Loss. Pain, loss and illness: of course they affect us. But do they define us? As with so many other big questions in life, the answer most likely to ring true is, “that depends.”
Nana reached out to me through Facebook. I first met her back in prep school. She was of a type that I was drawn to at the time… very bright, funny and full of life, and deeply troubled. Confused, in a teenage kind of way, and then some. We were friends. Mainly, I tried to help her, under the auspices of the peer-counseling group I belonged to. I remember my own hurt and feelings of failure when ultimately she attempted suicide and had to leave school.
Thirty-six-plus years later, Nana lives in LA, where she’s been since law school. She and her husband live with her mother in law, whom she cares for. She is on disability, and no longer practices law.
Twenty-three years ago, Nana was diagnosed as bipolar. In some ways, this diagnosis has defined her entire life since.
For over twenty years, she struggled to find a medical regime that would allow her to find some sort of normalcy in her life. She was intermittently suicidal and psychotic: “I would do things like go out in the middle of the night with half my clothes on, or get lost in LA and take all my clothes off. And the police would pick me up.” She spent a year in a mental hospital.
… imagine, 22 years of kind of being out of your mind and out of reality, and always kind of having to question everything that you do to make sure that you’re not out of the realm of what’s normal…
Finally, about two years ago, she found the right medication. Her ebullience is palpable when she reports that she now feels “more lucid than not,” able to focus her time and energy on healing, getting better, getting stronger.
It was more of a shock getting the diagnosis of being bipolar than actually being bipolar. Though when I think back retrospectively on all of the crazy things I did, I should have been ashamed of those things, not ashamed of the diagnosis itself. But in any event, I’m not ashamed of anything.
In the midst of Nana’s recovery, after she’d found a medication that helped her and had begun to recover, tragedy struck. Her 21-year old son died in a motorcycle accident, shortly before he was to graduate from UCLA.
How do you recover from such a thing? All I can imagine in the aftermath of the loss of a child is a kind of interminable darkness, a haunting pain that colors every moment thereafter. I feel that I would question my own desire to press on with life.
Nana seems to have taken a very different approach. When I asked her about her own hopes and dreams for the future, after her son’s death, Nana zeroed in on healing, making amends for the many people she’d harmed or confused during her long period in mental-illness purgatory.
I hope to maintain my family relationships. You know, going through mental illness puts a toll on the entire family, and some people are forgiving and some people aren’t, and some people shun you and some people want you back, so I’m just trying to get everybody up to speed, and know who I depend on, and tell people they can depend on me.
Beyond making amends for her own transgressions, Nana is working to heal others in her family who had caused injury and pain. “My hope is to bring my family together,” she says. Idealistic, yes: but Nana is realistic, too:
There are some ongoing problems with certain relations that will never get resolved. There was a lot of incest in my family, and those issues will never be resolved. The people involved wont resolve them, and the people who witnessed them don’t want to know.
I struggled to understand Nana’s emotional response to her son’s death. I could not tell for sure if she was in a kind of denial, or had made an extraordinary peace with his loss. She describes him as a young man, who “could have been something really, really great.” Over 600 people sat in vigil at the hospital while he was on life support, and 1,200-plus attended his funeral. “I didn’t know anybody! Those were all his friends.”
The word “unimaginable” usually comes up in this situation… no one can really know how he or she will respond to such an incalculable loss. For me, these words, “unimaginable” and “incalculable,” have meant unimaginably painful, despairing. But they have another possible meaning: we really cannot know, at all, how we will respond to a reality that we cannot imagine, or bring ourselves to imagine. In Nana’s case, she seems to have found something profound, something beyond despair. She seems to have adopted from her son’s character a purpose for her own life.
I asked Nana if the death of her son had influenced her wish to heal her family:
He was such a good person! He wanted everyone to get along, and he facilitated that. And he got very upset when you didn’t get along, when you didn’t go with the family. And so after he died, I was like okay, well, I have to drop all of my grievances, all of my remorse, all of my regret and reach out to everybody and let them know that the family is strong. That came from him.
Also, her son left a more tangible legacy, by donating his organs. When Nana talked about this, the emotion was palpable, and complex. Pride, for sure, and hope… and a sense that he lived on through the people whose lives he had saved.
We donated all of his organs and they all survived, and we got a letter that told us, anonymously, gender, location and age of the recipients. And it was amazing to think that his lungs are still breathing, his heart was still beating… Yeah, I got a letter from the heart recipient. So, it’s okay. He’s still alive…
There is something so beautiful in this thought. People who have dealt in one way or another with organ donations must all understand this. But to me it’s brand new: “his lungs are still breathing, his heart is still beating.” Yes, in a certain poetic way, to give life in this manner is to be in part still alive, and a real comfort to those who loved you when you were whole.
I digress, somewhat. But there is another digression; another plot twist that has yet to play out, or that may never play out at all. Nana pays a monthly fee to a cryobank to keep her son’s semen frozen and alive. His girlfriend at the time thought she would want to bear his child. Then, understandably, perhaps wisely, she reconsidered. So, as remote as it seems, the potential for Nana’s son EZ to one day give Nana a grandchild exists in this world, perhaps even years after he passed from it.
I argued with myself whether to include this last detail in this story. It seems maudlin, even morbid. I decided it was relevant because it represents a mother’s final hope to preserve her son’s, and her own, legacy. It is an example of the moral and emotional dilemmas presented by the immense technological capability we have wrought. We humans will either deal with these conflicts, or we will suffer from them.
Nana’s original dream was to become a lobbyist, to return in triumph from law school in Los Angeles to her hometown of Washington D.C. That plan fell victim to her success, in the form of a great mentor and a court case she helped argue all the way to Federal District Court, and almost to the US Supreme Court. “That was the watershed moment for me: I realized that I could do anything that anybody else could do in my field.”
Then, she became a mother. “After I had my son, I realized that all I wanted to do is be a mom,” she laughed. All this time, for a couple of decades, she struggled with mental illness. Finally, she found relief from the demons in her own head and heart. and immediately redoubled her devotion to motherhood. “My whole goal was to support my son… so get him established.”
…the great thing about being disabled is that I was a full-time mom, and got to see [my son] go to UCLA and he was a year away from graduation when he moved back home, so I had a real good sense of him ‘til the time he was 21, and in between I’ve been treated for my diagnosis.
And then he died, suddenly. And then, perhaps, in a small way, he was reborn, in the patients who received his organs, and in Nana’s commitment to emulating him, to building upon his legacy through her own efforts to make amends, peace, to heal.
Nowadays, she writes (over 700 pages last year), paints, exercises, and reaches out to loved ones. She is learning to quilt. She has a daughter, a 32-year-old restaurateur, who seems to be making her way independently. She cares for her mother-in-law. She has a new lease on life: most with her severity of bipolar disorder don’t live long lives; Nana feels she has more time.
I hope to be the person I was before I had the breakdown, the person I was before I was at [boarding] school and I tried to kill myself… I want to go all the way back to when I was well, whether that was at age three or two or one, because they say I had this from the very beginning. I want to go back and remember a time where I am totally healed, and I think that that will be in the future.
She confuses her tenses in a way I was not sure was intentional, but I was sure was poetic. She dreams that her future might be… her past. Whether that past was factual or idealized, who knows? As a mission, a dream, a destination… who cares? Nana, as much as anyone I’ve ever met, has been both injured and strengthened by the illness and loss she has suffered, and has earned the right to feel entitled to her dream.