I’ve been told the first time we met I was shuffling slowly up and down a blue carpeted corridor. Slumped body. Empty eyes. I barely registered being asked how I was with a slowly exhaled
‘Not so good.’ before moving on with my pram.
I say ‘I’ve been told’, because I don’t remember our first meeting or the following weeks. I was sicker than I’d ever been. Not many people would have repeatedly made friendly conversation with someone as unresponsive as I was.
She did. At a time when she wasn’t well herself.
When I finally re-emerged after several months of illness, I was delighted to find I had a new friend. A friend I never would have met in my geographical or professional circles. A friend who, like me, had spent the early months of first-time motherhood in a psychiatric hospital instead of at home.
We created an informal mothers’ group after we finally left the hospital.
We were too raw, and unable to tolerate the glowing veneer of perfection pedalled by mothers whose less traumatic experiences we could no more identify with than they could ours. Mothers who still naively believed how babies entered the world and what they were fed was worth expending energy thinking about or debating. Mothers who had not yet confronted what it meant to be on the knife-edge of existence. So, ours was an exclusive group of four: Her, me, and one baby each, who thrived on their formula and their mothers’ increasingly irreverent conversations about motherhood, together.
After my first episode of illness I eventually came off all my medication. Even done gradually, under the close supervision of my psychiatrist – it was rough. My friend came and sat with me. She made me laugh at politically incorrect jokes as my body twitched and ached its way through withdrawal.
We both debated back and forth whether to have second babies. We knew we wanted them. But the risk of getting so sick again talked us out of it dozens of times before we jumped off that cliff with our fingers crossed. I got sick when I was seventeen weeks pregnant. She showed me her positive pregnancy test when she visited me in hospital. Our second babies were born three months apart.
Six weeks after my son was born, I was on my way back into hospital – manic, nearly psychotic. Words erupting from me continuously. Explosive verbal diarrhoea that covered everyone around me. We stopped at my friend’s place en route to the hospital to drop off our three-year old daughter and do a load of washing. Our washing machine had broken down. Of course it had. She took the washing and made my daughter honey sandwiches for dinner, while my husband delivered me to hospital.
Just before we left I gathered what little sanity I had remaining and knelt down to explain to my girl that I was sick and would have to stay in hospital a while. And the novelty of those honey sandwiches and the company of my friend’s three-year-old daughter, were all my child needed to say a tear free good-bye. For a millisecond gratitude for my friend displaced my mania.
When I finally emerged from that manic and psychotic episode, she took me for my first outing from the hospital to visit the shopping centre across the road. I was suffering regular panic attacks brought on by the fear of becoming psychotic again. We walked slowly through the busy shopping centre with me clutching her arm with one hand and a vomit bag in the other.
Several years later, when I landed in hospital with a severe manic episode not associated with child-birth, and my last hopes of this not being Bipolar Disorder were crushed, she came to visit me. She arrived to find me sitting with a group of other patients, my pressured speech regaling them with intimate details of my sex life. This disintegration of my boundaries, was just another symptom of the mania that had swallowed me whole. She gently encouraged me to come and sit outside with just her.
My friend’s name is Claire. She has seen me broken, at my sickest, my ugliest, my most vulnerable. And far from running, she walks confidently, compassionately towards me every time and not only cradles my broken shell, but intuits what is necessary (be it honey sandwiches or an arm to hold onto) until I am back to myself.
We share a diagnosis, a psychiatrist, a love of authenticity, and (when we can) precious weekends away together. Our children and husbands have meshed effortlessly over countless lunches, dinners, outings, holidays, and crises.
Twelve years after meeting, our mothers’ group of two lives on. But while we still call bullshit on some of the #parentinggoals out there, our relationship has expanded way beyond motherhood to include all our facets.
And if I had to choose between never getting sick or having the Bipolar Disorder that brought Claire into my life, I’d choose Bipolar Disorder accompanied by Claire every time.