Actress Isabelle Kabban talks frankly about her mother’s years of suffering due to bipolar disorder – which is typically misdiagnosed at least three times – and how it inspired her one-woman show
Most parents embarrass their children from time to time. I remember thinking that when I was 14. We were having a family barbecue, and my mother, Maria, had drunk too much, as she always seemed to do back then, and was wavering. Suddenly, she threw an entire trifle into my friend’s face.
“What are you doing?” I yelled with horror. This was not “most parents”.
Mum just laughed hysterically. She clearly found the situation terribly funny. I found it terrifying.
I remember exchanging looks with my three brothers. In that one moment, everything shattered. We could no longer pretend Mum was normal.
Our mother had always been different, but she was so kind and loving that we’d always ignored her quirks.
One of my earliest memories is of her cheering me on at sports day. As I grappled with an egg and spoon, I felt the heat of her pride, and it made me faster. I was only five but somehow I sensed how hard it was for her to be there.
She hated leaving the house. She never showed any interest in having friends. She could be full of life – once staying up three nights running to redecorate the whole house. But on other days, she seemed so quiet and far away.
As I got older, I watched her with increasing vigilance, because I never knew when Lovely Mummy would become Sad Mummy. And if she was having a hard day, I knew I was the balm to her wounds; as a much-wanted daughter after three sons, my very being seemed to bring a smile to her face.
There’s a seven-year gap between me and my youngest brother, and every night she’d shower me with cuddles and kisses before bed. Suddenly, when I was nine, that formula stopped working: Mum seemed sad all the time, I could hear her crying in her room and nothing I did made her happy anymore. She still packed our lunches and ironed our uniforms, but there were no more smiles. Over time, she turned into a ghost, and my tummy twisted every time I heard her muffled sobs.
If things were strange on the inside, from the outside, we looked like the perfect family. Dad worked hard in the City to send me and my older brothers to private school; we lived in a beautiful house in Surrey and our evenings were a merry-go-round of sports clubs and drama classes.
Strangely, when Mum started crying, the rest of us carried on as normal. I can see now that Dad was out of his depth, and I don’t blame him for pretending that everything was OK. After all, Mum had seen several doctors over the years, but nobody seemed to know what was wrong with her.
After a course of antidepressants, Mum “returned” and life regained colour. There were endless hugs and laughter; and fun-filled summer holidays in Mum’s native Sweden.
Those next few years were wonderful, but as I reached my mid-teens, and one by one my brothers left home, and my dad spent more time working away, my mother began to crumble, this time soaking her sorrow in alcohol.
Her mother was very ill at the time, which was hard for her. But as her drinking increased, she seemed to lose her grip on reality, and that’s when my once polite and dignified mother began to behave oddly.
I remember hushed conversation about her drinking, but nothing changed – she wouldn’t stop.
By the time I was 16, Dad’s job was taking him all over the world and I felt alone. My passion for drama was my main release: I threw all my feelings at the stage as Mum sank into her “cave” as we called her black mood.
I’d sometimes try to talk to her about boyfriends or university courses. But she would just stare at me. Sometimes it was as if I were no longer there.
Once a beautiful woman, she no longer took care of herself. Her days were spent playing computer games. At night, the drinking would start, always in the privacy of her bedroom. It was a relief for me to go to university.
But amid my excitement, there was the deepest fear: was my mum an alcoholic? How could I possibly leave her?
I’d only been at uni for three days when all those feelings of sadness and guilt overwhelmed me, and I knew I had to find my real mum again.
“Just tell me everything,” I begged down the phone. “I can’t watch you suffer any more. It’s killing me.”
To my amazement, Mum’s flat voice broke into a torrent of tears, and over the next two hours, everything spilt out. Her overdose at 15, a breakdown in her 20s. She recalled going to the doctor after my eldest brother was born.
“The water running in the taps said my baby was unsafe,” she mumbled.
Amazingly, when she’d confessed this to her GP, he’d told her she was tired. When she experienced delusions after her second pregnancy, she was diagnosed with postnatal depression.
Over the years, the medical explanations had altered – exhaustion, depression, anxiety; at one time or another, she’d been diagnosed with them all.
I let her talk and talk before telling her how much I loved her. Speaking openly for the first time ever, we agreed that she must have a serious mental health problem, and she promised to go to the doctor one last time. It was another six weeks before she plucked up the courage to visit her GP, and I went with her. She was referred to a specialist mental health team, and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“You’ve been so brave to cope with this alone,” the doctor told her, and it was all we could do not to cry. Instead of feeling alarmed, my dad and my brothers were so happy that we finally knew what the problem was.
Mum was 62 when she was finally diagnosed in 2016. By then, she’d been struggling for nearly 50 years.
Sadly, her case isn’t unusual. According to the charity Bipolar UK, it takes an average of 10 and a half years to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, with the World Health Organisation identifying the condition as one of the top reasons for lost life in the world.
Now on medication, Mum is flourishing. She has told me that, before the diagnosis, she was planning to kill herself. Now, though the illness will always be with her, of course, I finally have my fun-loving mother back.
While it’s wonderful to see her so much better, I can’t help feeling bitter about the life she might have had. Mum’s a talented writer, and she could have made her mark on the world. Instead, she never worked, living most of her life in the shadows.
While I do not have bipolar, I suffer from anxiety. Still, I don’t let it hold me back; at 24, I’m a successful actress.
It helps that I’m open about my struggles and, if I do have a bad day, Mum’s the first person I talk to. She understands, and we both want to lift the shame and secrecy of mental illness.
That’s why I’ve created my own one-woman show called LOVE (Watching Madness) which I’ll be performing at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. It’s all about mums and daughters and the difficulties of loving someone with a mental health problem, specifically bipolar disorder. At times, it’s funny, at others, troubling. Most of all, I hope it makes people think. Mum hasn’t seen the show – it’s a little too raw for her – but she’s so proud, and that makes me happier than I could ever possibly say.
LOVE (Watching Madness) is produced by the critically acclaimed Speak Up Theatre. The show runs from July 31 to Aug 26 at the Pleasance Courtyard (Bunker Theatre) in Edinburgh. For ticket information, visit pleasance.co.uk