My family has a grand tradition. After a woman gives birth, she goes mad. I thought that I would be the one to escape. Given my spectacular failure, my hope is now that my daughter will be the one.
On the day that I admit defeat, I have been crying for days and I am on my way to the emergency room of my local hospital. But of course since I'm running on empty psychologically, my car would be, too. So I pull into a gas station in the middle of the mother of all summer storms.
No one at the gas station will look at me, which is odd considering that most people will at least give you a smile at any time of day in Knoxville, Tennessee. The July air is heavy and wet. Oily splotches and knots of old gum dot the rain-slicked asphalt. My blue tie-dyed T-shirt is soaked and clinging to my quasideflated postpartum belly, showing all of the other drivers that I am wearing maternity shorts, the kind with the stretchy nylon panel in the front -- all that I could fit into two weeks after my daughter's birth. I could have braided the hair on my legs and the hair on my head looked like a nest of live eels writhing in the rain.
My sneakers squoosh as I fumble out my debit card and swipe it in the pump. Miraculously, my hands remain steady for the first time in a few days, but I sniff and snort constantly as tears pour typhoonlike out of my eyes.
Three other drivers gas up and studiously ignore me, including one right next to me. While Knoxville is known for its general friendliness, I've also discovered that it loves a good spectacle. If a stranger appears to be on the verge of a colorful collapse, gawkers flock for front-row seats. I'd assumed that no one could tell that I'd been crying, what with the rain. I'm lying to myself. My eyes are red-rimmed after forty-eight hours of not sleeping. I'm cursed with a near-constant sorrow so deep that it would make a great bluegrass song. Ralph Stanley and I could make millions, provided I can get through the next twenty-four hours without killing myself.
I'd also assumed that no one would care at this particular station, simply because it is in one of Knoxville's few dicey areas. The projects, such as they are in this small southern city wrapped in Appalachia's arms, are just across the street. The rescue ministry is a few blocks away and, from here, I could toss my car keys into Knoxville's largest nightlife hub, where bars and dance clubs spill out their 2 a.m. drunks, then said drunks wander up to this gas station to stock up on cigarettes and six-packs. The clerks here must have strong nerves or they are researching sociology dissertations.
Still, in the harsh light of day, I am enough of a sight that I unnerve even those who spend their nights dealing with drug-induced shootings and drive-by vomitings. Normally, I'd be proud of this. I always revel in the chance to break out of my cardigan-sweatered shell in a town full of supersized Baptist churches and Junior Leaguers. Now, I look like a freak who scares all of the other freaks. My father would be so proud.
Once gassed up, I'll drive myself to the emergency room, where I'll check myself in to Tower 4, a local psych ward. I could have seen it from my gas pump if it weren't so overcast. I'll stay there for the better part of a week, bonding with my fellow loonies while someone else takes care of my brand-new baby because I am a failure. New moms are supposed to be joy made flesh, yet motherhood and I met like a brick meets water. I'm drowning here, not waving.
This wasn't supposed to happen and, yet, it was inevitable, given my past.
During my colorful confinement, in a conversation with a ward social worker, I described the hillbilly Gothic patchwork of suicides, manic depression, and bipolar disorders that is my mother's family and the notable suicide attempt on my father's side. She commented that it was a wonder I hadn't been there before. Now, I can chuckle when I say that. Then, her astute comment touched off yet another deluge of tears.
I wasn't the first of my generation to log some time in the loony bin. One of my cousins, in her early twenties at the time, was committed after the birth of her first child and was later diagnosed as bipolar. Her older sister has battled depression since her first child was born when she was fresh out of her teens. While most of the madness comes on postpartum, it isn't confined to it. One of her children, who is still a teenager, has also checked in to her local Tower 4, a move that has become my family's version of summering in the Hamptons.
Our tale begins in Parkersburg, West Virginia, a microdot of a town buried in the hollers of the Appalachians. Driving into this part of the country is an adventure to the uninitiated. The road cuts through the mountains, creating a narrow canyon fenced on each side by rock or steep cliffs. Greenery sprouts impossibly from these stark faces. One must pay close attention when arriving in Parkersburg. The unobservant -- a person folding a map, say -- will miss the downtown and wonder why there are houses in such a desolate area.
Isolation has long been the hallmark of Applachia. Before the era of reliable transportation, entire generations could be born, live, and die without ever clapping eyes on a stranger's face. Even after the rise of Toyotas and cable TV, a deep suspicion of new faces and, to a large extent, new ideas still thrives. This wariness is warranted; rarely is a person from Appalachia portrayed in a flattering light. An Appalachian twang marks someone as a hick who should be mocked. Deliverance does not exist in a vacuum.
My mother's family springs from this setting. The isolation and suspicion that inform the region also inform generations. It is coded in our genes like brown hair. For decades, outside help was never sought. Nor was it even imagined to be needed. My family tree kept growing inward, as each successive batch of children convinced their spouses, who were also from the region, to keep these matters within the family. Tighter and tighter the tree grew, and few people saw a need to thin the branches to let in a little nourishing light.
This cautionary tale is my attempt to do a little pruning. This is my attempt to untangle my family's history of mental illness. It is a story of mothers and daughters as well as a journey in search of absolution. It is about being at your most unbalanced when the rest of society expects you to be at your most joyful. It is about living in and with mountains, with occasional lapses into bluegrass and banjos. The past must be understood and, in some sense, loved, in order to be overcome.
Here is where my maternal great-grandmother abandoned her three children. Here is where my maternal grandmother went quietly mad. Here is where my uncle came home from Vietnam, put his gun to his head, and killed himself. And here is where my mother met my father, and then escaped the geography but not the heredity. Years later, I would be back in the same scenery, if a few miles farther south. The irony is not lost.
For six weeks after my birth, my mother didn't wash her hair. Now, she claims that she was postnatally splendid, except for that one little detail. Her assurances don't...assure. At the time of my birth, which was in the early 1970s, little was known about postpartum depression and even less could be done about it. My mother's interior landscape has always been a mystery to me and I didn't understand that her black moods weren't the norm. My childhood wasn't spent around happy families, against whom I could compare my sad home. Even in a big city, Mom and I remained more or less isolated. One of my fondest memories is of listening to my mother breathlessly sob on the other side of her bedroom door. There was nothing I could do, and, in so many ways, it was all my fault.
I swore I would not do the same to my daughter, yet, for two weeks after her birth, I did nothing but cry and, eventually, completely came apart like a wet tissue. My mother contends that this happened because I waited until my early thirties to have a baby and, in her words, "worked for too long" before fulfilling my biological destiny. My mom has never quite come to terms with the concept of women with careers. In her eyes, jobs are just what you have before you have a baby and your life becomes bliss. We all construct our own versions of reality in order to deal with the day, but this reinvention makes my eyeballs ache. If my birth caused bliss for my mom, please let me never find it for myself.
In many ways, my depression was the end state of an almost perversely natural progression. Not only is my family history shot through with crazy, but there had also been warning signs before I gave birth. My teen years had been full of undiagnosed fits of melancholy that went beyond what one would normally expect from a girl that age. In my early twenties, I scared the bejeezus out of a psychiatry intern by bursting into tears in her office and not being able to stop. There were signs, all right. The big red ones that signal danger.
Copyright © 2006 by Adrienne Martini