Poet Maria Grech Ganado opens up with Clifford Jo Żahra about her struggle with periods of elevated mood (mania) and periods of depression. She maintains that despite all the hardships one must withstand, living with bipolar disorder still leaves room for a tiny glimmer of hope.
What is your day like?
Now it’s relatively normal. I don’t spend night and day consumed by anxiety. Bouts of creative energy still make going out troublesome when it interferes with them, although it is when I am most pressed for time that ideas jostle each other for a quick jotting down. Otherwise, I have emails, phone calls, reading, meals, household chores, essential shopping and a minimal attempt at exercising. I’ve no fixed schedule, but I’ve learnt to avoid triggers which are unnecessarily stressful. Being with lots of people has, unfortunately, become one.
You are a mother of three, (42, 40 & 39 yrs). What was bringing them up like?
My depressive episodes started with uninterrupted postnatal ones after 3 successive births, interspersed with physical ill health. Everybody is prone to circumstantial depression at one point or another, but this is nothing like the internal depression of bipolar disorder, even though it too can be ‘triggered’ by circumstances, as was the case while I was bringing up my children. I’m saddened by those who say that everybody has his ups and downs, it’s like failing to distinguish between injury and amputation. Injuries don’t need a prosthesis, and a bipolar person, in order to function, cannot do without medication. For years on end I could only view life ‘through a glass darkly’. I grew scared of people. I panicked regularly and couldn’t cope with the simplest of tasks, though I remember our all singing happily together in the car. Today still, I feel cheated of the joy I should have transmitted to my children. In so many ways, they brought not only themselves up, but also me. Sometimes, when very little, they had to hold both my hands to help me across the street.
How are relationships with your family and friends affected? How understanding are people in general?
For years I was on the stabiliser, Lithium, a variety of antidepressants and on astonishing amounts of Valium. They kept me hanging on to life by the skin of my teeth, but didn’t prevent the alienation of some I’d trusted to be supportive. There was very little information and lots of stigma attached to mental disorders at the time, so I battled the yearning for death with very little understanding from others, except for one cherished cousin.
I tried cheering myself up by teaching English literature in private schools and, once all my children had turned 18, in a full-time post at Junior College. This turned me manic. I definitely loved the work involved. Teaching was nothing like repetitive domestic chores, and helped me feel like a self I recognised.
Then I had to phase Lithium out when it started having neurological side effects. I refused any more medication, so my mania rocketed to megalomania and even psychosis. My incoherent, conflicting moods were just as confusing for myself as for others, but I persisted in the insane determination to make it through nevertheless. I became aggressive and paranoid; suspecting everyone around me threatened my safety. During these mixed episodes, when I experienced both ‘poles’ simultaneously, I raged and accused everyone of everything under the sun. Till a ruthless, interminable depression began.
They say the darkest hour comes before the dawn. A new medication, Lamictal, restored a sense of identity I feared I had lost forever. With the help of my psychiatrist, I have discovered self-esteem, dignity and serenity. My life hadn’t been a total failure after all. My medication has to be monitored throughout my life and I still experience milder episodes, but if I avoid the ‘triggers’ which set them off, I feel better. I am happily separated, sure of my children’s love, have three grandchildren, and I have books published. Still, I treasure, with infinite gratitude, the fewer than a handful who have helped me continuously through thick and thin.
In an interview with Olivia Borg (2009), you referred to a poem written for another poet who had some hundred voices. However, you implied that it could also be about you. Are all the different shades of you a result of the bipolar condition?
I don’t know what it’s like not to be bipolar, but I guess my various voices are indeed an outcome of the disorder. However, they also constitute an integral aspect of creativity, so artists are bound to have them. Though I am very aware of the ‘real’ world of struggle, injustice and trauma, sometimes its assumed concreteness seems illusory. It may be a form of mysticism, or escapism, but I often seem fictional even to myself. Once someone told me that he asks others ‘How are you today?’, and me ‘Who are you today?’ Perhaps it is from this hazy shadow land that my poems come. Different characters and ideas, sometimes conflicting, seem to speak through them. I enjoy recognition for the poems themselves, but too much attention for Maria Grech Ganado can puzzle me, as though ‘she’ were not genuinely at the core of myself. It’s very disquieting.
Do reading and writing depend on the moment? Are moments of elevated mood (mania) associated with a lot of reading and writing, or is there no real direct link?
I hardly read anymore. Reading does stimulate my desire to write, but I know I’m losing my capacity for articulation. Before I came to terms with this, I used to feel frustrated. It’s natural. Though I used to be more prolific when I was manic, what I wrote was hardly ever good. It takes stamina, stability and discipline to structure a text, not just inspiration.
When I first contacted you about this interview you told me about your frequent travels between Malta and Gozo, and joked about losing poetry in the strait between the two islands. How productive are you at the moment?
I spend more time star-gazing than anything else now. Though I realise my English poetry is not a patch on my Maltese, I am compiling a new collection of English verse. I might even continue working on some English short stories I’ve written over the years, simply because I enjoy it. Whether they’re worth publishing must be determined later.
You have had a lifetime of achievements. Apart from being the first female Maltese full time lecturer at the University of Malta, you’ve been awarded the Qadi tar-Repubblika, three national book prizes and the 2015 Award for a Lifetime of Contribution. It seems that despite all the hurdles, you’ve kept going. But how?
I am extremely happy with my awards, and wouldn’t do without them. It’s a great feeling to be thought talented, but I don’t think of myself as ambitious, not in the competitive sense. I must confess that being overlooked frightens me. I think of achievements the years I spent translating and the years I spent encouraging others. Having introduced Alexandra Buchler and Literature Across Frontiers (LAF) to Malta, having organised a Europe-wide symposium with LAF as a member of Inizjamed in 2005 and having my poems translated into 10 or 11 other languages are also ‘lifetime contributions’. It is really my love of literature that kept me going. What you call achievements are mainly the fruit of great loneliness and dogged perseverance. Moreover, no achievement could ever outshine that of having raised 3 children well, despite the odds. It’s an amazingly wonderful emotion to feel and know that as a fact.
Maria Grech Ganado will feature in this year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival (9th – 13th November 2016, MCC Valletta) after having been awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award last year.
© 2016 – VIDA Magazine – Clifford Jo Żahra