My grandmother, Sarah Lilah Lindsay, passed away over the holidays. We had a complex relationship. She gave me two things I live with every day: my name and my bipolar disorder. Unfortunately, her illness went misdiagnosed until her early 80s, when my father brought it to the attention of the staff in her nursing home. When I had my first depressive episode and my family and I learned more about mood disorders, and especially bipolar disorder, some things long since misunderstood about my grandmother became clearer. For 80 years, the only phrase she had to describe her struggle was “my nerves are bothering me”: a blanket statement that no one, not even she, understood.
She was a big lady; she was the life of the party; she was the loudest voice in a choir; she had the biggest opinion in the room. Growing up in a Protestant household in Northern Ireland, she was at once conservative in her ideas of success and class while also far from the stereotype of what a housewife should be. Although she could knit with her eyes closed and bake anyone under the table, she was also a businesswoman and a fierce fighter.
I saw many traits in Lilah, magnified by 80 years of struggle, that I see in myself. I do not like most of these traits. Chief among them is a complex of guilt and weakness, both internal and projected on to others. Her worldview, that hard work and sheer willpower can overcome anything, was paramount to Lilah. She seemed to think I should be able to will myself out of depression. She seemed to think that I could pull myself out of the fog by my bootstraps. When she first expressed that to me, I took it as an insult. I took it as an attack on my character. I was hurt that she thought I wasn’t strong enough to be the life of the party, be the loudest voice in the choir. I felt guilty for being a burden on my family and on her. But as years passed, at some point I realized that she had functioned her whole life believing her illness was not an illness, but weakness in her own character – and that would be a profoundly painful thing to live with. I believe she was hard on me, because she saw herself in me. My nerves are a problem too.
Apparently, her own mother was also a force to be reckoned with. At some point, probably at too many points, my Grandma Lilah would have heard the bootstraps lecture, too. At least my struggle has a name; Lilah’s struggle was just a personal failing.
On the day she passed away, my family tried to discuss Lilah’s life. My mother said something to me that over the past few days has changed the way I look at my whole relationship with my Grandmother. She said that Lilah’s methods were different from modern medicine, that her worldview was skewed, but she always asked. She always asked how I was, and she gave the only advice she knew to give, the advice people had been giving her for 80 years.
Sarah Lilah Lindsay was a force of nature. Maybe her favorite phrase really does encompass a confusion that so many people with mood disorders face: I’m not strong, I’m not proud, I feel guilty, I feel tired and lost and in pain. It has been a hard week, or month, or decade. I knit or bake just to be moving my hands, to slow my mind. I can’t breathe, I don’t know why I’m yelling, I don’t know why I’m crying. My head hurts, my heart aches. But all that is too messy, too personal for a Northern Irish Housewife. So, for 80 years, it all boiled down to:
My nerves are bothering me.
I hope there are no nerves wherever she is now. I hope she is finally at peace.