Hibiscus is the motif of mood disorders. There are several variants. Rude red, white streaked with pink, light and dark purple, orange. Then bushes and hedges. Even trees.
When I was a boy, our front garden had a red hibiscus hedge. The leaves had that glossy, luscious green colour that in the evening darkened into the deepest black that you have ever seen. They were lanceolate and serrated. But, it was always the flowers that stood out, literally. The five petals, red, even crimson. The stamens flush with pollen, yellow, rich, grain-like. The pistil erect.
After rain, the leaves glistened as if oiled and polished. Buffed and buffed again. But, the proud petals would hang their heads sorrowfully. Some petals would be limp and sodden. Dark streaks of water would have soaked through the layer of wax. I would look at these petals, at the loss of their vigour, of their virile beauty, and the stamens too, like an overworked slave carrying a load and bent low and tragic, and these flowers would seem to me to be melancholic.
In December, when the Harmattan blew in from the Sahara, bringing with it dust, dryness, cold in the evenings and unbearable heat during the day, the green leaves would be caked in a thick layer of desert sandy dust. Everything in the house, the mantel, all the bookshelves, and the few ornaments too, would be covered in this dust. And if you blew your nose, the handkerchief would bear witness to this dust that had travelled the thousands of miles from Libya through Chad to Lagos.
Now bipolar disorder has this same swing from virile self-confidence to abject self-abnegation of the Hibiscus flower.
In mania, every sinew is strained to fill the frame with vitality, the rush of aminergic eroticism and grandeur like the petals of Hibiscus when it is at its best, its most beautiful, its most seductive to bees. Mania could be described as an efflorescence.
In Chekhov’s ‘The Black Monk, the main character, Kovrin
‘laughed aloud, sang, and danced the mazurka; he was in high spirits, and all of them, the visitors and Tanya, thought he had a peculiar look, radiant and inspired, and that he was very interesting’.
In depression, the crash is experienced as gloom. Sorrow that drains the spirit leaving a bedraggled stamen with bowed head. Defeated. Despairing. Despondent. As the ancients would have it accidie which ‘hinders the mind from all contemplation of the virtues’.
Again, in Chekhov’s ‘The Black Monk, Kovrin when depressed
‘went out into the garden. Without noticing the gorgeous flowers, he walked about the garden, sat on a seat, then strolled about the park; reaching the river, he went down and then stood lost in thought, looking at the water. The sullen pines with their shaggy roots, which had seemed to him a year before so young, so joyful and confident, were not whispering now, but standing mute and motionless’
Patrick Gale’s novel Notes from an exhibition deals with a similar theme. Bipolar disorder within family life. And, in this novel, death at one stage accompanies the main character
‘Death had been following her all morning, she realized. Longer than that. Death was the belly-churning she had been mistaking for the return of her old friend, mania. Death was the skittering, chattering questions and if-onlys at her back…And now it was impatient and chasing her, running to catch up. And she was ready at last, ready to greet it like a lover’.
In the periods in between mania and depression, what might be called a normal state, there can be regret for the loss of the special status that illness confers. ‘The Black Monk’ once again
‘I went out of my mind, I had megalomania; but then I was cheerful, confident, and even happy; I was interesting and original. Now I have become more sensible and stolid, but I am just like every one else: I am – mediocrity; I am weary of life’.
To return to the Hibiscus of my childhood. These flowers that I walked by, often without much thought, now that I reside in a different clime loom larger and more vivid and distinctive than they were in childhood. The hedge that curved into the drive way and out the other side, the Frangipani in the centre of the lawn, and the delicately sensitive mimosa. Each denoting a mood. Each lending colour to aspects of my past.