Bipolar at the Grocery Store

by Mary Eileen Ball

When I saw that my mother was sick again, I recoiled from her pain as a snake about to strike.

“Yes, yes,” I commented as she filled the buggy with twenty jars of jelly. “The children will love these.”

And “Of course Aunt Mina didn’t mean to hurt you when she crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue.” Aunt Mina, who’d been dead for 25 years, had visited my mother the evening before, she said, and told her that the rat in the kitchen was carrying rabies and would attack at any time. So she sat in the living room while I made her morning toast. My mother sat in the living room. Aunt Mina is buried near Spruce Pine.

“You do understand about the jelly?” she said.

I nodded, afraid that a laugh would come bubbling out if I tried to talk. She was prattling her way through the store, setting items in the cart for imaginary children that we didn’t know. Her eyes would widen like a tot with a new toy every time she spotted something that she wanted in the buggy. Her hands would flop up and down with excitement, then she retrieved it and said something like, “They don’t get sweets often. They’ll love these little Snickers.”

I even walked stealthily behind her, taking pictures and texting them to my brother. “Bipolar in the grocery store” the first one read.

He didn’t respond.

One month later, after a court committal and shock treatments, she was lying in the hospital bed looking exhausted, shrunken, gray-headed. One hand crept up to touch her head, as if she couldn’t believe what it contained.

“Do you remember what you did? Going to the store?” I asked, still not aware of how hideous I was.

“Yes,” she whispered between long breaths. “I volunteered in the… Baptist Children’s Village in 1965. A little girl would come up to me to read…read her mother’s letter to her. Her mother had dropped her off and written about having a new baby. She wanted it read over and over and over. Another one had a mother who burned her face with an iron. I was just trying to help them.” She began to cry.

It was my turn in the hospital before I realized what I’d done. After a tragic death, my mind turned on me, the worst kind of backstabber, causing me to see demons outside my window, tremble in corners, be driven to the hospital, and scream when they tried to take blood.

I thought they were trying to kill me. I woke up in the suicide room.

That night, I had a dream of a snake crawling through a village of children. It was blood red, and they clapped as it surged past their houses, sliding through dusty streets, headed to a fountain in the village square. There, a man in white picked it up, showing me the coldest eyes I’d ever seen and its poison teeth. I refused to touch it, so he drowned it in the fountain.

That was when the hard knot in me began to loosen. That is one thing God used my illness to do. That was the beginning of the end of my terrible coldness toward the mentally ill.


Mary Eileen Ball lives in the Deep South with her husband and young son.

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