She was christened Ammi by a Malayalee nurse who cared for her during her first few days on this earth. The name stuck. Ammi was the apple of her father’s eye, at least until I came along as I like to tease her every now and then. Ammi’s story began to take shape when she first met Baba. Even before she had met Baba in person, she made the fateful decision to marry him. In 1986, I arrived. In 1987, she swallowed 10 tablets of Valium. The scene was set for a lifelong battle with depression.

22 days

The first Act took place in Bangalore’s Manasa Neuropsychiatric Hospital. Ammi was rushed there by a relative who discovered her unconscious body on the bed. “You were 15 months old. Your father was troubling me. I decided to pop the pills.” Most of Ammi’s stories begin with how old her son was. Another recurrent theme is what a troublesome husband she has.

Ammi was at Manasa for 22 days. She was on 33 tablets a day. “I was zonked man. Like a zombie. Those 22 days I tell you. I remember nothing.” For the next four years Ammi continued to swallow a pharmacy, but there was still no concrete diagnosis. Baba was constantly changing jobs and was battling alcohol addiction himself. Baba moved to Bombay in the late 1980s and Ammi decided to give that unforgiving city a chance. She stayed there for exactly a month.

“That city I tell you. You were three years old. I had put you in this kindergarten in Versova. I overslept one afternoon, you know because of all the medicines I was taking. I got to the school a little late. You were alone and crying. None of them even bothered to stay back. That Bombay man. Aiyo Rama. I took the next flight back home.”

In 1991, Ammi finally found out what was wrong with her. It turned out that she was not a bad wife or a bad mother or just plain evil. All of the fights with her husband, the mood swings, the violent behaviour and the suicide attempt were not her fault. She was manic-depressive.

Shifting energies, shifting moods

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out daily tasks. Ammi has had two constant companions for most of her adult life, companions that have helped her cope with her illness: Tegretol and cigarettes. Tegretol is an anticonvulsant that is used to treat bipolar disorder. It works by decreasing nerve impulses that cause seizures and pain. She picked up smoking in her late-teens and it is a union that has endured to this day.

People with bipolar disorder experience unusually intense emotional states that occur in distinct periods called “mood episodes”. Each mood episode represents a drastic change from a person's usual mood and behavior. An overly joyful or overexcited state is called a manic episode, and an extremely sad or hopeless state is called a depressive episode. Just ask Ammi. In 1997, she tried to kill herself for the second time. It had been a tumultuous few years for her:
“I gave up smoking when I was pregnant with you. I want you to know that. I did not touch the damn thing at all. But when I was pregnant again, it was just too much to ask for. I terminated the pregnancy. You were so sad. Your father was so sad. I wanted you to have someone to play with. Then I thought to hell with it, I want to die. 40 tablets of Tegretol. I just swallowed it ya [laughs]. I was just so damn depressed.”

Another suicide attempt followed in 1999. Ammi and Baba had lived apart for a few years but were now back together. It was the same old vicious cycle.  Swallow 40 tablets of Tegretol. Get admitted to the hospital. Stomach-wash. Hospitalised for a few days. Get back home. There was simply no cure.

Growing up bipolar

Ammi’s brother Babu had put in years of effort into educating her, Baba and his parents about the disease. He explained to them how bipolar disorder was a lifelong illness, and continuous treatment was needed to control its symptoms. It was Babu who united the family and made all of them understand the role they needed to play in helping Ammi cope with her mood swings.

But Babu had a family of his own and it was just too much to ask of him to continue caring for his sister. Baba had finally understood Ammi’s disease, but as he was essentially her punching-bag and the object of her ire, he could not play the role of peacemaker. So at the age of 13, I decided to step into the breach. “You remember how in 7th standard you came to me and said ‘stop being a coward mummy?” I decided at that very moment that I would never harm myself again.”

When I was in the 8th standard, Ammi discovered my stash of porn. She confronted me and accused me of having impure thoughts about her. “You have Oedipus complex, don’t you?” It was at this precise moment that I realised how off her rocker this woman was. I then decided to use the internet in a more productive manner and learnt about bipolar disorder. I began to treat Ammi with kid-gloves and developed a penchant for psychoanalysis. I began to look for hidden meanings behind each and every word that came out of her mouth.

Another pregnancy in 2001 was followed by another termination. As expected, it sent her into a downward spiral, with things being exacerbated by the death of her father-in-law who had been a source of immense support to her in recent years. She started to suffer from a severe form of the disorder known as rapid cycling, which occurs when a person has four or more episodes of major depression, mania, or mixed states, all within a year.

Nevertheless, relatively speaking, the first half of the new millennium was a stable period in Ammi’s life. She was taking her meds; she saw the doctor far more regularly and came to terms with my departure to England in 2005. However, when I returned in 2012, a series of events were the perfect storm for her fourth attempt at suicide.

'Let’s hope she dies this time'

In 2006, Baba moved to the Gulf. His career was finally taking off and the time had come for him to leave Ammi behind. “Enough is enough. I have to think about my life now. She’ll call me a hundred times every day. But that’s fine. I have to go.” He then made the move to Pune and Ammi decided to give that city a chance in late 2011. She relocated to Pune lock, stock and barrel; it looked like the two of them were finally going to build a home together.

But in early 2012, a month into Ammi’s stay in Pune, my kidneys failed. Ammi returned to Bangalore and went into a mixed-state wherein she experienced both mania and depression at the same time. During a mixed state, individuals feel very sad or hopeless while at the same time feeling extremely energized. Ammi’s fourth (unsuccessful) attempt at ending her life was almost inevitable.

“I took the usual 40 tablets. I broke the promise I made it to you. It was a horrible experience. Getting pneumonia, being tied to that damn hospital bed; never again. I remember you were very angry at me.”

I still am. I gave up on my mother after that fourth suicide attempt in 2012. I did not visit her in the hospital. When they broke the news to me, my reaction was, “Well let’s hope she dies this time.” I decided that all my energies had to be directed towards fighting my own health battles. I was done with her.

‘I’m a Dreamer’

If there is one lesson that all of us who have played a part in Ammi’s life have learnt, it is that those who are bipolar need to be left alone. By left alone, I don’t mean abandon them completely. They will still need you to support them emotionally and maybe even financially as is the case with Ammi. But offer them support only when they ask for it. You cannot force them to go to the doctor. We have tried for almost three decades and failed. To cut a long story short, you cannot force them to do anything against their will.

So what can you do for someone close to you who is bipolar? You can lead your life. You can make sure that your happiness is not contingent on their being happy or sad. All of this is easier said than done. I might have given up on my mother, but I am currently fixated on a woman whom I believe is in dire need of “rescuing” and I am the white knight who is going to finally “fix” her. The burden of bearing the cross for someone close to you who is bipolar will take its toll. It certainly has on me, and at the age of 28 I have finally decided to seek professional help.

“I want you to lead your life Abhi. I want you to be happy. You know I’m a dreamer. I just need you to fulfill my dreams.” Keep on dreaming mother. Those of us who love you wouldn’t want it any other way.

World Bipolar Day is observed each year on March 30, the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh, who was posthumously diagnosed as probably having bipolar disorder.

To learn more about bipolar disorder, click here.