Are We Ready Now?

When are we ready to stop with the snippy 2nd ammendment memes and have a real conversation about these tragic events and the challenges we face as a nation?

My heart goes out to the families of the victims — all of them, including the traumatized children who saw their classmates die, who had to run from a building that should have been a safe haven.

And we owe it to those children to be angry. To face our nation’s problems with violence, guns and a pathetic mental health system with clear eyes.

Enough.

Murder-Suicide: Rare, Sad and Difficult to Predict

My community recently experienced a murder-suicide where a father took the lives of his two young daughters. I did not know the family, although acquaintances of mine did. One of the girls is the same age as my son. This, unfortunately, enables my over-active imagination to picture his face as a victim of a similar crime. I feel deep empathy for the girls’  mother, whose life was immeasurably changed just a few days ago. It makes me feel like someone punched me in the stomach, and I can only imagine how she must feel.

I’ve also been trying to imagine what the father must have been feeling and thinking before he committed this act. This is far more difficult. According to sketchy media reports, he was despondent over a pending divorce and suffered from depression. But millions of people get divorced and millions of people are depressed. And yes, millions are suicidal. There must be something more — something that pushes someone over the edge to commit murder of the people they love before they take their own life.

I was reminded that as a teenager with a bipolar mother, a therapist once told me that someone who is suicidal can also be homicidal. I didn’t fully understand this information at the time, although now I realize that she was warning me that someone who was contemplating suicide may consider it an act of mercy to take family members with them to prevent their suffering. In other words, she was trying to tell me to be careful.

At the time, I thought the idea was ridiculous. But then, I also couldn’t have imagined back then that my mother would eventually succeed at taking her own life. The unthinkable does happen. I’ve always thought that one of my mother’s twisted thoughts prior to her suicide was that she felt we would be better off without her. She couldn’t have been more wrong. I can only guess that the perpetrator of a murder-suicide commits murder as a perverted sense of altruism.

I’ve looked up research on the Internet, but studies on murder-suicide are far and few between. Murder-suicides are rare, thankfully, and the circumstances do vary. The researchers agree on some basic points — the perpetrators are typically men and involve firearms. A history of mental illness, particularly depression is common, as is domestic violence and economic uncertainty.

But none of the studies I’ve seen have helped with understanding why it happens and how to help others who are in danger. Like other forms of mental illness, what causes someone to commit murder-suicide is mostly unknown and therefore difficult to predict.

I hope we can find a way to help. Because the unthinkable does happen.

Is Animal Hoarding a Mental Illness?

We’ve heard the news stories about animal hoarders — people who “collect” animals under the guise of rescuing them until the situation becomes uncontrollable. The photos and stories of starving animals living in their own waste are highlighted in the media across the nation.

The media stories tend to focus on the animals, which they should. These innocent creatures are clearly the victims here. But the news media rarely digs deeper to the real problem behind animal hoarding. And maybe we should be asking, What about the perpetrators?

An enlightening story from the ASPCA talks about the deeper issues involved in animal hoarding cases. It describes the root of the problem as “Animal hoarding is a complex and intricate social issue with far-reaching effects that encompass mental health, animal welfare and public safety concerns. Victims can include cats, dogs, reptiles, rodents, birds, exotics and even farm animals. While it’s not clear why people become animal hoarders, current research suggests the cause is often attachment disorder in conjunction with personality disorders, paranoia, dementia, depression and other mental illness. The hoarder does not intend to inflict harm on animals, and in most cases, the hoarder can no longer take care of himself, much less multiple animals.”

I found this article particularly interesting because I’ve had a lot of experience with animal rescue operations, and the deepest issues involved in the problem are seldom addressed. I do believe, as does the ASPCA that “the solution lies in supplying hoarders with the resources and tools they need to keep them from repeating their destructive patterns.”

To me, that means mental health resources, something that is in short supply already in this country.

If you know or suspect someone you love is an animal hoarder, please check out the ASPCA’s Animal Hoarding page.

Mental Illness and the Gulf Oil Spill

We live far from the Gulf of Mexico, yet we’ve visited and spent a great deal of time in that area. Watching the news makes the tragedy of the BP oil spill feel close to home. While we want to know, we need to know, what is happening and why, the constant news coverage also leaves us with a feeling of hopelessness — what can we do, being so far away? How can we help? How can we prevent such tragedies? What lessons should we as a nation learn? Important questions without easy answers. And they leave us with a general feeling of malaise that we have started calling the August Angst. (Although we suspect it is not limited to the month of August, and it may evolve into a September Snit.) 

So naturally we found it interesting, but not surprising, that the mental health of people living in communities along the coast is affected. This story by Medical News Today outlines some of the findings of a study by Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. Among not-so-surprising results: Over one-third of parents report that their children have experienced either physical symptoms or mental health distress as a consequence of the oil spill.

If we, who live at least a thousand miles away, are feeling mental health distress, it only makes sense that those who are so close (and whose livelihood may depend on the Gulf) are affected. We’re glad someone is studying this issue, and we’d like to send good thoughts out to you Gulf Coastal residents. Let us know how we can help.

U.S. Army Responds to Suicide Risks

I was fascinated to read this AP story about the U.S. Army’s attempts to address suicide among their ranks. What a brave man Army Spc. Joseph Sanders is for stepping forward and becoming the face of this campaign. I found his story to be inspiring, and at the same time, I suspect it is more prevelant than he knew at the time.

I’ve never served in the military, but I grew up next door to a military base. My husband’s family has a long history of military service, and I have some idea of the type of environment and culture that comes with the military life. I can’t imagine a more difficult combination of elements that could spark mental illness while at the same time limiting a person’s ability to seek help. I found it heartening that the U.S. Army is at least giving it a try.

The pressure in the military to “be strong” is part of the very culture of the institution. It is not limited to any one branch of service, one country or even one era of human history. For the U.S. Army to change the message and try to address the problem is quite the “about face.” (Pun intended. Sometimes I can’t help myself.)

This story hits home for me in a very personal way, because I know a military vet who is currently suffering from depression. He lives the “be strong” motto through and through. In his case, just like many others, it is preventing him from seeking treatment for his illness. For him, I want this campaign to be just the tip of the iceberg. I want him to feel like it’s okay to ask for help. I want him to know that asking for help doesn’t make him weak. In fact, it’s the opposite — it requires great strength and courage to seek it.

I’m pleased the Army is making an effort to provide more mental health services, and I hope they dedicate the resources necessary to make it work. Keep up the good work, soldiers. And to Army Spc. Joseph Sanders, I salute you.

Help for Teenagers Affected by Suicide: Break Through the Static

My local paper ran a story about a new nonprofit organization dedicated to helping teenagers who are affected by suicide. This organization, called Break through the Static, defines its mission as creating “a caring community aimed at helping teenagers survive, heal and grow after losing a loved one to suicide. At Break Through the Static, teenagers will experience a safe and encouraging environment designed to strengthen their emotional and physical health through positive peer and adult relationships, and by joining with other teens to share and cultivate their unique talents and interests.”

Wow, I wish this group was around 20 years ago.

In fact, I find it a little disturbing that it took this long to develop such a group. It shows, yet again, the large hole in support services for people who are directly affected by mental illness.

If you are a teenager who is affected by suicide, or you know one, please check out Break through the Static. What an amazing resource for an under-served group of people. We are not alone.

Uncertainty: Emotions Involved When You Love Someone with a Mental Illness

This post is the first of an ongoing series where we discuss the emotions involved in loving someone with a mental illness.

When I look back over my mother’s struggle with bipolar disorder, the most enduring emotion is uncertainty. I never knew what lay beyond the door. Which way will the pendulum swing? Will I come home to the depressed person, unable to function, or the hyper energy of a mania phase?

Sometimes she was irritable as hell; other times she was in a state of terrible, manic happiness. The stages themselves also offer varying degrees of uncertainty—will the mania manifest in relatively minor levels of incessant talking or out-of-control surges of activity? When she talked about her ideas and plans in a manic phase, I couldn’t tell what was real and what was an illusion of her disease.

The uncertainty seemed to increase as my mother’s illness continued. On her good days, I wanted to believe that she was finally, “Fine,” as she promised. I wanted to believe we had found the right doctor, the right pill, the right diagnosis. I wanted, in essence, the uncertainty to finally become certainty.

Except that never happened.

Each time, I let myself believe we had found the answer. And each time, I let my guard down, and then after weeks, days or sometimes minutes, I somehow ended up in the same place I was before—full of uncertainly about my mother and her illness. I never knew where I stood with her. Instead I tiptoed around her or tried to avoid her altogether.

I had to learn to deal with the uncertainty, which remains even years after she died. I mourn for the lost innocence that let me believe I could somehow fix everything—if I only tried hard enough. I know better now.

I believe this particular emotion is not unique to this particular mental illness, although bipolar symptoms in themselves lend to a huge amount of uncertainty. Uncertainty is perhaps the cornerstone of dealing with mental illness. The uncertainty of the disease transfers across to more uncertainty about treating it, and to coping with its effects. Never knowing exactly what the right thing to do is. Never knowing if you did everything you could do.

Never knowing anything again with certainty.

Breaking the Cycle of a Mentally Ill Parent

My sister and I spent a good part of last evening talking about our parents and our childhood. This is not particularly unusual when we get together. She has a better memory than I do, and yesterday she told me a few new stories that I didn’t remember. Even after 20 years of adulthood, she can still surprise me sometimes with new details.

I love these long, introspective conversations where we dissect small events and hypothesize on everyone’s thought process at the time. We are both parents now, so the actions of our parents are interesting to us in new ways. And, probably surprising to most people, it’s not our mother’s death that is the hot topic of conversation. Instead, it is her actions as a mother of small children that we find more interesting, probably because of the number of small children in our lives today.

It feels grossly unfair that our mother is not here to share in this conversation. At the same time, I wonder if my sister and I would be having these conversations if she were alive today. There is a lingering possibility that my sister and I would not be as close as we are today if our mother was alive; that our close bond was forged in tragedy alone. And our mother’s very presence may eclipse these conversations because she would be here to answer the now unanswerable questions.

I realized during this conversation that, even 20 years later, I still harbor some resentment and anger towards my mother. Not from her illness and her death, which were terrible and tragic, but from the very beginnings of our relationship as an unplanned pregnancy and spirited child. This animosity is completely missing in my sister, whose birth and personality meshed better with our mother’s plan for her life. And I realized that my mother’s mental illness, while a significant factor in my childhood, is not the only issue.

I tell you this because a lot of people find this blog by searching for information about the effects of mental illness on children. I can tell you from firsthand experience that there isn’t much information out there. The truth is that my mother’s illness is only one factor of our relationship that still resonates. Her actions as a young mother in an isolated military community with a daughter whom she didn’t plan on are far more relevant in my life today.

Our parents’ actions affect our lives. There’s no doubt about that. But the children of the mentally ill have choices too. I’m no longer a child, and I don’t blame my mother’s actions for any problems that I have in my life. I do try to learn from them, and with effort, avoid repeating the worst of them. I’m responsible for myself now.

That responsibility means I need to deal with that anger towards my mother that lingers more than 38 years later. I have resources. It’s time to use them again. Because that anger may be playing out in subtle ways in my relationships with my own children. I don’t have any control over my mother’s actions, but I have control over my own. Understanding the difference is one of the key elements to recovery. You can’t choose your parents. But you can choose how you parent your own children. Breaking the cycle is hard. But it’s worth it. I’m worth it. And my kids are worth it too.

Play About Mental Illness Wins Pulitzer Prize

We’re pleased to report that Next to Normal won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This rock musical is about a mother who struggles with bipolar disorder and the effect that her illness has on her family. (Wow, sounds familiar to us!) The musical apparently addresses such issues as grieving a loss, suicide, drug abuse, ethics in modern psychiatry and suburban life. Not living anywhere near Broadway, we have not seen it, but please leave a comment below with your personal review if you have.

It’s nice to see an artistic work about mental illness recognized with an award of this caliber. We hope it’s just one more step in breaking the silence about mental illness in our society. For more about the play, visit the Next to Normal website.

The Long-Term Impact of My Mother’s Suicide, Part III

This the last part of a three part essay where I explore a few of the issues in my adulthood that stem from my mother’s suicide when I was 17 years old. Read Part I and Part II.

Becoming a mother myself—something I put off until my early 30s—held an enormous amount of risk for me. I instinctively knew the stability I had tried so hard to create would be at risk by starting my own family and being responsible for another small life. Yet the birth of my son was the most profound moment of my life. Parenthood has let me discover more about my mother, nearly 20 years later, because my children have brought me a new level of understanding about her life and her death. I know now a mother’s love for her child can be etched on her very soul, yet love doesn’t always prevent her from making decisions that are resolutely against her child’s best interests. In only three years, I’ve come to know my mother on a different level. I’ve heard her words come out of my mouth. Seen her temper in my flashes of anger. And in the most despondent moments of post-partum depression, I glimpsed the void that must have made her tie the rope and jump.

Even today it is hard for me to accept my mother’s last decision. Having children of my own, it’s impossible for me to see how she could have made that choice. It is unthinkable to me to simply walk out of their lives, leaving me with one of two very undesirable possibilities. My mother was so sick that her instincts were completely skewed and she thought we would be better off without her. Or she never loved me like I love my own kids.

The second is the reaction of the wounded child, and its large flaw is the changing nature of the parent-child relationship. It’s far more complex than I ever imagined, or could ever have felt, at age 17. I suspect this complexity will simply increase with time as my children age and our relationship becomes even more multifaceted. Years of analysis, of therapy, of pharmaceutical assistance and of late-night philosophizing with my sister have not dispelled one truth: I know my mother loved me, even if her death felt like a choice to leave me.

Then I’m left with the first, and still undesirable, reason. Suicide is excruciating for the people left behind. It is the ultimate act of abandonment for a child. Sometimes there is no happy ending. Sometimes parents are sick. Sometimes mothers leave by their own choice. Sometimes parents die. It is a painful truth, and I face it every day.

I’ve had to deal with a lot of painful truths in my life since my mother died. My children have four grandparents, although one is not biologically related to them. My father remarried four years after my mother died. I won’t pretend his choice was an easy one or his decision didn’t tear apart the fragile bonds we rewove after my mother died. Yet, after years of strife, I now see my stepmother as a valuable asset, filling her role in a way that I’m not sure my own mother would have managed. She is an excellent grandmother. And my children adore her. When Grandma comes to visit, I’m happy to put them in her care, knowing they will be adored and loved. I am grateful for her presence in my life and in theirs.

Also, being happy with myself also creates a bit of a conundrum for me. My life is the result of my mother’s death and the choices I made since that day. If I like who I am now, I cannot wish away the pain and tragedy of her death. I cannot deny its influence in making me a stronger, more resilient person. It has brought me much closer to my sister, who has become my dearest friend. It propelled us to better ourselves, working through college and graduate school, taking on challenging careers, and attempting to make the world a better place. It brought me to the man I married and the two adorable children we created. I look at the good in my life, and I see how it sprung from the pain. The paradox does not escape me.

I hope my experience provides some comfort for others who have experienced tragedy. When I watch my children sleeping safety in their beds, I think about everything I want for them. First and foremost, I want them to have a safe and happy home with healthy parents. What’s more, I wish all children around the world could have the exact same thing. I don’t want any family to go through what we did. Since that wish is unobtainable, I have to settle for telling this story in order to help others know that even in painful times, there is still a chance for good. Recovery can and will happen if you work toward it. Life does not necessarily give you what you want or what you deserve, but you can find good in life again. I survived. I am living proof.