Virginia Woolf, My Mother, and I: Bipolar and Leaving the One You Love


There is a strange clarity to madness, one in which everything is twisted around. When I was a child, my mother went through a period in which she went 'wild' according to my father, served him with divorce papers, and gave him full custody of me. For years, I wondered why. Whenever I asked her, she said it was because she loved me and knew that I would live a better life with him. Her explanation never made sense -- all the other children whose parents had divorced lived with their mothers, not their fathers.  It seemed selfish to leave me with him. Perhaps she had just wanted to be free and live life childless however she wanted. It sounds like a simple thing when put into words like this, but I felt a lot of pain over the loss of her throughout my adult life. Never being a recipient of a mother's love does something to a person. There is always an emptiness, a guardedness, a loss.

But I think that one of the gifts of my own manic episode and diagnosis of bipolar is that I know my mother's words to now be true. She loved me. She did the best she could in the midst of her own manic episode. When you are experiencing madness, it is like swimming against the tide. You are struggling to breathe and every once in a while, you make it up for air, enough to tell the person that you love to run, to escape, to leave, because something horrible is happening. You dont know what it is, but you know enough to tell the person you love most in the world that they must go and save themselves. 

I know this to be true because the same thing happened to me during my manic episode. I had a moment when I realized that something horrible was occurring. I did not know what, just that I did not have any control over it any more than I did a tornado and I did not want to hurt Brian, the person I loved most in the world. I would only hurt him. He deserved to leave and escape, to be rid of me. I know it makes no sense, that any sane person would stay if they loved someone and work on their marriage, but in the midst of it, in the midst of a madness which has no name, of an evil and darkness which feels as if it has no escape, all you know is that the best thing to do is to free the person you love of, well, you. 

I did this for Brian. We sat there on the couch holding hands. When we let go of our hands, this will be it, itll be over, he said. Im just going to hurt you, letting go of his hand. Tears ran down our faces.

Months later, after I had been diagnosed, it was a different story, a different kind of pain he needed to escape. He was angry at all the things I had done. It had changed him, closed him. I could see that he would never be the same. Would be unhappy being married to me, that he felt trapped, that it wasn't fair to him. So I released him, the person who had selflessly given so much of himself to me over the years. I saw that it was now it was my turn to love and return the selflessness in this way.

I think back to this decision sometimes. Its difficult, hard to live through something like this. Because it a decision which reverberates throughout my life. Because I'm still alive to see and feel all the effects and consequences, which never seem to end.

It reminds me of Virginia Woolf's suicide note to her husband.


I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that - everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been.

It is difficult to overcome the tragedy that uncontrolled bipolar can bring. And yet its odd. Perhaps if I were to have held onto Brian, held onto the selfish parts of me, I would not know or understand love in the way I do now, would not have the understanding of grace that I now feel, would never have realized that my identity lies not in my marriage, my career, or the things of this world, but in being a child of God.