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A Love Song to My Bipolar Mother

"She's mad but she's magic; there's no lie in her fire."

By Alvin AngPublished 2 years ago 9 min read
Top Story - May 2022
My mother and I in happier times.

Dear Mama,

I love you.

Throughout our 27 years together on this Earth, I've never once told you this one, simple fact; but here it is, out in the open, out in the air.

Where do I begin? I've never once said the big L word to you—partially because I'm Asian, and we Asians, as a rule, do not wear our heart's on our sleeves—but mostly because growing up, I was completely and utterly terrified of you. Growing up, I was made aware of just how much I did not have a regular mother. My mother, you see, was not like the other mothers my friends in the playground had.

First of all, you're Thai. Growing up half-Thai in Singapore, where the majority of the population are Singaporean Chinese, immediately made my half-blood self stand out. But most of my sense of otherness stemmed from how...unstable you were during the tumultuous years of my youth.

When you were well, you were the best mother in the world. One of my favorite childhood memories is of the both of us, shopping for toys. Papa would never let me buy any new toys, he always told me I'd already had enough. Moreover, he was just a broke young hawker, trying to make some money, trying to Make It. I would often take Papa to the toy shop, pointing at this cool action figure and the next, but Papa would always shake his head no. But unbeknownst to him I, even at that tender young age, already had an Oddyssean scheme concocted in the recesses of my mind.

After Papa left for work, I would bring you to the toy shape. There, I would point to the same action figures that Papa had so insistently said no to, and you would resist for a moment. You would say that they were too expensive, or that I already had too many toys, the same words of denial that Papa had used. But unlike Papa, you would always give in after a while. After my lips went down and my eyes welled up, you would give in and buy me those toys. You could never bear to see me cry. And I would, after the purchase was set, hold up my brand new action figure, beam up at you, and say, "Thank you, Mama. You're the best!"

Papa was the firm one, but you were always the one who spoiled me.

But when you were ill, you were terrible. You would disappear to your room for days at a time, leaving canisters of prescription pills and bottles of foul-smelling liquid outside your door. I was still young, so I never understood the words the grown-ups were using, big words like postpartum depression, schizophrenia, and multiple personality disorder. I believe the term 'demonic possession' was thrown around once or twice.

However, there was one word I understood, and it was also the word I heard the most often. That word was crazy.

Yes, my mother was crazy, the grown-ups would say, the gossipy aunts and uncles who came to our door. They would look at me, one hand up and shielding their lips, the other clutching the bosom above their kind and all-caring hearts, and all the while they looked their eyes would be filled with pity. Oh, that poor, poor boy! Their eyes seemed to say, and I would never understand them. Me? Poor? How was I poor? I had the best mother in the world! I had a mother who loved me, a mother who was my best friend, a mother who bought me all the toys I ever wanted.

At the crest of this thought, however, another would surface in its wake, and this one was not kind but intrusive. This one would go: yes, yes you have a mother who loved you, a mother who was your best friend, a mother who would buy you all the toys in the world—at least when she was well.

I did my best to quash this unwelcome thought, to banish it to the abyss from whence it came.

-

Then came the day of my performance. It was an important day in my life, because my kindergarten was hosting a taichi performance, the taichi performance I had been practicing for for months. I had been practicing because I wanted to impress you, because you told me that you would come.

But when I went up on stage and searched for you among the crowd, you were nowhere to be seen. At first, I thought that it must be a trick of the masses: there must have been too many faces for me to successfully pick up yours. But when the performance ended and the crowd dispersed, you were still nowhere to be found. Even at that age, however, I was brave, brave but not stupid. I understood what was going on, but I did not break down until the last kid was picked up and I was left all alone.

In the end, it was our helper who picked me up. Remember her? We called her Pi Sook, Thai for Sister Joy, and the name we gave her couldn't have been more perfect. The teachers had called the family home, and the helper had picked up because you were too drunk to answer. Instead of being frazzled she, true to her name, was cheerful all the way back, telling me in her broken English to: "No be angry at Mama, boy, no be angry. She just sad..."

That day, I arrived home in the dying light of the evening and walked up to your bedroom door, the door lined with empty bottles and dreams. That day, I felt for the first time not pure, unadulterated love for you, but a flare of resentment and hot, hot anger...

-

My mother and my sister, Meimei. This picture was taken right before she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.

Things became worse with time.

You, the once-bright shining star of my life, the very personification of a Woman in my youth, started to become haggard. You gained weight. Your skin turned sallow. Your hair fell out. And at the peak of it all, you and Papa started to get into arguments. Violent arguments.

The worst of them came when Papa arrived home late. He had to work longer hours now because you were unable to help him out at the shop; and you, for some reason, did not think he was working hard but cheating on you.

"Where the HELL have you been?!" You would yell, moments after Papa stepped through the door. And Papa would be patient. He would try to cajole you, to humor you, to explain to you that the red welts on his skin were not love-bites from the lips of a mistress but burn marks from his backbreaking work as a hawker. And you would listen. Sometimes.

But more often than not, you would fly into a rage. You would curse, cry, threaten, and moan. Once, you even ran out of your room to attack Papa with a key. I remember that night clearly. I remember the way the cold light of the moon streamed into our home, illuminating the rivulets of blood coursing down Papa's wounded arm. I remember the way your long, black hair tangled around your face, framing it like a halo on the head of some deranged angel. As Papa dripped blood all over the living room floor, the look on your face was not one of sorriness, but of exhilaration, and when your cracked lips opened they did not let out words of apology, but pearls of too-bright laughter only the very happy or very mad could make...

-

It was not until I was well into my teens that you received an official diagnosis: Bipolar Disorder.

Everything started to make sense then; your swinging moods, your erratic energy, your sudden elation then abrupt crash into Earth. You went on medication and progressively got better. The light in your eyes came back. Your drinking lessened. Your mood slowly stabilized...but by then, it was already too late.

Papa had already filed for divorce. He had had enough of the drinking, the arguing, the madness and badness of it all. He had to, in his own words, "Cut you off like a cancer," and he advised me to do the same. I tried to take my father's advice, to leave you, to forget the beautiful, loving Mama of my youth...but even then, it was not enough.

We lost everything. First went the house. Papa had spent tens of thousands of dollars taking care of you, paying for this therapist and the next, and now he had to lawyer up for the divorce. He had to sell the house to come up with the money. On the day we moved out, I remember looking back and waving a sad farewell to the multitude of action figures in my room, the figurines of my foregone past.

Next went Papa's business. His shop had not been doing well to begin with; this, combined with the financial and emotional toll of the divorce, was too much for him. He decided to let the business fold. He soon found another job selling and repairing handphones. He made a fraction of the money he used to make.

Last went our helper, Pi Sook, she who picked me up, she of the bright and luminous smiles. She, in line with her cheerful demeanor, was not despondent but philosophical when she heard the news of her departure. "I will take this as a break," Pi Sook said at the airport. "It's been years since I saw my son, anyway. It will be good to see him again..." And with that, she gave me a little smile and a wave, and was gone, dragging her little suitcase with her. I never saw her again.

When all was said and done, we had just enough money left to purchase two tiny apartments. Papa and I moved into one, you into the other. We saw each other once a week, then less and less as time passed.

We were now totally, irreconcilably estranged.

-

So there it is Mama, the entirety of my confession to you, the sad story of our rise and fall.

Writing this letter, I find it strange how 27 years of living can be condensed into one single, singing note. Writing this letter, I am reminded once again of the loving mother of my youth, and her sad descent into madness. But most of all, writing this letter, I feel ashamed, ashamed and regretful at allowing our relationship to slide to the point of near irreparable brokenness.

See Mama, every year we would make plans for Mother's Day, plans that never came into fruition. You would call me one year and ask me out for lunch, and I would call you the next and offer to bring you out for dinner, but somehow, our plans never ended up materializing. There would be a last-minute change to our schedules; or more often than not, we would end up "forgetting" that we made plans in the first place.

But this year, things will be different. This year, I want to make amends, and my amends begins and ends with two things, the first of them we Asians rarely say, and the second is uttered by us ad nauseam. My amends begins with, "I love you. Let's get dinner together."

Even though Mother's Day has already passed, let us get dinner together, just you and I. Time is like a flowing river under a bridge, and we have allowed far too much of it to pass us by to wait for next year's Mother's Day dinner, a dinner that might never come.

On this dinner, I want to tell you how much you meant to me—how much you still mean to me, and how much of a joy having you as a mother was. The grown-ups were wrong; you were not crazy, you were just sick. I see that now. I forgive you, and I hope you will forgive me, for letting the river of our youth run dry before writing this letter.

Thank you for buying me those toys. I loved you for it then, and I still love you for it now. Let me repay you with dinner. Anything you want at all, on me.

Your Loving Son,

Alvin

Childhood

About the Creator

Alvin Ang

👑 Writer of scandalous stories. Author of "National Service: Confessions of a Skiving Soldier" and "Confessions of a Singaporean Weed Smoker." Buy my books here!

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Comments (6)

  • Call Me Les2 years ago

    Noted you in Creators we are loving and stumbled on this. I have bipolar as well. This letter, while it made me sad, also gives me hope to see just how far mental health has evolved. Truly beautiful words and very brave to say them all so publicly. Well done <3

  • Taaj Bowers 2 years ago

    Beautifully written. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  • Zoe Vega2 years ago

    This is real. That second to last paragraphs closing line has beautiful imagery.

  • Shirley Belk2 years ago

    Toys were her love language to you....she saw you as more important than rent or bills or grocery money.

  • Carol Townend2 years ago

    I sat here in tears reading this. I was once a parent who was very unwell myself, though I loved my children and still love them today. Mental illness can cause many destructive things that we don't really mean to do. I really like your story. I hope healing comes your way.

  • S.R. Var2 years ago

    Beautifully written…I can relate well to this.

Alvin AngWritten by Alvin Ang

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