MENTAL ILLNESS WASN’T A POSSIBILITY
Looking back, Mindy sees the signs of mental illness throughout her son’s turbulent adolescence and early 20s, but during eight years of crises and even earlier in his childhood, she didn’t.
She didn’t even want to think about that possibility.
When Connor, the blue-eyed boy with a winning smile she and her husband Lance adopted as an infant, had night terrors around age 7, they took him to a therapist and were relieved when a professional described his problem as “normal.”
When he acted out in middle school, they had him evaluated for ADHD. They sought counseling to help him with impulse control, but the chance he might have a serious chemical imbalance in his brain was outside their realm of thought. One psychiatrist they consulted told them serious mental illnesses wouldn’t manifest before age 21.
Their son had been called unruly, rebellious; he was known for always pushing the line. When the athletic and gregarious boy dropped out of sports and maintained only a core circle of friends, Mindy chalked it up to the raging hormones middle schoolers are infamous for.
Unbeknownst to Lance and Mindy, however, Connor started experimenting with drugs the summer after eighth grade. He just smoked a little marijuana in the beginning, but his drug use quickly escalated. Soon he was using cocaine, then methamphetamine.
At 15, he was caught stealing CDs from Target and put on probation.
Hoping for a new start midway through his freshman year of high school, he asked to transfer to a private school about 20 miles from the small Napa Valley town where the family lived. Mindy and Lance agreed, but the change didn’t solve anything for the teen, now gripped by meth addiction.
Around this time, Connor reconnected with his birth mother, an option his parents had always been open to. The family learned that both she and his father had been meth addicts, who were using when Connor was conceived. His mother had used throughout her pregnancy.
Learning more about his origins helped Connor and his family understand more about his addiction, but they wouldn’t learn until later that his mother also had bipolar disorder.
For now, dealing with drug addiction loomed large in the entire family’s life.
Connor behaved erratically, sitting with the family at dinner and discussing his goals for the future like a “perfect son,” then disappearing from the home hours later. Mindy would later attribute this to extreme rapid cycling bipolar disorder, estimating that Connor was shifting between manic and depressed several times a day.
But his skipping school, staying out late and stealing money from family members also pointed to significant drug use. Mindy and Lance imposed restrictions, took away privileges and worked out behavioral contracts with Connor, but none of these parenting tools worked.
Their daughter Christy, two and a half years older than Connor, criticized their parenting and sometimes resented the time, money and attention Connor required. Through it all, though, she remained close to her brother.
Mindy and Lance finally hired a behavioral consultant with a team of experts to intervene. On the advice of the specialists, they packed for a trip without telling him their plans, then, early in the morning, loaded the drowsy teen — who apparently had taken meth the night before — into the car and drove for two hours to have him evaluated.
A psychiatrist spent several hours with him and reported that although the 16-year-old was coming down from an unknown drug, he appeared to be bipolar, a diagnosis other psychiatrists and psychologists who had worked with Connor in the past had suspected.
The family launched a series of interventions: wilderness camps, special schools, lock-down residential treatment, hospitalization. After high school, he even spent a little time in jail. But from 15 to 21 Connor’s life remained a blur of meth addiction and sporadic treatment for mental illness.
The family also dealt with the death of Mindy’s mother, Mindy’s diagnosis and successful treatment for breast cancer, a serious car crash, financial difficulties, the death of Lance’s father. Lance, a zen-like spirit who lives in the moment and lets go of things he can’t control, and Mindy, a Type-A planner who describes herself as “anal,” sometimes quarreled, but found an innate balance in their relationship. They could easily take turns being “the strong one,” able to push ahead and support the other, then in turn, be supported.
Mindy attended Al-Anon meetings — a “life-saver” — with a group of other mothers also dealing with their children’s substance abuse issues. She says she still lives by the group’s principle that family members didn’t cause and can’t cure their loved one’s affliction.
She also saw a therapist, but still felt alone, embarrassed about things she had no control over. She saw people avoiding her in the grocery store and worried that they judged her and thought her son was a screw-up, a bad seed. Even extended family members shunned them.
At 21, Connor beat his addiction. Now that he was clean, though, it became apparent how severe his bipolar disorder was. Mired in depression, he couldn’t get out of bed for days. Fueled by mania, he would plunge in to a new hobby: fitness, a community college writing class, a gardening spree that transformed the 10-by-12 deck outside his apartment into an overplanted oasis with hundreds of plants.
He had his own apartment in Santa Rosa, a car, a girlfriend, a job generating leads for a window replacement company and a boss who understood his top producer might work three 12-hour shifts, then not even be able to come in when he was next scheduled. He had a complex medical regime, but he was good at that, too, until the medications started to lose their effectiveness.
Connor’s behavior grew increasingly erratic. He went to his girlfriend’s workplace and accused her of cheating, even though she hadn’t. Confused and embarrassed, she left him.
He slid deeper into his illness, becoming what his mother described as “pretty non-functional.” His parents would drive over the hill to check on him, sitting with him through bouts of suicidal thoughts. Finally they decided to bring him home and set him up in an apartment closer to their house.
He was hospitalized multiple times, but eventually found a doctor who could help him not only with his bipolar and anxiety disorders and ADHD, but ulcers and dental problems from his past drug use. In the fall of 2010, Connor wanted to clear out his system and start a new treatment regime. His doctors agreed that he could do so with proper medical supervision. They carefully tapered off his dosages and he felt great for about three weeks without medication.
He struggled to find new medications and dosages that worked, though, working with a difficult mix of mood stabilizers, drugs for ADHD, antidepressants and sleep aids. His mother wanted him hospitalized, but no beds were available.
On Christmas Eve 2010, plagued by paranoia and hallucinating, Connor became convinced someone was following him. He ditched the family truck he was driving and took off running through the winter night across a golf course. A neighboring homeowner saw him and called police. Officers found him unconscious, face down in a creek where he had fallen, and took him to a hospital.
His worried parents finally tracked him down there, arriving to find him sedated while being treated for injuries caused by the fall and the cold. As he recovered from those physical problems, they had him placed under an involuntary psychiatric hold, also known as a 5150 in California, because he was unable to care for himself.
Smart and charming, Connor talked his way out of residential care before the 72 hours of the hold were up. He joined the hospital’s day program, checking in each morning for weeks.
Then on Jan. 18, 2011, he didn’t show up. His parents couldn’t reach him, so they went to his apartment. Connor was dead on the couch, where he had settled in to watch television, a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in his hand. An autopsy found high levels of his prescribed mood stabilizer and sleep aid in his blood and deemed his death an apparent accidental overdose.
Since Connor’s death, Mindy has become a vocal advocate for mental health, especially that of children. She participated in panel discussions as part of the End the Stigma project in Napa County and shares her family’s story.
She encourages people to be aware of family history, as many mental illnesses have genetic components. When people see risk factors, they can seek early intervention, possibly avoiding the serious problems that can result from any untreated illness.
She strives to provide information so people will be comfortable getting and dealing with a diagnosis. Dealing with mental illness openly and honestly helps overcome shame and secrecy and aids individuals and families connecting with resources and getting the help they need.
THE WHOLE TRUTH AND NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH…
Submitted by a Bipolar Lemonade follower
My childhood and adolescence was tumultuous. I came from a very dysfunctional family. My Dad is probably the only normal one in the group. By the time I was in middle school I was starting to experience severe depression. I was put on meds, saw several therapists and psychiatrists. Academically I was struggling with math. I have dyscalculia and if it wasn’t for the tutors I wouldn’t have passed the 8th grade. When it came to reading and writing I was above grade level and by the time I made it to high school I could handle college level English material. It was suspected that I also had ADHD so I went through a battery of tests Psych Evaluation/ADD screening/IQ. High general IQ but low Math IQ. Results for ADHD borderline. I think the meds did more harm than good at that time but my parents didn’t know what else to do. In my mid-teens, the meds started to cause weight gain and up to that point I was a talented athlete. Basketball and Track- if it had not been for my illness there was a pretty good chance I could have played college ball. A division one school would have been a stretch but I think I could have held my own at a division two. When I was 16 and in the 10th grade my depression was even worse. I was suicidal and could not continue school. If you check my 23 screen you will see hospital/homebound. I dropped out but knew I had to get a diploma of some sort. Some months later I took the GED and passed. When I was about 17/18 I enrolled at Palm Beach State and had to take an entrance exam. The language arts part? – no problem, but my math results were embarrassingly bad. As a condition of my enrollment I had to take remedial math classes but could do advanced English. I always had a natural talent with computers and thought that would be the best field of study. My major was Computer Networking and my goal was to be able to get to the level of a person like our own IT guy at work. The math requirements were ridiculous and completely unnecessary for that major. You don’t need to know advanced algebra for that shit. Again, I was struggling academically and depressed. It was too much to handle so I dropped out. 9/11 happened and I was young and pissed. (You know what I mean? America fuck yeah!) I spoke to a recruitment officer and almost joined the service. My mom talked me out of it. If that happened I would have probably been killed or given a section 8 discharge. Sometime later I took an accelerated A+/Network+ course at FAU. I went to class 8 hours a day five days a week for one month. In the middle of that I was baker acted one night after getting piss drunk and threatened to kill myself (friends had to hide my razor blades). I missed some of the classes for a few days but somehow managed to finish it. This was in 2002.
In 2004, I turned manic. My mother has the same illness and it hit me at the exact age it happened to her. You cannot escape genetics. I was in a state of euphoria after 72 hours of no sleep. I was up all-night writing on the walls of my apartment with a yellow highlighter. I had a few black lights and it made the writing on the walls glow vibrantly in the dark. Disconnected language, unfinished poems and nonsensical math equations everywhere. I thought was going to solve the grand unification theory. Maybe it was the documentary I had just watched about String Theory that put the idea in my head. The next morning, I spoke to my dad on the phone and he immediately knew I was sick. He came over, was horrified by what he saw and told me to pack a bag to go to the hospital. I was convinced nothing was wrong and said I never felt better. When you are in that state of mind no one can convince you that there is a problem. He took me to Columbia hospital and on the way, I thought that the rapture was in progress. Hallucinations Galore! I saw people disappearing and when we passed the airport I saw a plane in the sky not moving, just kind of floating up there stationary, hard to describe. They evaluated me and for some reason I thought I was going to have a meeting with President Bush. By the time I was injected with the sedative I was hearing voices and would not stop talking. I woke up the next morning and had no idea where I was. I wandered into a group therapy meeting at a large table and thought it was the council of Elrond from Lord of the Rings. I was put in the acute unit and locked in a room with just a bed and a window. Outside I saw demonic looking fish flying towards me. There was a wall plate in the room I managed to break off and use it to jimmy the lock and get out. I did this several times before the staff figured out how kept getting out. They moved me to another room and thought there was no way for me to get out. I woke up the next morning and saw that the door was hanging off its hinges. I asked what happened and they told me I kicked the door open with my bare feet. I thought I was under surveillance by the government (specifically Dick Cheney) for most of my stay. I really saw a lot of fire and rain during my stay. Nearly a month later I was released and went under the care of an elderly Dr. who should have retired a long time ago. He was confined to a wheelchair and would drool as he was scribbling his notes and writing my prescriptions. I was put on some very heavy medication and in less than six months I gained over 50 lbs. At one-point I weighed nearly 300. I did almost nothing for the next three years. Depressed/suicidal/unable to work/school. I barely left the house and did not socialize very much. It put an intense strain on my family and one by one all my so-called friends started to turn their backs on me. They didn’t understand. The only two people who did were my parents because they had been through this before. This illness derailed a lot of plans I had for my life. One good example: I taught myself how to play guitar in the early 2000’s and every time I was starting to get really good I would get sick and it was like pressing a reset button and eventually gave up on it. I still mess around with it from time to time but the motivation just isn’t there anymore.
In 2007 my illness returned with wrath and fury. I was visiting one of my few remaining friends at the time in Jacksonville and he knew something was wrong. He spoke to my dad and told him it looks like “it” is happening again. Things at this point were very hazy for me and to this day I still can’t recall everything that happened. You know me well and I think you would agree that I am not a violent person. The manic episodes began again and I was uncharacteristically aggressive with people. There were some physical altercations along the way including one with my father. I still don’t remember why that happened and it took me a very long time to forgive myself for that one. Leading up to this I was spending a lot of time at Platinum Showgirls. I knew the DJ there and he was also my dealer. We would chill in the DJ booth and smoke pot. He hooked me up with a lot of free drinks, weed and just about anything else my little heart desired. I made some very bad decisions and was lucky not to contract an STD. Fun times for a manic guy in his early twenties, right? There was a lot of illegal activity going on in that club and the police had been monitoring it for quite a while. One of the bartenders there was a lovely and intelligent young woman. (I always wondered what the hell she was doing at that place.) I fell for her. Hard. My feelings were not reciprocated. Anyway, in one of my more detached states I made a scene and my DJ pal contacted my dad and said you better come get him. Back to the hospital I went! Not long after I stopped hanging out at that place, it was raided by the police and shut down. A lot of arrests took place and there is a good chance If I was there at the time I would have been locked up too. The building is now a church on federal highway just down the road from us.
My experiences with the hospitals at that time are very cloudy. I was in St. Mary’s, Columbia, and South County. Probably a dozen of baker acts. The police were getting to know me very well. At some point, I jumped out of a moving car, miraculously no injuries. I had a 35th anniversary brand new cherry Mustang that my grandfather and dad bought me for my 18th birthday (more than I deserved). I did a lot of joy riding in that car in a compromised state and by some divine providence I didn’t hurt myself or anyone else. Driving always gave me a little anxiety but after all that it turned into a legitimate fear. I could never forgive myself if I lost my mind again and killed an innocent person. I still have a license and will drive if I must but like Bartleby said, “I would prefer not to.” Still working on that.
One of my nights in Columbia a patient was particularly disturbed. Security was called and they got physical with him. I felt the need to intervene. The last thing I remember that night was seeing the two of them approach me and the next morning I felt like I had been beaten in an alleyway. I had delusions of grandeur and thought I had lived past lives at some point. William Shakespeare, J.R.R. Tolkien (mostly famous writers) eventually I thought that I was the reincarnation of Christ. Pretty silly for someone who is an atheist. I had Master Jedi powers as well.
In and out, and in and out. The hospitals were releasing me before i could get stable because the goddamn insurance company didn’t want to pay the money to keep me there. South county finally got me to the point where i could function a little bit better. I was on every psych med known to man and at one point was on 900 mg of Seroquel (a very potent mood stabilizer) I would take that when I got up and by mid-morning I was like a zombie on the couch. My father was at his wits end and I think he was close to giving up. 99 out of 100 parents would have turned their backs at this point, but he has a strength far beyond that of ordinary men. He got me into Jeff Industries and the rest is history. I have been stable for ten years and have been on two antipsychotics (Risperdal and Zyprexa) it’s a maintenance dose and I can deal with the side effects. What’s the alternative? I owe my life to my dad. A few years ago, I made him a custom card for his birthday with a picture of Frodo and Sam at the footsteps of mount doom when it was erupting and they were facing death. I added the caption “Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam.” I had a ring to bear and could not have recovered on my own. The best quote from Lord of the Rings: Frodo: “I can’t recall the taste of food, nor the sound of water, nor the touch of grass. I’m naked in the dark. There’s nothing–no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I can see him with my waking eyes. “Sam knew what had to be done. His will was set, and only death would break It…” Sam: “Then let us be rid of it, once and for all. I can’t carry the ring for you, but I can carry you!” That’s when Sam put Frodo over his shoulders and carried him up the mountain to destroy Sauron’s ring of power. My father helped me destroy my illness. He carried me when I couldn’t stand on my own two feet. Every Christmas break we do a Lord of the Rings marathon and when it gets to that scene I can’t help but shed a few tears. I always tell him “I’m glad to be here with you Sam, here at the end of all things.” I it wasn’t for Joseph Domino I would have wasted away in a state hospital or have been dead by now. Everything good in me is because of him. Thanks Dad!
I still have my bad days but always try the best I can. When you go through such a trauma you never completely recover. It’s like PTSD. “Some wounds never heal”. It takes me a very long time to get close to people and I always have my guard up. Most of the time I would rather sit at home alone playing The Legend of Zelda than go out in public and socialize. I’m working on that too. I have only a few true fears in my life and getting sick again is at the top of that list. if it happens again I’m not sure I could return from that abyss a second time. I’m glad to consider you my friend and am fortunate that by some strange coincidence we crossed paths.
Thank you for reading my story.
This is dedicated to a very special person who inspired me to have the courage to tell my story and most importantly the courage to believe in myself again. You know who you are and you saved my life.
I KNEW SHE WAS DIFFERENT
Submitted by a Bipolar Lemonade follower
From the time Jennie was born, I knew she was different. She didn’t sleep, she hated to be swaddled or held which made breast feeding almost impossible. She had a hard time eating period, and she cried constantly.
For the first couple of years, I chalked it up to my inexperience as a mother. She was my first child. I did check with her pediatrician who told me she would outgrow these things. As Jennie grew, it was obvious that she was incredibly bright. She walked early (eight months), started putting sentences together by the time she was a year old, and could read by the time she was three. However, she had difficulty socializing with other children, exhibited violent behavior, and threw fits which lasted for sometimes four to six hours without a break.
I took her to her pediatrician again and was told there was nothing wrong with my little girl. She was spoiled and I needed to give her tougher consequences. No one wanted to believe a child as young as two was exhibiting the signs of mental illness. Her obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) tendencies started showing up at about this age as well. Any upsets to her schedule caused huge emotional outbursts. Jennie would take all the shoes out of everyone’s closets EVERY day, arranged them in a particular pattern, and put them back. She did the same with the kitchen cupboards that she could reach.
Jennie’s father and I separated when she was three. I was six months pregnant with her little brother. Raising the two of them on my own was a real challenge. In school, Jennie excelled academically but constantly got suspended for hurting other children. Child Protective Services was called because her little brother and I had obvious bruises. Luckily, the authorities realized I was doing the best I could.
It was when she was 10 years old that we finally reached a breaking point. It was night time. We were driving home from my son’s football practice. It was dark in the car. Jennie was in the front seat, and her little brother was in the back seat. We were talking, laughing, and listening to the radio. Jennie turned to me as part of the normal conversation and asked, “Mom, do you hear voices in your head like I do?” I knew in that moment that I had to remain calm and not make Jennie feel bad about the conversation we needed to have.
I asked her what the voices sounded like and what they said. She said that there were three different voices. The strongest was named Sarah. She told her that she was a bad person and that she needed to hurt her little brother and me. The other two were male. A grown man and a little boy who had no names but screamed at her and said bad words. I explained to her that there was medicine that could make the voices stop, and for the first time ever, I saw her relax. She went on to tell me that sometimes she saw Sarah and the other two “voices.” Sarah wore a long white gown and was covered in blood, while the man and little boy stood in the background and screamed.
I remember going home and getting the kids ready for bed. Once I knew they were bedded down for the night, I locked myself in the bathroom and cried for about an hour. I don’t know if it was sorrow for my little girl’s constant feeling of fear and inferiority or if I was relieved that we were going to finally get some help.
That’s when the testing started. We started seeing a neurologist who did EEGs, CT scans, MRIs, blood tests and met with Jennie often. There were some abnormalities that showed up on the EEG tests. Our first diagnosis of bipolar disorder came from the neurologist. Finally! Someone believed us. Finally, Jennie would get what she needed! The neurologist then referred us to a psychiatrist in the area. Our second diagnosis was bipolar 1 (because she is mostly manic), borderline schizophrenic, with OCD tendencies.
Unfortunately, this psychiatrist was doing a study on a new drug. It wasn’t working well. Jennie was starting to have issues in school. She was becoming increasingly violent especially toward me. I later learned this was because I am her “safe” person. The new doctor ended up prescribing too many meds for her. Her body started to build up toxicities. That’s when the hallucinations became tactile. She ended up in a mental institution for 10 days.
The third diagnosis confirmed what we already knew. Janie’s bipolar 1 disorder created long periods of mania and short periods of deep depressions. While she was not diagnosed as schizophrenic, the prolonged periods of mania were exhibited in schizophrenic tendencies. Therefore, borderline schizophrenia was part of what needed to be treated. Her OCD tendencies were still of concern, mostly because once she started to obsess about something, she was unable to move on. With a third diagnosis, we were pretty confident we knew what we were dealing with. I say we, because it took a team of us to keep our family healthy.
When she got out of the hospital, she was off of all meds, but we couldn’t go back to the same psychiatrist. It took us several months to find a new child psychiatrist and another year to find a psychologist that could help us learn how to cope with what was happening. She went through a phase where she cut off her hair and chopped up all of her clothes. Once I had hidden all of the scissors in the house. She started using knives to carve designs in her skin. So all sharp objects got locked up.
There were police calls, hospital visits, holes in our walls, long nights where Jennie didn’t sleep for days on end. I could tell you all of the stories . . . stories about Jennie trying to fly off the second story roof of her grandparents home; stories about Jennie stealing the car at 15 and getting lost 30 miles from home; stories about her escaping from the hospital guards at the local hospital when we were trying to get her stabilized; stories about picking glass out of my face because she had thrown her dishes at me. I could tell you about the nights I cried because I knew that my baby was never going to have the life I had planned for her.
However, the one that you need to know is the one where she went for a bike ride the year she turned 18 and she didn’t come home for 10 months. She decided to self medicate. She lived in abandoned houses, used illicit drugs, and refused to return home. The police knew she had a mental disorder, because there had been so many other incidents. They refused to lock her up until one day she attacked someone in a public place.
Her second 5150 was our life saver. She became stable for the first time in years. I got a whole new Jennie home when she got out of the hospital this time. We found an awesome doctor, we got her the right combination of medications, we all learned how to help her and how to help ourselves through her ups and downs. I say we, because it took teamwork to get Jennie to the place she is now. My children and I are an incredibly strong family unit. My parents helped support us along the way and never gave up hope that we would be able to find peace and stability for Jennie.
I learned to let go of the dreams and plans I had for Jennie and realized that those were MY plans, not Jennie’s. It’s been a difficult but beautiful journey. I think because we struggled so much with finding medical help, professionals to take us seriously, getting insurance to pay for treatment, getting the community to understand that my child is not a damaged human being, and learning how to live with bipolar that our story can help others.
When I was diagnosed with cancer last year, Jennie was my rock. She is the one that held us together and gave us all strength. Today, Jennie has been stable for 3 1/2 years. She takes her medications faithfully and takes care of herself. She has a beautiful family including a two year old son. She is the best mommy I know. I am so incredibly proud of her!