Signs: Everywhere and Nowhere

by Melinda Goedeke

I’m often asked whether or not I saw the signs. What I hear in that question is blame and responsibility; assignment of fault. I didn’t see the signs because there weren’t many to see; I saw Laura – my delightful, radiant, and complicated daughter who was living in all capital
letters. Then unexpectedly, bipolar disorder crashed into our lives flashing neon lights –
signs I could not and did not ignore. Laura was diagnosed with bipolar disorder II rapid
cycling, an eating disorder, and borderline personality disorder in her early twenties.
That diagnosis came after a suicide attempt followed by days in a psychiatric ward. My
one-of-a-kind daughter was now searching tirelessly for any sign that life was worth
living. I was right behind, beside, and in front of her.

Where is a mother to start? Which disorder should get the most attention? What role do
I play in this complicated journey since she is not a child yet still my baby? Her
diagnoses were intertwined creating a maze of pathways one to the next while tying
knots that couldn’t be undone, only cut off. If the wrong knot was cut, one or both of us
could bleed out. I didn’t have any answers; I only knew I wanted to swaddle her like an
infant in my arms while somehow letting her drive the bus as I sat behind her grabbing
the wheel to avoid the oncoming semis. Somehow, together we created a road map for
our hopeful survival complete with original signs that only the two of us could interpret
and not all the time.

Unfortunately, bipolar disorder signs, even made up ones, are tricky to see much less
interpret. Plus when you are a pro at denial, it gets nearly impossible. Weeks often
passed by where nothing seemed out of sorts. Laura was working, paying her bills,
laughing with her friends and leaning on her family. My assessment? Maybe the meds
were working. Maybe the therapist was helping her regulate emotions. Maybe she
found the key to living with bipolar. Or, maybe it was all an act. All, some and none are
true. Today wasn’t like yesterday and won’t be like tomorrow which meant we had to
figure out which way to go – which signs to follow and which to ignore. To add even
more complication, she saw signs of distress in me, too: hyper vigilance, worry, a weird
smile, frequent calls. To her, these signs signaled that she was not okay. My decline
signified and paralleled hers. Knowing this, she overcompensated with her own style of
abnormal normalcy.

I, too, knew the signs of abnormal normalcy, so it wasn’t difficult to play along acting as
if we were both happy, in control, safe in that super special way that screams “HELP!”
but no one can hear it. Our normalcy wasn’t regular at all, but what is regular? Maybe I
can be a regular mom who doesn’t wait for the next manic episode or one who tries not
to secretly count new cuts or one who doesn’t ask how work was really just wanting to
know if she still had a job. The problem was my normalcy looked absolutely abnormal,
too. Laura once told me that we were actually two versions of the same person
because we looked, talked and acted alike. She spoke out loud the words in my mind
and comforted me just as my pain was smothering me; I did the same for her. We were
lucky. We saw the signs in each other, at least the ones we could handle seeing – the
greens and the yellows. Unfortunately, we often sped through the red lights even
though we had plenty of time to stop. We needed to keep careening forward together,
ignoring the reality in front of us. That too was survival.

So, yes, I did see the signs and swiftly acted on them as if I were rescuing her from a
burning fire. I reached out to professionals and listened to their every word. I stayed by
her side and in her space regardless of the throw-up or the blood or the heart-wrenching
tears. I would have sacrificed my life for her and nearly did. Thankfully, Laura was more
than signs, more than my daughter who struggled with bipolar. She was a capable,
confident and witty young woman on her own life’s journey, one I was lucky to be a part
of. Of course, I wish I could’ve found signs leading me to a cure for bipolar or even
something to have made it manageable for Laura, but I had no such luck. And so she
ended her road trip leaving (or maybe it was sending) me a sign I couldn’t misinterpret.

Bipolar took Laura, but that dreadful illness also contributed to her mind. She created,
she inspired, she encouraged, she advocated, she loved with her soul and laughed with
her heart. She listened and understood seeing the signs in others offering them help on
their journeys. She was a star that burned hotter and faster than all the rest and so was
distinguished early at 24. She was a shooting star, one of those that if you saw you felt

Now, I see different signs, and I absolutely know they are signs from Laura just for me.


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