by Helen Joy George
The Cheerful Word, 2019; 320 pp.; $16.95 (Paperback)Buy Book
Like the mania and depression that have dominated much of the author’s life, Yellow Tulips travels through two distinct parts to chronicle one woman’s struggle with bipolar disorder and her will to overcome the suicidal ideations that plagued her. In the first part of the book, Helen Joy George recounts her childhood and family history. In the second, George details her descent into a bipolar episode that nearly resulted in her suicide—an episode made worse by a doctor who prescribed the wrong medication and a mental health facility that did not provide proper care. To complicate matters further, George was also parenting young children and trying to keep a tenuous marriage afloat throughout this crisis. Through vivid and honest writing, George is able to give readers a glimpse into a vulnerable period of her life and prompt readers to think about their own mental health and that of others.
In the opening chapters of the book, George reveals that her dad was afflicted with mental illness. Oscillating between the formality of family life in Charleston, South Carolina, and a life spent traveling as an architect and builder, George’s father was a sweet and gentle man, but one who struggled to provide his children with stability. As an adult, she understands that her dad was suffering from undiagnosed bipolar disorder. At the tender age of thirteen, George experienced the deep trauma of her father’s suicide attempt and subsequent traumatic brain injury. She writes:
When they finally took us back to see him, I noticed his hair lay greasy and long on one side of his pillow, with his head shaved and displaying a fresh wound of staples on the other. A haze of sensations surrounded me: a thick blue tube down his throat, that smell, those beeps of the machines keeping him alive. I stood there so small, so helpless as I watched his chest rise and fall to the sound of the sucking tube. I wish we could have all leaned over and kissed him, whispered how much we loved and forgave him, and released him from this life, from this toil and weariness. Was it our prayers that tied him there?
With the perspective of an adult, George wonders if death would have been a mercy for him in place of the agony of life with a traumatic brain injury, but she also recognizes that his struggles helped her to fight valiantly against the suicidal ideations that haunted her. She did not want to succumb to them and leave her children with the same trauma that she endured because of her father’s suicide attempt.
George’s relationship with her husband, Noah, binds the two distinct parts of her memoir together. They first met when she was only fourteen, but he was nineteen and in college. What would be a problematic age difference in most communities was normalized by their friends and families. George, so buoyed by the burgeoning romance, allowed herself to see Noah as her protector and rescuer, even though that expectation did not bear out. In the second half of the book, she recounts how her marriage with Noah, and specifically his lack of empathy and concern for her, exacerbated her bipolar disorder, which she was diagnosed with shortly after graduating college. While it’s not entirely clear to George why he lacked empathy for her, it is clear how his callousness burned a “raw part of her,” and catalyzed violent outbursts. The more violent outbursts she had, the more his callousness grew. As a young bride, she experienced the collective hurt of her own mental health struggles and his cold shoulder,
Noah would come home from work hours late without calling. He shrugged when I cried about it. I would usually chug liquor and threaten suicide. One stormy evening it got so bad that I took all my clothes off and ran into the streets with a knife. I stood in the rain, crying out for help, wanting to stab myself.
But Noah never came to help her; in fact, he remained unmoved on the couch when she came back inside. George had to learn to become her own rescuer during times of crisis. She would have to summon her own strength, both to recognize her bipolar disorder and to seek the treatment she needed.
Despite the outbursts and arguments, George and Noah’s marriage endured and saw happy moments with the births of three children. Along with the marriage, the subject of motherhood weaves the two halves of this memoir together. As the oldest of five, George was a mother long before she had her own children: she constantly mothered her sisters while her mom cared for her dad. George felt like she was born to be a mother, and, despite warnings from her doctor, she stopped taking her bipolar medication and got pregnant. George suffered many miscarriages between her three children and learned to live with hyperemesis gravidarum during all of her pregnancies. She writes, “Five babies gone, even though I loved them from the first moment I knew they existed. I experienced the lack of support that results when people have had enough of your sorrow.” The reader is left to conclude that the sense of hopelessness and lack of support that she felt in this time only exacerbated her mental health struggle.
In the last chapter of the first half of the book, “Nightgown Mama,” George details the gap between the kind of mom she wants to be and the kind of mom that she actually is. George describes the nightgown mama: “She’s feminine: floor-length, floral nightgown, soft and airy. Her long brown hair falls down her back in a thick braid, and her cheeks are flushed the color of the camellias outside our door.” It’s clear that George is describing her own mother who strove to create a beautiful and peaceful home despite the chaos that was raging just outside their door. While this may be the image she wants to live up to, she is just not built to be that way: “I am half-naked with one fuzzy lime-green sock on. My hair is stuck to the side of my face because it hasn’t been washed in two days . . . . No one can eat at the table, because it’s covered with used paint brushes and portraits of dinosaurs. Chaos swells.” The distance between our imagined self and our actual self is not only a theme of this book, but a feeling that most mothers know all too well.
In the second part, George details her bipolar condition and her struggle to overcome it. She recounts a Halloween party she went to with a friend while a babysitter cared for her children and the disappointment she felt when the costume she originally planned on did not work out, and she had to wear her backup costume. The disappointment was crushing and she slowly started to drown in it. That evening, after leaving the party, she flirted with suicide once again:
I threw off the covers, flew down the stairs to the liquor cabinet, and picked up a heavy bottle of tasteless vodka, sloshing it against my thigh as I went back up to the bedroom. I fell into bed with the bottle, intending to drink every drop with the hope that I would never wake up. But I couldn’t bring myself to drink it. My father and his botched suicide attempt haunted me and the fear of death permeated my body.
This episode is pivotal in illustrating this mental health crisis, and it’s also crucial in helping the reader to understand how bipolar disorder intensified everything in her life. What could have been a minor disappointment to overcome became a crushing blow that she could not get herself out of without help.
George’s writing style throughout the book is lyrical and honest. She gives the reader an unflinching look into generational trauma, bipolar disorder, and a broken mental health care system. George is clear that she is one of the lucky ones. When she first sought inpatient treatment in the fall of 2015, after having been off bipolar medication since her first pregnancy, she had a family and community that upheld her throughout her struggles and helped her husband and children while she was in treatment. She met many along the way, however, who lacked the same. While in the psych unit at a local hospital, she met a homeless man on the same floor. George does not share his exact diagnosis, but it’s clear that he lacked the resources from which she benefitted. Though she was eventually able to get treatment for her bipolar and return to home life with her family, he was not as lucky. George writes:
A year later I saw him downtown, begging for money, as I was running to a dinner reservation at a fancy restaurant. I rounded up twenty dollars to take back to him, even though I knew what he would buy with it. I just wanted him to know I remembered his name and that I cared for him. He was gone before I returned. I think of him nearly every day.
It’s clear that George feels empathy for her fellow patients who lacked family, community, and money. And her story engenders the same empathy in her audience, as it speaks to the crumbling mental health infrastructure in this country.
Throughout her struggles both in and out of treatment, George’s love for her children remained fierce, and she was determined to survive for them. While motherhood does make her confront the chasm that exists between her imagined self and her actual self, it helps her to recognize her illness and ultimately keeps her from committing suicide. During her challenges with bipolar, she made note of many times when she felt indifference or pain while touching or being touched by her children. These feelings were guideposts. They signaled to her that something was extremely wrong because those feelings were the opposite of how she felt towards her children before. George was touched by generational trauma, and she did not want to inflict that same emotional damage on her children: “I do it [the work of treatment] for my children in hopes that one day they realize I have only handed them one body to heap onto their backs. Mine. One layer they must work through and peel aside. So that they can have pink skin too.” While not every mother faces generational trauma or mental health struggles, all mothers can identify with the feeling of wanting to be better for their children.
While most mothers envision what kind of parent they will be, that expectation is rarely met. Like George, we must learn to accept and live with who we truly are, and hope that the fierce love of our children will guide us.