn’t come out again. Nobody talked about it.”


In that Christmassy living room, I heard the word “bipolar,” and my whole body perked up in recognition, in anticipation. It would happen to me: I knew this. I was a devoutly religious, sensitive artistic type who longed for apocalypse. I was dangerously unafraid of anything. Within four months I would have my own episode and my own diagnosis.


What I have discovered about my great-grandfather Pete, through numerous interviews and some archival study, is not much more than I already knew. He was hospitalized at a time before drugs were available to treat bipolar disorder, and so he spent years at “Greystone Lunatic Asylum”, an impressive, manorly institution. It had its own grid, its own small farm, and residents were encouraged to work in various parts of the grounds. By 1940, it was also overcrowded and understaffed to what one administrator called “a dangerous extent.” Pete was given one or two rounds of newly developed electroconvulsive (“shock”) therapy, and, while it improved his depression, it nearly killed him. Sometimes the seizures were so convulsive they could break one’s bones, and since muscle relaxants were not used then, he could not continue the therapy. Twice, he escaped, hitchhiking home until the police came to round him up again.


I got to see what remained of Greystone when it was being demolished in 2015, walking the fenced-off grounds as wrecking balls pummeled its ornate stone façade. After all those years of overcrowding, psychiatric medication and new policies have moved most of the patients out of that kind of institutionalization, with its great hopes and devastating abuses. I looked up at an upper window and had a spooky moment of identification, imagining my great-grandfather all those years ago looking out of it.


Sixty years after his hospitalization, I’d be looking out of the window in my fourth floor room in the psych ward at St. Joseph’s in Hamilton at the John St. below. I would stay there six weeks, not for years as the inhabitants of Greystone would have. Instead I coped with a slew of new medications and the daily sessions of therapy, as well as a world that seemed emptied out of meaning. By then, stories were everywhere. I had read memoirs of depression, anorexia, and bipolar disorder. I had a vocabulary for what was happening to me, words like mood disorder and brain chemistry. My life has not been given over to the disease, though I still look at everything through the foggy window of mental illness and religious devotion. For those who come after me, for my own daughters, I want a way to think about mental illness as a normal part of life, an experience worthy of consideration, not one to be to be cast off or suppressed as quickly and painlessly as possible.


My grandfather called the illness “the mess of it.” The medical records were destroyed by fire or flood, and because of the shame and self-censorship—because people didn’t talk about it—many memories disappeared, too. How did his illness manifest? What was it like for him to spend years at Greystone? How did he get better, the way he did, without outpatient care or medication? Somewhere in this story, my obsession with it tells me, I’ll find an answer to the riddles of my own mind, an explanation for what happened to me, and some way to understand the hurts in our family. I long for a diary or for someone to have written something, anything down. So, a little less fearless than I was that Christmas years ago, I keep asking.






Liz’s essay is published in support of Bell Let’s Talk Day.
Please consider sharing it using #BellLetsTalk to help raise money for mental health initiatives.


Read more essays in support:

Sarah Boudreau | Beth Gilstrap | Amanda Leduc (2017)






Liz Harmer is the author of The Amateurs, (Coming in April 2018 from Knopf Canada). Her essays have been published widely, in such places as Literary Hub, Hazlitt, The New Quarterly, and The Malahat Review. She received a notable mention in the 2016 Best American Essays, and has been nominated for three National Magazine Awards in Canada, one of which she won. @lizharmer



 
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