Out of My Mind: Living with Bipolar

Out of My Mind: Living with Bipolar

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This is the story of one man's journey through the hell of mental illness and out the other side.

From: Out of My Mind: Living with Bipolar, by Ben Benjamin & Ian Dougherty


Yisgadal Ve’yiskadash Sh’may Rabbo, Be’ol’mo Deevro Chiroosay Ve’yamlich Malchoosay, Be’chayaychown U’vyowmaychown U’vchayay, De’chol Bayss Yisroayle Ba’agolo Uvisman Koreev Ve’imroo Omayne:

(Magnified and sanctified be His great name in the world which He hath created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom during your life and during your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel, even speedily and at a near time; and say ye, Amen.)

The ancient words were carried by the chilly winds across the scar of the freshly opened grave and out over the barren landscape of Auckland’s Waikumite Cemetery. I stared numbly down at the prayer book in my hand, searching, through tear filled eyes, for the ancient script on the page. Mercifully, almost prompted, someone nearby, having been at one too many of these funeral services, commenced the next verse.

Ye’hay Sh’may Rabbo Me’vorach Le’olam Ul’olmay O’lmahyoh,

(Let His great name be blessed for ever and to all eternity.)

I mentally thanked my fellow congregant and hoped that I would not have to become too familiar with the service.

The events of the day had made only superficial impression since that fateful telephone call at two in the morning. It all seemed a dream from which I must surely shortly awaken. I remembered the feeling of relief knowing that my father was now out of all pain, but somehow that knowledge did not fill the void that only now was beginning to open up. There would be time to reflect on this later in the day, but for now there were other matters with which to contend. The intoned words of the person at my right shoulder brought me back to the reality before me.

Yisborach Ve’Yishtabach Ve’yispoar Ve’yisrowman Ve’yisnasay Ve’yishadar Ve’yisallay Ve’yishallal Sh’may De’koodsho Be’rich Hoo, Le’aylo Min Kol Birchoso Ve’sheerroso Toosh’bechoso Ve’ne’chemoso Da’ameeron Be’olmoh Ve’imroo Omayne,

(Blessed, praised and glorified, exalted, extolled and honoured, magnified and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He; though He be high above all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations, which are uttered in the world; and say ye, Amen.)

I remembered that they sometimes referred to Judaism as a religion of death, since it was through a death that you were forced to confront your heritage. Heaven knows the Jews had seen plenty of the world’s history, but it was not until the death of a parent that you were personally confronted with it, I thought, faltering over the ancient words. I wondered to myself if anyone who had not experienced these events could ever comprehend the feelings generated. This was one time when I wished that I had been more attentive at the Hebrew school I had suffered in my early days. I wanted to do it properly for my father’s sake, as a Jewish son should. My mind flashed to the fifth commandment, that had meant so much to me and shaped my life until now, and had given me that last ten years’ reason for living, ever since the age of thirteen, ever since that ghastly event that had sliced across our lives so cruelly: Honour thy father and they mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.

Ye’hay Sh’lomo Rabbo Min Sh’mahyo Ve’chahyim Olaynoo Ve’al Kol Yisroayle Ve’imroo Omayne:

(May there be abundant peace from heaven and life for us and for all Israel; and say ye, Amen.)

The mourners’ prayer coming to an end, I knew that I must brace myself for what would follow, what had followed at the precise ending of every mourners’ prayer at every funeral and for every mourner. I reflected for a moment how typically Jewish that the prayer should not be one of grieving, but rather of the glorification of God, a reaffirmation of faith, a selfless acceptance of the ways of God and fate. Perhaps it would all make sense later, but for the moment nothing seemed to matter at all except the gaping hole in the wounded earth and the coffin that was meant to fill it. Dust to dust and ashes to ashes, from the earth we had come and to the earth we would return, and the soul, ah the soul, what of the soul, I thought, whither oh whither.

Owsey Sholowm Bimrowmov Hoo Ya’asseh Sholowm Olaynoo Ve’al Kol Yisroayle Ve’imroo Omayne:

(He who maketh peace in His high places, may He make peace for us and for Israel; and say ye, Amen.)

The plain unadorned coffin lowered slowly into the beckoning earth until it could go no further, resting in absolute finality. I felt the spade being pressed into my hand. Carefully I dislodged a lump of clay from the pile surrounding the open grave. For what seemed an eternity the lump of earth spun and hung in the air, landing at its conclusion with a hollow, dull, empty thud, as empty as the feeling inside.

The people surrounding me came and gave the traditional greeting of wishing me a long life, until finally I was free to enter the funeral car and begin the slow, empty ride home. Strangely, I had little desire to leave the cemetery, pausing for one long, lingering look at my father’s hillside resting place. Far away in its private resting place I knew my father’s soul would be at peace, something that I was shortly to find out would be absent from my life for quite some time.

Then it broke. Up from the very wellspring of despair emerged the grief that until this moment could not be spoken. The howl of the ancients that was heard at every funeral. I could no longer contain my tears, and in the privacy of the car, with only my mother and sister, Anne, to bear witness, I broke down and wept, for my father, and for myself. My grieving echoed around the tall eucalyptus gums surrounding the graves, summoning the spirits from their resting places to witness. And yet, there was something different, something strangely eerie, an atmosphere, a premonition, a ghastly foreboding that this was not the end of the matter for me. I had buried my father and fulfilled his obligations. But the course of my life that had been diverted a decade before had quite an unexpected distance to run. Destiny and fate would see to that.

The funeral procession slowly wound its way down the hill, leaving only the grave diggers at their task. Passing through the section where the cremated ashes were buried, I felt the tortured screams of thousands of burning souls pleading to be given a lasting burial place. I shivered, trying to close my ears to the sounds that I knew no one else could hear.

‘Leave me alone. Go away. I have buried my father. What more do you want from me?’ I said to myself.

But still the burning screams following, getting louder and louder until the car was finally outside the cemetery gates. Then they abruptly stopped. I turned around to take one last look at the final resting place. The grave diggers were gone. Nothing remained except a scarred section of earth. Nothing, nothing, nothing. All this was for nothing, I thought, nothing except a mound of earth on the side of a hill.

Being driven home gave me a chance to reflect. So much had happened in such a short time. My thoughts were drifting off when I noticed that we were driving past my ex-fiancé’s house. Judith, damn her, love her, Jeese does it really matter. She hadn’t come to the funeral, just her mother. Nice lady, I thought, always had a lot of time for her, seemed to get on well. Pity her daughter took after her father, miserable old bastard, I thought, casting my mind back to the relationship. I’d had many discussions with people who did not believe in true love at first sight, but the moment I had met Judith, a chance meeting at the Hunua Falls one summer, I had fallen hopelessly in love. I was twenty-two and she was seventeen. She was my idea of Venus, the Roman goddess of love. A classic Jewish beauty, tall, dark, with alabaster skin that glowed in the moonlight, a totally sensual looking woman, but at times so cold, almost frigid. I had been her first boyfriend and that had brought us closer together, but there was something between us, a barrier, silent yet powerful. She was very Orthodox and I had been brought up as a Liberal Jew, yet we seemed to complement each other in so many ways. Perhaps it was the opposites that had attracted us. Damn the woman, I thought. She bloody well knew that I loved her and she used it to tantalise me and keep me dangling at arms length. Still, now was not the time to be thinking about such matters. The looming neon sign of Benjamins came into view, interrupting my thoughts and bringing them back to my farther.

Benjamins was the company my father had established after arriving in New Zealand fifty years before with only one hundred pounds in his pocket. He had rented a store and with his brains, ability and drive had built the company to where it was today. He had been proud of that company and had devoted his life to its growth, based on honesty, integrity and all the old fashioned virtues that businessmen of the day held dear. Unlike today, I thought. Fiddles, schemes, watering of share capital, inter-company machinations, tax evasion, these things were all outside my father’s business scenario. If it wasn’t obviously legal, he wouldn’t touch it at all. It had clearly worked, because now we had two large stores, little or no debt or liabilities, freehold properties and a healthy, growing turnover. My father never wanted to be a millionaire, but had enjoyed being comfortable.

I allowed myself the luxury of remembering how it was as a little boy at my father’s knee, wandering around the showrooms while they were being built. Everything has seemed so large and awesome. Now, even the size of the buildings, massive by today’s standards, appeared small and insignificant when compared to the enormity of my father’s death. It was as a child that I had loved the company and my relationship with my father, learning at his knee the intricacies of business, wheeling and dealing, taught by a master of the craft who loved what he did and did it better than anyone else.

I particularly loved the stories about my grandfather. How he had been a cabinetmaker for the Russian Army under the Czar and had escaped just prior to being conscripted and sent to Siberia for 35 years for being a Jew. Tipped off by the officers for whom he made the furniture, he left, hiding in the toilets of a train to escape detection. He had arrived in London without a penny or a word of English. Helped by Jewish agencies he had for health reasons gone to life in Perth in Western Australia. From these distant beginnings I now found myself the third generation, via four countries, the only male bearer of the Benjamin name.

Even that name might have been in jeopardy, I mused, remembering my grandmother telling us how, after one week of marriage, she had returned home to her parents, stating that she could not live with that man any more. Her mother had tossed her out of the house, instructing her to go back to the man she had married. Many years, one country and ten children later, her life had reached a happy conclusion, death through old age, surrounded by loving children and grandchildren. How much better that way than some antiseptic hospital bed in some lonely ward in the middle of a dark morning. The comparison between my father’s and grandmother’s deaths left me with that awful desolate feeling once again.

The car pulled into the driveway of our house - the ‘Pink House’ they called it, due to its colour - in the Auckland suburb of St Heliers. I remembered the arguments we’d had when it came to painting it, but in the end it was done. From the Waitemata Harbour now the house could be seen with ease. Too easily, I thought, but why should that matter? Inside, there were people ready to greet me with food and drink. The Irish and the Jews have a lot in common, I thought. I helped my mother and sister out of the car and went inside, accepting the condolences of those who offered them. It was like being in another dream, more real than the cemetery, but a dream none the less. People, friends, crowding, talking, consoling, sympathising. Then suddenly they were gone and silence joined the party, leaving the mourners and no other: me, my mother, my sister, her husband, Robert, and their two children, David and Edward. We made ourselves a cup of tea and sat in the lounge overlooking the sea where my father had sat and admired the view so many times during his health-scarred life. Young Edward, only ten, had been terribly upset at the funeral, but had now calmed sufficiently to talk.

‘Has Pa gone forever?’

‘Yes darling’, my mother replied, ‘but at least he is out of all suffering and pain.

‘I know that Gaga’ (the grandchildren’s favourite nickname for her). ‘At least he won’t suffer anymore.’

No, no more, she thought. Only the living suffer. The dead are absolved.

‘Mother. Robert and I are going to take the children home and we’ll join you for the Minyan tonight’, Anne said in reference to the memorial service for the deceased held at home, her voice unable to hide her personal loss. She needed her own space to give her the strength that she would need for the evening’s event.

My mother nodded. She needed a rest herself. Life could be so cruel, she thought. Bloody cruel. She had collapsed from exhaustion and strain and had been unable to see her husband for two days before he died. How cruel and unjust. How despicable of God to do that to her. One day she would know the reason for it all when her turn came, but for now it was just painful. Unbelievably painful. Each one had their suffering to contend with and this was hers.

I awoke from my fitful sleep and stepped into the hot shower. No matter how hard you scrub, I thought, the stench of funerals still remains. Even my suit had the odour that only comes from open graves. Death has its own smells, images, locations, feelings, customs and language. Perhaps the second time is easier, but with only one father, where does one get the experience? I was amazed at what wandered through my mind: the strangest thoughts and ideas; an impromptu mish-mash of memories, experiences, activities; a picture gallery of life with one person always in it - my father. The first people would be arriving soon for the Minyan, the last public event, and then we would be left to deal with out loss in private.

We assembled in the lounge and the Rabbi speedily went through the service, although to me it all seemed interminable. At last it was over and the family members took our places on the sofa to be greeted by those who were there with the traditional greeting wishing us a long life. When the last person left, my mother, sister and I were alone. Robert had taken his sons home. There was silence, a long silence, until I finally spoke.

‘Today is a day that has changed, or rather, will change the rest of our lives. We have all lost someone today and events in the future will forever reflect what he has taught us. Remember one thing, though, all we really have is each other, our family is family.’

I let the words hang in the air until slowly and deliberately I said, ‘Goodnight. I am going to bed. I am tired.’

I stood up, a man weighed down by the responsibilities of his heritage. Slowly, I bent down, kissed my mother and sister in turn, climbed the stairs to my bedroom, closed the door and, as tears began to fall, threw myself on the bed.

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Tags: Biography, Memoir