Until now, the focus of this book has been Martha. But for this chapter, I must turn the attention to me. As an indirect result of our family trip to Denver in 2003, I was diagnosed bipolar, and in the context of my diagnosis Martha’s insanity later emerged, the insanity that led to her death.
Fredric March as Mr. Hyde in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Paramount, 1932)
Even after she died, what happened in Denver that year kept resonating for me. It was as a result of Denver that I discovered the uncomfortable closeness of madness and love—something Martha discovered too.
Diane, the bride who got married in Denver on August 10, 2003, was not just a friend of mine but a former housemate. When I was in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in the early 1980s, I shared a house in Seattle with her and three other people, all of us Catholic kids in our twenties taking a year off from whatever our futures might hold to help the poor and pursue God. We lived in a green house making vegetarian meals and listening to our housemate Pete play the Grateful Dead on his guitar. After that year, we all went separate ways, but I stayed friends with my housemates, including Diane and another woman, Mary Ann, who remained in Seattle while I returned home to New York. At the rehearsal dinner the evening before Diane’s wedding, in a backyard smoky with barbecued meat, for the first time in years I saw Mary Ann.
I don’t know why I fell in love with her just then. I had never been in love with her before. A couple of times I had had a crush on her, but I had thought it was bad policy to make time with a housemate, and the feeling had always passed, and we never dated; we had always been just good friends. But in Denver that year she overpowered me. Small and skinny, with short brown hair, a pixie face, and legs as taut and athletic as when she had been a college track star, she was beautiful—she always had been. But she was no more beautiful than two decades earlier, and now, a middle-aged mother of two boys, she had two decades of wear on her, as I did. It didn’t matter. She conquered me.
And not just me. Martha too. Always kind and generous, Mary Ann showered attention on Martha, talking with her, asking her questions. When we returned from Denver, I asked Martha what her favorite thing about the trip had been. “Mary Ann,” she said.
Mine too. I loved seeing Mary Ann in shorts and a baseball cap at lunch, in a little black dress at the wedding. I loved sitting next to her and talking about our lives at the reception, tracing the vaguely French shape of her face (even though she isn’t French), looking into her sad blue eyes. Sad eyes in a woman have always enticed me, as if I hope there is something I can do to relieve their sorrow. I loved dancing with her, watching her bare feet jump in the wild way we used to dance at JVC parties. Martha danced at the reception too—she pulled her stuffed animals out of her purse and had them all dance with delighted guests.
On the plane back to New York all I could think about was Mary Ann. For months after I got home she obsessed me. I went through ecstasies of joy thinking she might feel the same way—that she was in love with me too. Certain signs at the wedding made me think this way—her excited shout “George!” when she first saw me; her telling me, “You’re the reason I came!” I wrote a letter to her in which I almost revealed my feelings but held back; she wrote back a letter that seemed to do the same. I wrote a short story about her and love poems I never sent. I fantasized about flying to Seattle to declare my feelings and sleep with her, researched plane fares for the trip.
But I didn’t take that trip. I was too faithful to Melinda, so faithful I told her about my obsession so she could help me resist it. I hadn’t cheated on my wife in our sixteen years of marriage, and I didn’t intend to start now. I also knew that if Mary Ann and I left our spouses for each other, I would have to stop sharing a house with Martha and seeing her grow up, and I couldn’t bear that.
My faithfulness toward Melinda was what made my passion for Mary Ann so strange. I loved Melinda, had loved her since we became lovers in 1984. Not only had I made a home and a family with her, I had decided to run a home business with her, where we were together night and day. I had given up a lot to keep that business with her, including forgoing a chance to earn a PhD in English at Princeton in 1991 that would have ended the business and maybe broken up the marriage. I loved the smell of peaches and milk in her neck. It was not estrangement from Melinda that drew me to Mary Ann. Instead, Mary Ann seemed to invade me by force like a feminine army. Even as part of me wanted her to win, the rest of me fought her like an enemy.
Martha didn’t know about my passion, but she got tastes of it. We watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s together because Mary Ann’s letter had had an Audrey Hepburn stamp and Mary Ann reminded me of her. We watched Wuthering Heights because the passion I imagined Mary Ann and I felt for each other was like that of Heathcliff and Cathy. Martha so enjoyed the movie she declared it her favorite, topping even Gone with the Wind.
At that time, Martha’s bed characters were staging TV dance shows to entertain each other. Over several nights, during our part at bedtime, I had two of her stuffed animals, Lynnie and Piawter (formerly Yellow Nubby and Green Nubby), dance to my selection of the 100 Greatest Love Songs, beginning with No. 100, “Sealed With a Kiss,” and counting down to No. 1, “If I Loved You” from Carousel. I did this because love songs were coursing through my brain, every one of them connected to Mary Ann, and this was a way to sing them and think about which ones I liked best. Martha didn’t know that; she just enjoyed hearing me sing them and seeing her yellow dog and green cat flop around on the bed, dancing to them.
By now, Martha was in fourth grade. She continued to make friends in school as best she could, but she also liked playing with children smaller than she. Some local friends of ours had a three-year-old named Madeline, and Martha started having playdates with her. This fit, because socially, Martha was more like a toddler than a nine-year-old, despite being intellectually far above most nine-year-olds.
In November, my fantasies of Mary Ann began to wear thin. I had written her a second letter, and she hadn’t responded. I began to wonder if she did love me back. I realized that the main reason I didn’t fly out to Seattle and declare my feelings was that I didn’t believe she shared them. I suspected she would just be creeped out, our friendship ruined. As I realized this, I tumbled from heights of romantic bliss to depths of misery, and at the bottom broke to pieces. I became so sad I could hardly work. I spent long stretches of the day in bed with the lights off and the windows curtained. I developed a pain in my leg and started limping, dragging my leg around the house like the Mummy.
All my life, since about the age of nine and especially since my teens, I had been moody, subject to periodic states of desolation and despair. I had called these states misery or wretchedness, not depression, because I thought of myself in grand romantic terms, poetic or theological words, not the cheap clinical language of ordinary people. But starting earlier that year, I had been reading about clinical depression, in particular how it tended to recur over a lifetime and how it could be treated with medication. I had begun to wonder if after all my miseries were depressions and whether I should seek pharmaceutical treatment. I had already had one episode of misery earlier that year, but I had gotten out of it on my own. I had told myself that if I relapsed before the end of the year, I would give in and see a doctor. Now I had relapsed, and I kept my promise to myself.
I knew a therapist in Ardsley, Ella, whom I had seen a couple of times in previous years to help me deal with other bouts of anguish. I consulted with her in her office over the video store, and she agreed with me that I should see my family doctor. I did, and the doctor put me on Lexapro, an antidepressant. I had been on psychotropic drugs before, but many years earlier and for a short time. This felt like a much more momentous change—maybe a permanent one.
Melinda, who generally distrusted medicine, thought of antidepressants as little better than heroin. So she was concerned when I started on Lexapro. We talked it over with our door closed, as we had spent the last few months talking about Mary Ann with the door closed. Martha didn’t know what was going on, but she knew something was up. In her diary of November 22, she wrote, “M+D [Mommy and Daddy] are talking privately again. I feel like I’m two when I hear that. I just feel so young.”
The next day, Martha overheard me talking with my mother on the phone about being depressed, and it disturbed her. She heard me say that sometimes I did not feel like living when depressed. “I never knew any of this,” she told her diary. “I feel like I’m about to burst. Who will I talk to?” She heard me say something about having to “do” Martha, by which I meant having to do the bedtime ritual with Martha, and she wondered, “Am I an obstacle? What is my purpose? Why was I born?”
Martha kept listening to try to learn more. On November 27, she heard me tell Melinda that sometimes my depression was relieved by playing with Martha on our afternoons together, or when we all did things as a family. “I feel it is finally true that I have a purpose,” she wrote. “It doesn’t count when I’m in the room, but to have overheard it is wonderful.”
Martha had other interests besides overhearing my conversations. She played with Oregon Trail, a computer game, and with Neopets, virtual pets on the internet. She continued to develop her taste for classical composers such as Mozart, and listened to soundtracks of musicals like Oklahoma. She programmed lists of her favorite channels on our new satellite TV and watched movies with me like High Noon and Quo Vadis. She took part in an interschool competition called Destination Imagination. She started making crush lists of the boys she liked, several at a time, including Timothy and others in her class.
At first the Lexapro seemed to help my depression a little, though this may have been the placebo effect. But then I started getting worse—not only unhappy but angry and agitated. My doctor raised the dose, thinking too little Lexapro was the problem. And then I got really bad. I grew viciously hostile toward Melinda, made animal growls and barks, imagined that I was becoming a different person whom I called Mr. Hyde. Inspired by the book Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mr. Hyde had a hunch and a raspy, guttural voice; his narrowed eyes and snarl radiated evil. I wasn’t Hyde all the time, but sometimes he took over.
On a visit to Ella, she asked to see Mr. Hyde. I let him come out. She looked disturbed and said, “I think you’re bipolar.”
It was the first time anyone had told me that. I had been intermittently in and out of the offices of counselors, therapists, and psychiatrists since my teens, but no one had ever made that diagnosis. Ella explained that if you give an antidepressant to a bipolar person who isn’t on a mood stabilizer, the pill may cause the person to go manic. Mania is usually a state of euphoria and heightened energy, sometimes with delusions and hallucinations, but there is also such a thing as irritable mania, in which the dominant mood is not bliss but anger. The Lexapro had made me irritably manic.
As we talked, and as I read about bipolar disorder in the next few days, the diagnosis seemed at last to disentangle my tangle of thorns. Of course I was bipolar! That was the reason my depression had been preceded by my infatuation with Mary Ann. The fantastic bliss I had felt in loving her, the delusion that she loved me back, the creative energy I had shown in writing that story and those poems, the insistent rhythm of the 100 greatest love songs playing in my mind—all of it had been a manic episode, followed by a crash into depression. When I thought about it now, I realized I had had manias all my life, extended periods when I was blissful about science, or a woman, or God—sometimes delusionally blissful, and often followed by a steep descent into misery. I had never thought of them as manias, never considered them symptoms of illness, because they felt so good. I assumed everybody had them. But the truth is everybody doesn’t have them. A bipolar person, like me, can feel better than normal people can ever feel.
As I read about how bipolar disorder was linked to artistic and literary creativity, I understood that it was one of the sources of my life as a writer. I felt strangely proud to have joined the club of van Gogh and Graham Greene. When I told a bipolar poet friend of mine about my diagnosis, she said, “You’ve arrived!”
My family doctor took me off Lexapro and put me on Zyprexa, an antipsychotic with mood-stabilizing properties, and told me to see a psychiatrist. On January 7, 2004, that psychiatrist, Dr. Milstein, listened to my story and concluded I was bipolar type 1, the more severe of the two types. He switched me off Zyprexa and onto lithium. And then I waited to see if I would get better.
I told Martha about my bipolarity. After all, I thought, it concerned her too, since it was partly genetic and might be the source of her own budding tangle of thorns. She seemed interested, and even drew a picture, with crayons, of the rainbow of moods, from mania to depression. But later I got a call from the school counselor asking me not to talk anymore with Martha about this subject. Martha had gone to her feeling troubled about what I had told her, and the counselor thought she would feel more comfortable if I didn’t discuss it with her. So for a while, at least, my bipolar disorder became a taboo subject for Martha and me.
Martha had other interests anyway. She read A Wrinkle in Time, searched for Carmen Sandiego on the computer, and learned to jump rope. She watched shows on the Disney Channel, including Kim Possible, which I liked for its cute eponymous cartoon heroine, with her long red hair and bare midriff. Martha herself was becoming more womanish, with her hips beginning to flare and breast buds forming, to the point where I became embarrassed bathing and dressing her, and she started doing these things herself.
Her bed character family had grown to thirty-two stuffed animals—half of the sixty-four she would eventually accumulate. Some of them, such as Lynnie and Piawter, were so worn out by her years of loving them that they were ragged and shedding beans, so that I periodically had to sew up their wounds. On Friday nights, she did a show with her bed characters called Meadowlake Castle, which would later become one of her many unfinished novels. She created a musical about them, The Bed Characters’ Revue.
One of her bed characters was assigned to me as my lovey, Puppy. I didn’t really have a lovey as Martha did, but she thought I should, so she declared that a small stuffed animal who might have been a puppy (he might also have been a bear) was my lovey.
Music became a bigger part of Martha’s life. Every day, she picked a song of the day. She listened to the songs of Bruce Springsteen (her mother’s favorite rock singer) and researched the lyrics on the internet. With her mother and me, she visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and with me alone, the Museum of Natural History and the Bronx Zoo.
We had many fun times. We watched The Time Machine and started writing a sequel to it together. We cowrote poems for her animals. We played paddleball in the backyard. We went to the movie theater to see Mean Girls and The Day after Tomorrow. We ate at McDonald’s and she played in the play-place, though with her usual skittishness about climbing too high. She had not lost her fear of heights.
Martha’s tenth birthday party in April was a big success—her best party ever. The kids made collages of Neopets and American Girl images, played freeze dance and telephone, and designed their own ice cream sundaes. But Martha continued to struggle socially. “People just ‘tolerate’ me,” she wrote in her diary. “Why? What is my impression?” She was displeased with her physical appearance. “I am ugly!!!!!!!” she wrote.
School in general was boring her. “I hate school,” she wrote. “I hate homework. Why can’t they just leave us alone?” But once summer started, that was dull too: “I AM BORED!!” At least she enjoyed appearing in another summer play, Mary Poppins, in which she played Mrs. Brew, a nanny, and a chimney sweep.
As the 2004 election race between Republican incumbent George W. Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry heated up, Martha again began to be interested in presidential politics. A pro-choice Catholic, she wrote in her diary about her opposition to the spreading movement among Catholic bishops to refuse communion to Catholic parishioners who voted for the pro-choice Kerry. “Those bishops better not think of trying any ‘vote for Kerry, you can’t get communion’ things in our parish,” she wrote.
Martha loved to take a moral stand on issues. She would straighten her back and state her position with enthusiasm, smiling to show how much she enjoyed being moral and, in a way, how funny it was. Not much later, when she was about eleven, a letter of hers to the editor of the local paper got published, talking about how kids should be more careful with their language, such as saying “Oh, my God!” over trivial matters. She got a lot of local attention for that.
In May 2004, Martha read her first Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet. She read it on her own, not for school, a remarkable accomplishment for a ten-year-old. What spurred it was my showing her the Zeffirelli movie version, which also prompted her to learn to play the movie’s theme on her violin, memorize Juliet’s balcony speech, and go with her mother to see the ballet. Romeo and Juliet would become a prominent strand of her madness as she grew older.
Lithium took away my mania but it did little to help my depression. This was ironic because mania was the part of bipolarity I liked. It could get me into risky situations, as my passion for Mary Ann had put my marriage at risk, but it felt better than anything. Even as lithium took that away, the thing I didn’t want—depression—kept bothering me. Month after month, the misery continued, with just scattered days of feeling better. Milstein tinkered with my medication regimen, adding an antidepressant here, another mood stabilizer there, trying to make me feel better, but I kept feeling about as bad as when I’d started.
One of the few things that made me feel better was Martha. The happiest moment of every weekday was when Martha came home from school and I got to see my little girl again. Having her as my daughter made me feel that, despite everything, I was a lucky man. She represented pure hope—a new generation, a new chance to get life right instead of to wreck it as I had wrecked mine. All through my months of depression, I felt suicidal, but I staved off suicide in part by reminding myself that Martha needed a daddy to get to the point where she could live the bright adult life I pictured for her and that she wanted. By spring 2004, she wanted to be a writer, actress, teacher, or violinist when she grew up. I had to do all I could to give her a foundation for making that choice. I had to stay alive for Martha.
An unexpected effect of lithium was to take away my ability to experience God. My adult life as a Catholic had always been based on my joy at feeling God’s presence almost palpably in the air around me, the triumphant pulse of the divine heart in the night sky when I leaned against the car after taking out the garbage. Evidently those feelings were tied to mania, because when lithium erased mania it also erased God. The disappearance of God troubled me a little, but it also gave me an opportunity.
I had been suicidal at various points in my life, but as long as I believed in God that belief had acted like a high fence against suicide. As a Catholic, I believed that life was God’s greatest gift, and refusal of that gift was a mortal sin punishable by hell. If I killed myself to avoid further torture by depression, I would be tortured infinitely more painfully and eternally by hell, which I pictured as a sort of depression squared. That swap made no sense, forcing me to stay alive no matter how wretched I was.
But now that I no longer experienced God, and since the experience of God was the basis for my theism, I could abandon that belief and become an atheist. By that point, under the influence of the philosopher Richard Rorty, I was philosophically a pragmatist, believing that all you had to do to reject a belief was to show it wasn’t useful. And God was no longer useful to me. I had needed him before to explain my experiences of God, but now that I had no such experiences, I didn’t need him. And if God didn’t exist, neither did hell. So since the pain of depression continued to torment me, I could kill myself in peace.
In June 2004, I decided that I no longer believed in God. It seemed obvious that the next step was to kill myself, but I loved Martha and didn’t want her childhood marred by her father’s suicide. I had researched ways to do the deed, and had settled on suffocating myself with a plastic bag. But I decided I would wait eight years, until 2012, when she would turn eighteen. By then she wouldn’t need me as much. The loss of her father would still be painful, but she would be mature enough to stand it.
So I would wait eight years to kill myself. In the meantime, Martha was the one bright spot in my life. Nothing else mattered much any longer.
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa.
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