Mental Illness Strikes Home. Again.

Funny we should be having this conversation about skepticism and mental illness now. I called my mother for her birthday today, and it’s clear she’s on her way to another psychotic break.

We’ve been down this road a thousand times. She’s severely bipolar, and her medications frequently stop working. She ends up anxious and paranoid and confused. It’s painful to watch. There’s nothing you can do except ensure she’s getting treatment. They’ll probably hospitalize her soon to stabilize her, and for a while, she’ll be okay. Then the vicious cycle will begin again.

It’s not this way for every bipolar person. Medication helps many of them stay stable, and I have friends who have managed the disease without any spectacular crises for years. My mother’s not so lucky. But with treatment, she’s able to function. Without treatment, she would be dead. Literally dead. There was a point when she was determined to kill herself, because she believed bad men were going to hurt her family to get to her, and death was the only way she could protect them.

Medication has taken those delusions away, and they rarely come back now. But she still has these times when paranoia starts to return. She fixates on strange ideas, and can’t remember anything else. We go round and round in conversations, circling back to the same simple points, and she’s incapable of remember things as basic as how long mail between Washington and Indiana takes, and where a store is. She’s too paranoid to drive. Luckily, she’s disabled enough that the clinic comes to pick her up for treatment, and keeps a very close eye on her.

So this is my weekend: trying to get in touch with family members who can keep an eye on her until Monday. Calling the clinic to make sure they’re aware of her symptoms, because she’s very good at hiding them even when she’s far gone. Trying to do all of this on the sly, because right now she trusts no one, and if she found out what I was doing, she wouldn’t trust me. Trying to sift reality from her fantasies, so that I know what’s actually happening and just how bad it is. And then we have the delicate task of trying to get her to sign a release form so I can have a more direct hand in her treatment, because we’ve reached that point now where the rest of the family may not be able to help. Not with her believing they’re out to get her. Not with her father in the throes of dementia.

One of the reasons I want to see the stigma of mental illness ended is because when so many people believe it’s all in a person’s head, and they could get well if only they really tried, there’s no push to solve these issues. We need research done that will lead to more effective, science-based treatments. We need to understand how these diseases begin and unfold. We need to know causes. And when we think that people are just imagining things, or not strong-willed enough, or don’t believe in God enough, this doesn’t get treated like a medical problem. It becomes a character problem. It becomes the type of problem no one wants to waste time and research dollars on because hey, isn’t it the fault of the sufferer? And we go haring off in the wrong direction.

Things are better now than they used to be. But they’re still not good enough. And people like my mother suffer.

The thing that enrages me the most is that she didn’t have to suffer this way. But she’d grown up in a society that told her that mental problems were horrible character flaws. She internalized the idea that admitting to being mentally ill meant she was a bad person. She thought she’d be locked away forever in a terrible place, a Thorazine zombie. She thought she was a failure as a wife, mother and human being if she admitted she was crazy. And that kept her from recognizing the disease when it began. It allowed things to progress to the point where medication can’t do more than allow her to function. The longer a person’s left untreated, the worse they get. And she refused treatment for far too long. When a person is in such dire straits that they qualify for involuntary commitment, it might be too late for a little medication and therapy to bring them all the way back.

We’ll hope for good enough again. And for the people who come after her, we’ll work for treatments that turn a catastrophic disease into a manageable annoyance, and a society that understands that mental illness is something you treat, not something you hide in shame.

Mental Illness Strikes Home. Again.

8 thoughts on “Mental Illness Strikes Home. Again.

  1. 1

    I’m so sorry to hear it. My Mom has lost her ability to form new memories, which is debilitating in a different way, with its own stereotypes. But at least she’s agreeable to the point of letting my Dad take care of her, and thank goodness he’s still able. (An amazing trooper.)

    Seems to me that the cure to prejudice will be not just knowledge, but the growing ability to control and retard mental illness of all kinds.

  2. 2

    So sorry to hear this, Dana!

    Bi-polar runs in my ex’s family, and they are all wonderful people. But when the chemical balance goes wacky … no amount of “mental control” or “will power” is going to correct that imbalance. Luckily for most of them, lithium works amazingly well. Except for the brother-in-law who committed suicide in the subsequent down phase after going off lithium. Which he did because his AA girlfriend “supported him in being chemically free.” Damn. Lithium is not a recreational drug! Do you tell a diabetic to quit taking insulin?

    My ex mom-in-law didn’t have issues but when she became elderly, the combination of drugs she took for a variety of issues caused drug-induced psychosis. And the behaviors were all those you describe of your mother when she is headed toward a break. Luckily her psychosis was cured by a hospital stay and a concerted effort by all doctors involved and a hospital pharmacist to get her medications in proper balance.

  3. 3

    Sorry,D. I remember you telling me about your mother all those years ago in between those spellbinding descriptions of the world you were building. I also remember your descriptions of the heartache this condition, as well as the ignorance and superstition surrounding it, causes. I hope you were able to make the arrangements necessary for her well being. I also hope you have the local resources (friend wise) to help you through this draining time. It is in the nature of care takers (even long distance ones) to often neglect themselves. Please do not make me have to travel cross country to wrest the smack-o-matic from your hand, as it will not be pretty.
    I will close by joining you in hoping for good enough, and hope that your mother is soon stabilized and home, where she feels most comfortable and safe. Stay strong. You are awesome, and you are loved.

  4. 6

    Please take care of yourself while you are trying to make sure your mom is taken care of. Mental illness is a tragedy, not a character fault. At least you are very much aware of the ins and outs of these types of problems, and can monitor yourself. Hope you have some good friends you can rely on.

    I just finished listening to JT’s speech, and I cried in several places, just as he did. He sounds like an incredible young man. Everyone should be proud of him, and all the rest of you who are coming out about this subject.

    Many people in my family have depressive episodes, including my late mother, me, my son, my brother’s son, — and his bi-polar daughter who we lost to suicide when she was 24.

    I have a terrible time regulating my emotions, and I eat to do so. Eat when I’m bored, eat when I’m angry, eat when I’m frustrated, eat when I’m sad. Had an argument with my daughter this weekend, who gave me the old line of “just do what you’re supposed to do. Exercise and control what you eat.” I could not make her understand that I know what I am supposed to do, and canNOT make myself do it long enough to make a difference.

    And society thinks that because I’m fat, that I’m lazy, stupid, don’t give a rat’s ass, ignorant, or just need a few more lectures from doctors and the media to “shape up.” They have no friggin’ clue.

    More power to you and everyone else coming out of the closet on this issue. I really hope your mom gets better. Don’t forget to take care of yourself.

  5. 7

    I can foggily understand the diconnect from reality that accompanies bipolor disorder, because I, too, am a sufferer of a mental illness; in my case it’s depression. I suffered for years, until I became unable to work. Looking back, I had symptoms of depression in elementary school. It took until my mid-thirties before I needed treatment so badly that I had to look for it. So I came to treatment with a long history of mental pain. By the luck of the draw, I found a) a psychiatrist with a phenomenal and always-current knowledge of drugs, and b) a good therapist. I was also always lucky in that my husband’s insurance would foot part of the bill. Still, it took a couple of years to reach stability.

    Since then I’m usually quite stable, and my psychiatrist is determined to keep me that way. When changes in my life occur, things get a bit unstable, and then we tweak the meds until things get under control. I also tend to see my therapist for a few visits when things get rough, and she helps me sort out the situation.

    I am sooooo lucky to a)have partial insurance coverage for all of this and b)enough money to pay for the rest.

    What happens to those who aren’t as lucky as me???????

    Dana, may you be lucky — it does take luck — in dealing with the people who handle these things. My heart goes out to you. If there’s anything I can do — even if it’s just reading a rambling, frustrated email that will of course be kept private — I’m here.


  6. 8

    I love all of you to bits. So many of us living with mental illness in one way or the other – seems like it’s past time to make some noise. This situation has to improve. The health care this country offers its citizens is appalling, and so are the attitudes we run in to. “Chemical free?” RLY? Telling people with mental illness to just do stuff like exercise or get out of the house or eat right, like it’s some revelation they’ve never heard? If they could, they would, numbnuts, I mean srsly.

    Spoke to my aunt today. There’s other family watching out for my mother who are more local, but they’ve also got their hands full with my poor demented grandfather. Mom sounds better-ish today, so at least we know she’s not in immediate danger. Her docs are aware of the situation and will act accordingly. And we’re all working on getting her permanent residential care, because she’s reached that stage where she’s barely able to take care of herself. None of us have the resources to give her the in-home care she needs. So we’ll have to see about finding either caregivers or an assisted living facility that she’ll like. And I know from my ex-grandmother-in-common-law that assisted living can be a blessing. (We actually saw very little of her after she went in. She was always too busy with new friends or some big group outing or other event to mess about with anything so boring like family, lol.) I’m hoping that although my mother’s dirt poor and none of us have the funds to care for her, we can find her something decent where she can live a good life with more independence than she has now. She’s too sick to enjoy anything. And I mean for that to change.

    I’ll blog the journey. I’m starting out with no idea what to do or where to go. But I’ll find out. And hopefully, it’ll help others make the best decisions possible for themselves and their loved ones.

    One thing I want to stress, and I can’t stress this enough: if you even suspect you’re sick, get help. Don’t wait until the disease has progressed. Take back control. And never, ever be ashamed of having a treatable medical condition.

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