Person with Blue Latex Gloves Getting a Roll of Gauze From a Rack

The Body Snatching Spell of Bipolarism

Joshua Forehand

There’s a scene near the end of the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers—the one with Donald Sutherland—that I’ve always found disturbingly familiar. One of the last human survivors, Nancy, approaches Sutherland’s character seeking safety and escape after being separated while running for their lives from the body snatchers. Nancy doesn’t know that he is no longer the person she knew; that, since their separation, he too has been turned into something other than himself. Sutherland’s character slowly points in her direction, opening his mouth in an inhuman fashion to emit an otherworldly scream. Nancy’s face contorts into a mix of confusion, betrayal, and terror as she realizes all hope for survival is gone. While a bit melodramatic by today’s standards, for me, growing up in the cold shadow of mental illness, the scene lingered with a haunting sensation akin to déjà vu. As a young child, standing in front of me and no less horrifying than this scenario of human imagination—was a mother, suddenly unrecognizable to her children. Under the body-snatching spell of bipolarism, something inhabited the body of my mother, but it was not her.

My father, young and overwhelmed, tried his best to protect my mother from the snatchers. He built tarred and gummy walls of lithium and clozapine. He diverted and distracted and snapped fingers in front of her face, but from time to time, the enemy would find a fold in the membrane, burst through and recapture her. This recurred again and again throughout my early childhood, until one day she came home with hard casts covering her wrists and forearms having “fallen in the shower.” And then she disappeared.

My mother was struggling to emerge from the vortex of her own trauma after years of undiagnosed depression and mania. As a child, she was forced to bear witness to and endure the alcohol-fueled abuse, both physical and psychological, of her father. My grandfather, a man who was good, yet himself altered and afflicted, left indelible scars on the gray matter of an innocent child. She told me of an afternoon from her youth. Her parents were seated on opposite sides of the living room staring at each other in silence. One wall of the 1950s ranch was completely covered with a giant mirror on which a design was frosted into the lower half. She entered from the kitchen to see her father holding his hunting rifle, silently daring her mother to move from the chair. In an act of bold defiance, with the kind of courage only possessed by the abused, my mother calmly walked across the room and sat in my grandmother’s lap shielding her from harm and shifting the dare back to him. Years later, she would crack him over the head with the same rifle to save her mother from a brutal attack and then turn to smash her own reflection in the mirror wall. The living room of her childhood came cascading down behind her in a thousand rays of dingy incandescent light as she ran out the door, narrowly escaping his grasp.

After her suicide attempt and an extended stay at the state psychiatric hospital, my mother finally returned home to us. I have no concept of how long she was gone, but upon her return, it was as if we had a guest in the house. Every now and again we’d see flickers of recognition as a period of pharmaceutical calibration altered her from torpor to tears to something motherly. There were episodes in which she would be up all night, terrified she would lose her grip on reality or try to hurt herself again. After one of these nights, the whites of her eyes were bloodshot and appeared to be the same color as her skin. She would voluntarily return to a halfway house for a couple of weeks at a time. I remember the ecru lights of the visiting room. The dull beige of her eyes and oatmeal color skin—the doughy, clammy slough of antipsychotics.  We took her cartons of cigarettes, Diet Coke, and feminine hygiene products. We got a hug. I had a recurring dream where I was playing innocently in the backyard, and she would come around the corner with her eyes in that condition. I would wake up in terror. Before long, the nightmare began to blur the line between sleep and consciousness.

My mind, in its innocence, held a rudimentary concept that, like all mammals, we share the same DNA with our progenitors and are nurtured in their ways and mimic their sounds and their actions. As early as nine years old, I began to formulate a hypothesis based on these biological truths that I too would suffer from my mother’s affliction. What other outcome could possibly await me? Soon, insomnia became my secret nightly struggle, too. I was far too young to understand what was happening to me, enveloped in a gurgly waterbed, scared and pleading to God to let me sleep.

What I can now identify as acute anxiety would set in sometime after supper, knowing I would soon have to do battle with the body snatchers. I developed strategies to counteract the exponential momentum with which the anxiety fueled itself. I chose a word to repeat over and over again. With increased urgency, I prayed a simple and repetitive oration. I implored God that he let me rest; I supplicated and made promises and entreaties as a child does to its omnipotent creator.

Despite these efforts, lying there in the darkness, unwelcome thoughts would inevitably creep in. I would think about my mother’s insomnia during her manic spells, and how that often led to paranoid delusions that swept us all up into a chaos that bled out into the streets and into the homes of our neighbors. These thoughts brought on a palpable terror that would course through my body, much like a fever-induced chill. In my head I could not turn off the repeating message, “I’m destined to be like her, there’s no escaping it.”

These are the demons I fought while lying in bed each night between the ages of nine and twelve, or somewhere around there. I gained some level of comfort knowing my father was in the living room watching TV, and it was my goal every night to fall asleep before he went to bed. It was always better when he was up. Most nights I achieved this goal, I think, but not always. Those nights were the worst.

I can still hear these sounds very clearly—the flick of the light switch in the hallway bathroom, the patter of footsteps down the hall, and the metallic click of my parents’ door latching shut. When that door closed, in the resulting silence, I felt truly alone. The darkness encapsulated me and attracted more darkness to itself and poured down like fresh concrete onto my chest. My torso became compressed to the point I could hardly breathe. It pinned my arms and legs down so only my head could move from side to side. Although my brother was asleep in his bed just a few feet away, I was alone and abandoned in a psychological labyrinth. It never occurred to me to share these troubles with anyone—I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it to someone else anyway. My only recourse was to offer these continued supplications to God, the repetitive words and prayers that kept my mind from being taken by the darkness to places of memory and terror. As long as I focused on a word or series of words, I was in control of my consciousness. Eventually, I would win the struggle and sleep would come. Every night I would win. I would not be taken by the body snatchers.I fought this solitary battle for years, until one day, around the time I entered junior high, I fought the body snatchers into retreat and surrender. Whether it was the hormonal shift of adolescence or being so physically exhausted from athletics, my body and mind finally synced and sleep came to me swiftly and without protest. Or maybe God decided I had met some senseless quota of exhortation from all the nights spent sending prayers of desperation into the ether. Like my mother, though, the insomnia would return from time to time; but I was battle-hardened and returned to the strategies that sustained me through the most difficult years. With time, I discovered there were other paths for me, innumerable paths, in fact, that led, not to mental illness, but to discovery, purpose, and fulfillment. The body snatchers took my mother, but they wouldn’t take me. What I once held to be an irrefutable truth of determinism, I now see as the impact of the generational trauma we pass along to our young, like DNA, in a cycle that dissipates and flares up and dissipates again, ad infinitum.

Joshua Forehand is an educator of 23 years, having worked in Honduras, Texas, and Wisconsin. Writing has been a constant in his life since childhood–an escape, a travel companion, an emotional pocket-translator. He is currently working on the cathartic process of turning memories into memoir.  His work has been published in Half and One and Beyond Queer Words. He currently lives in Madison, WI.