Sam: Growing Up with Mom

When their mother was hospitalized for episodes of mania or depression that were part of her bipolar disorder, sometimes Sam and Joann would go to their grandparents’ house for a week. Once when his grandfather came to Sam’s house, he thought it was odd that all of a sudden, his grandfather was caring for him. Sam now understands that his father was sometimes drained and his grandparents provided respite to lighten his father’s responsibilities.

Sam’s worst times were during his mother’s depressive episodes, when she would sit up all night, smoking cigarette after cigarette, and then sleep all day. For Sam, when “mom wasn’t depressed, then everything’s good.”

During Miriam’s manic episodes, Sam remembers his mother would come home with fantastic stories about men who pursued her. He recalled, “I think when she was manic, she was just gone and I could tell dad was worried, but it didn’t affect me because then I knew she wasn’t depressed. But then, inevitably she’d crash after that.” Sam and his sister often needed to take care of themselves in the family home. He remembered, “Joann and I maybe had five official breakfasts because mom was always sleeping or maybe gone. Carnation instant milk for a decade. I don’t drink it anymore."

Sam took responsibility for monitoring his mother’s medications.

The one I remember for sure is Lithium because it was a pinkish capsule. I don’t think I had much opportunity to be innocent as a child because I was often on duty. I would have to dispense the medicine when it wasn’t a time that my dad was at home. We’d have to vary where we hid the medicine so she wouldn’t find it and then try a suicidal overdose. I remember where it would be hidden different times and I’d have my little assignment sheet and this was when I was 12 years old—two pink, one blue, one white. Then I would have to give those at the right time and be really careful that she wasn’t spying on me. I’d hide the stash. I was all-consumed and I was afraid to go very far and have very much fun because I felt like I should be on duty. In fact, mom would call me her warden in the fun sense. I had a very responsible childhood.

When his dad was present, Sam would get a break from monitoring his mother’s medications. However, Sam’s father worked full time in the business world and sometimes had trips away from home.

When dad was there, I think I could exhale. I kind of forgot how to be a kid. Because a kid doesn’t go to school after you have a Carnation Instant Breakfast and kiss your mom goodbye and hope that when you get home that she isn’t dead. Then when you come home, it’s late afternoon pill time that you have to find the stash and hide it and maybe sit up and try to be logical about depression.

He does remember having one-to-one time after school with his mother, who taught him how to play poker when he was in the fifth grade. However, this time together still “wasn’t like it should have been.”

Her depression was similar to gravity, pulling at her. She had too much confusion, guilt about her affairs, or guilt about not being a good wife. I think guilt was a powerful emotion for her—from the time she was in her early 30s, she said, “I’m going to die before I’m 40,” because in her mind, her value was her appearance. To me she looked kind of like Marilyn Monroe—a really attractive woman. But to her, her worth was her physical attraction. Her jobs as an adult were working as a hostess in dinner clubs. If you think back to movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s, the hostess at the dinner club was usually a stunning person to get these guys to come in after their business meetings and spend the cocktail hour.

He believed his mother did not find value in being a wife, because “she thought she was a lousy wife.” He hypothesized that his mother, who had a fraternal twin sister, had perceived less attention from her father and looked for affirmation from men ever since her youth.

More of the Story: His Mother's Suicide