Roller-Coaster Ride

Living with a bipolar mother was an education in itself for Peggy Kennedy.

Whenever the parents of Peggy Kennedy‘s classmates at Oakland’s St. Louis Bertrand School were sick, the students created cute get-well cards. But when Kennedy’s mother went into the hospital — and she was very sick indeed — no one so much as mentioned it. When other people’s parents arrived home from the hospital, flowers and banners awaited them. When Kennedy’s mother arrived home from the hospital, “no one talked about where she’d just been or why. You’d try to ask her about it, and she just clammed up,” said Kennedy, whose book Approaching Neverland: A Memoir of Epic Tragedy and Happily Ever After charts her experiences as the youngest of a mentally ill woman’s five children.

Growing up in the Sixties and Seventies, Kennedy didn’t know the phrase “bipolar disorder.” She only knew that, sometimes, her mother believed fairy tales were real.

That’s why, one morning when they should have been leaving for school, Kennedy’s mother cajoled the kids to stay home and re-enact Peter Pan with her, explaining that she’d “made arrangements with my friends, the Indians,” to meet them in Neverland. She’d also left the gas on and kept the windows shut. Had a terrified neighbor not intervened, they might have died.

“We were lucky,” said Kennedy, who will be at Books Inc. (1760 Fourth St., Berkeley) on Thursday, February 18. “We were a really close family, and we really loved our mom. And we were lucky that it was explained to us very early on that no matter what she said or did, she loved us very much.”

Lithium helped to balance her mother’s extreme mood swings, which began at age nineteen. But as happens with many bipolar-disorder sufferers, when the medication was working, she often assumed she was cured — and so stopped taking it. Then what Kennedy calls “the roller-coaster ride” would begin again.

Growing up with a fragile and wildly unpredictable parent “made us kids become like soldiers in the trenches. We had to learn to react efficiently to crises and to do it together. Even as a very young kid I learned to watch for warning signs: the jumping eyes, the speeded-up speech.” Then again, keen observational skills “are something that ends up serving you very well in your later life.”

Approaching Neverland is packed with poignant anecdotes whose sparks of chaos, fear, and shame will feel familiar to many readers. Mental illness affects one in every four American families, said Kennedy, who leads a “Walk for Mom” team as part of an annual fundraiser for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a free advocacy and support organization for mentally ill people and their loved ones.

“I wrote this book because I wanted people to know who my mom was,” the San Ramon author said. “I wanted people to love her despite the fact that she was mentally ill. Once someone gets labeled as mentally ill, it becomes their only label, and that’s that.” 7 p.m., free.


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