Discovering My Father's Battle With Bipolar Disorder

His writings portrayed a man desperate to find the cause of his presumed madness

Posted Feb 25, 2015

“Hello,” came the voice from the other end of the line. A slow Texas “hello” with the “o” drawn out. I recognized his tone immediately.

“Hello, this is Mimi Baird,” I announced.

My uncle’s response was immediate: “Why didn’t you write back?”

I felt a pang of shame. When I was a child, Uncle Philip had written me a number of letters. I had taped them to the inside of my closet door, the secret place where I stored my trea­sures. They were extremely precious to me, as one of my only connections to my father. I’d just never known how to respond, and so they had always gone unanswered. My uncle had been waiting for a reply for over forty years.

I told him, truthfully, that I didn’t know why, I just never felt able to write.

“I was so young,” I told him. “I wish I had.”

We agreed to meet the next day.

Philip came to my hotel. As I waited for him in the foyer, I tried to picture him. We must have met at my father’s funeral, but I couldn’t recall his face. Would he look like my father? After a few minutes, an older man, rather disheveled, wearing white baggy shorts and a faded blue sports shirt, appeared on the other side of the lobby. In the back of my mind I remem­ber that Uncle Philip had played tennis. I stood up and walked toward him.

“Uncle Philip?” I asked.

He immediately enfolded me in a hug.

We went to take a seat in the little café next to the lobby. Philip sat down. It was clear he was uninterested in polite chitchat.

“Your mother neglected her responsibilities as a wife,” he told me, his face folding into a frown. “She deserted your father.”

Despite my own reservations about my mother’s actions, I felt myself wanting to leap to her defense. I knew that my great-aunt Martha had contributed a considerable amount of money for my father to stay in a private mental institution. I offered this information to Philip, noting that my mother had two young children to think about.

“We were the ones who had to pick up the pieces after your mother divorced him,” he responded sternly. “Everything fell to us.”

Philip explained that he and his wife—along with my father’s elderly parents—shouldered the burden of caring for my father.

“Your father had a lobotomy,” Philip told me. “After that, he could barely tie his own shoelaces. We had to do everything for him. Brush his teeth, buckle his belt. He was never the same.”

I remembered hearing the adults around me speaking about lobotomy once, but I had had no idea what they’d meant.

Philip told me that after the surgery, my father was given medication to help with his recovery—but too much medi­cation made him dizzy. When he forgot to take his pills, he would have seizures.

“Even after the lobotomy, he still got into trouble,” Philip remembered, “especially if he drank. I’d be called out to rescue him from barroom fights or from the police station.”

I sensed that, just as my uncle had been waiting for me to reply to his letters, he had been waiting to tell me my father’s story.

“Maybe there’s still some way I can make amends,” I said, rather helplessly.

Soon, he got up to leave. After we hugged goodbye, he offered me one last piece of information.

“Your father was writing a book,” he said, scrawling a num­ber on a paper napkin.

“It’s your cousin’s number,” he explained. “My son Randy. He has the manuscript. Call him.”

Reprinted from He Wanted the Moon: The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird, and His Daughter's Quest to Know Him Copyright © 2015 by Mimi Baird. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

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