Grow­ing up with a bipo­lar mom

By the time she was eight, OLIVIA PALAM­OUN­TAIN knew her mom was not like other moth­ers – her story is one of love and un­pre­dictabil­ity

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CON­TENTS - Words OLIVIA PALAM­OUN­TAIN

‘DO YOU EVER get wor­ried that your mommy won’t pick you up?’ I asked a class­mate, with that fa­mil­iar knot of af­ter­noon panic ris­ing in my belly. Eye­ing me with sus­pi­cion, she gave a non­cha­lant again: only me. At eight years old, I had

Snug­gling in be­side her as she slept, I COULD SMELL THAT SOUR SMELL on her breath and thought of THE CANS IN THE FRIDGE

rea­son to worry. Whether Mommy was a no-show was a per­ma­nent panic. As the end of the day dawned I waited and watched as, one by one, my lit­tle pals were greeted by par­ents, chauf­feurs, nan­nies; cars slink­ing off

I knew the drill. Chap­er­oned around the var­i­ous school lo­ca­tions by a teacher with pity in their eyes, I was care of the school un­til one of my mother’s ‘colour­ful’ friends could be con­tacted to take me home.

But 35 Nev­ern Square was a very dif­fer­ent sort of home, and my mommy was a dif­fer­ent breed of mother. Af­ter-school jugs of squash. Their mom­mies made cakes and went shop­ping, they asked us ques­tions about school and wore pearls. My mommy was of­ten in bed – or that was where I hoped painted her­self. She never baked.

As I climbed the many stairs to our bed­room – I never used my own – I couldn’t help but feel re­lieved. If Mom was al­ready in bed then she might be nor­mal again soon. Snug­gling in be­side her as she slept, I could smell that sour smell on her breath and thought of the cans in the fridge. What­ever they were, I hated them. Wait­ing pa­tiently for her to wake up, I squeezed my eyes shut, and won­dered what I would tell my dad.

Ul­rika Brunnhage, my mother, was born in Swe­den and moved to Lon­don af­ter meet­ing my fa­ther in a stand-by queue for a chance en­counter that led to a love af­fair and then mar­riage.

By all ac­counts a beau­ti­ful, be­guil­ing spirit, Ul­rika was born to make an im­pres­sion. Fiercely pas­sion­ate and highly cre­ative, I’m told she could charm her way into – or out of – any sit­u­a­tion. By the time she had lived an in­cred­i­ble life of ex­cess. She’d lived with the in­fa­mous Mar­cos fam­ily in the Philip­pines, trav­elled the world by pri­vate jet and could speak seven lan­guages. When she ar­rived in up­per-mid­dle class Lon­don in the 80s, it was as if an alien had landed. Out­ra­geously glam­orous, with a purring Swedish ac­cent and lit­tle con­cern for con­ven­tion, Ul­rika was an enigma. She also suf­fered from bipo­lar disor­der, an ill­ness that re­mains a mystery to most and still di­vides ex­pert opin­ion.

Bipo­lar disor­der ( pre­vi­ously known as manic de­pres­sion) is a men­tal disor­der char­ac­terised by ex­treme shifts in mood, as lev­els. These os­cil­la­tions are of­ten so de­bil­i­tat­ing that it can be im­pos­si­ble to main­tain a reg­u­lar lifestyle, wreak­ing havoc on re­la­tion­ships and de­stroy­ing the lives of loved ones in the process.

I don’t re­mem­ber my par­ents as a cou­ple, but no one could forget their di­vorce. Bru­tal and cruel, they wran­gled for two years over where I would live. By this stage my fa­ther had seen it all, with one par­tic­u­lar manic eclipse even recorded on home is in chaos. The fur­ni­ture has been dec­i­mated, con­tents of draw­ers lit­ter the the car­nage. Ul­rika was found in hys­ter­ics, cov­ered in blood and bruises; I was up­stairs and just three years old. Fol­low­ing this event, Mom was sec­tioned.

I know just how dirty this war was. ‘I would have tried any­thing to win,’ said my fa­ther. ‘I just didn’t think you would be safe with her.’ And he was prob­a­bly right. But once odds, she won.

Liv­ing with a bipo­lar par­ent has, as you might imag­ine, its ups and downs. But even on an av­er­age day, Ul­rika had plans. From the stair­case) to the ab­surd (con­vinced she would make her for­tune from sell­ing elec­tronic vi­sors) – there was al­ways a scheme un­der­way.

As her per­pet­ual side­kick, I grew dress up in se­quins and pa­rade down the

said and did was at odds with the norm and

On the way up to a manic

into town ended up with me sup­port­ing her solo through the streets as she stag­gered and

any­thing to pro­tect her and, man­ag­ing the sit­u­a­tion like a diplo­mat, I in­vented child

In­stead, it’s thought that some peo­ple are sim­ply more pre­dis­posed to it, with se­vere

trauma runs deep and her death con­tin­ues are al­ways rich, and it’s thanks to Ul­rika that

into the hu­man con­di­tion, which I’d never

I DON’T RE­MEM­BER MY PAR­ENTS AS A COU­PLE, but no one could forget their di­vorce

RIGHT ‘I love how my mom styled this look – the vibe is just so fresh and I can feel her in­cred­i­ble en­ergy’

BELOW Ul­rika’s birth­day sup­per. ‘I can still re­mem­ber the smell of her skin mixed with the burn­ing can­dles’

ABOVE The writer’s mother, Ul­rika Brunnhage LEFT ‘A card from my Swedish un­cle, with pic­tures taken at our fam­ily hol­i­day house on the is­land of Smö­gen. It’s my favourite place in the world’

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