"Why We Fall Down" Runner-Up Essay written by my son Luke about his older brother Jake

 August 17, 2015

Luke and Jake, Christmas 2012
The three of us, back when Luke was shorter than me.
My son Luke wrote an essay about his older brother for a scholarship contest. He was awarded Runner up. Here is his essay.

Who's Holding Your Invisible Strings?

July 20, 2015

If you've ever struggled with a mental illness or cared for someone struggling, you know how unpredictable life can be. The only thing certain is uncertainty.

But for me, there has been a secret weapon that has silently, invisibly kept me afloat all this time: the love of my life, Tom.

We were friends first, having met by chance while working in a community theatre project together, a musical: Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka. I was the director and Tom played Grandpa Joe.

If you are familiar with the story, you know that Grandpa Joe and Charlie experiment with a "Fizzy Lifting Drink" during their chocolate factory tour and they both end up flying. This stunt, as well as a few other flying scenes were critical to the believability of the show--they had to be done right. Our production team rented an impressive flying mechanism, complete with special flight training for our four actors and four flight crew members. We took every precaution to ensure the safety of the stunts, but even then, we knew that one slight mistake could be fatal.

Good thing I trusted our flight crew. One of the members was my older son, Jake then 18 years old. He was smart, reliable and strong, a perfect choice.

During rehearsals, I remember Tom brought the entire flight crew their favorite soft drinks, a six pack of Mountain Dew or a jug of Arnold Palmer, whatever they liked. My son was so thrilled that Tom thought to bring him his own special treat just for working backstage.

As the director, I was impressed and thanked Tom. I remember his response: "You have to recognize the crew of any production. They are what holds it all together. They need to feel important because they are."

He was right. Those working in the background often go unnoticed, yet it's their tireless efforts that keep everything running smoothly. And in the case of Willy Wonka, they were the ones who kept our performers alive. In fact, my son was a flyer for Tom, meaning he operated some of the invisible wires that suspended him high overhead while he flipped somersaults on stage. So quite literally, my son Jake had Tom's life in his hands.

A few months after the production ended, Jake's world fell apart. He spiraled into a blackhole of mental illness that, ultimately, landed him behind bars. He is still incarcerated today.

It hasn't been easy. In fact, it's been the most difficult time in my life. And at first, I felt completely alone. But then, thankfully, Tom stepped in "backstage" and took hold of my invisible strings, helping me hold it all together, keeping me alive.

I dedicate this post to all those selfless flight crew members out there who are holding invisible strings everyday. You should feel special, because you are.

Thank you, Tom. Happy Anniversary.

*The photo above is of Tom, suspended in the air during a flight rehearsal for Willy Wonka. Off stage, holding the ropes of Tom's invisible strings, is my son, Jake.

Caregivers: Two for One Special!

May 28, 2015

This post is actually an invitation for you to check out two other posts I have written recently, both on the subject of caregiving for a loved one with mental illness.

The first article is called "Be the Village" and it's posted on International Bipolar Foundation's website.

LINK: International Bipolar Foundation post "Be the Village"

The second is an article for Amy White's blog called "Far From Paradise."

LINK: Far From Paradise post "No More Excuses"

The Other "F" Word

May 8, 2015

Can you be an extroverted introvert? Or an introverted extrovert? I’m one of those. My moods tend to dictate which “vert” is dominant on any given day or at any given moment actually. As a fifth grade teacher, I have to be extroverted. My job depends on my ability to capture and sustain the attention of a classroom full of eleven-year-olds for 84 minutes at a time. Have you ever seen that dog treat commercial where the pup says, “Bacon!” over and over again? That’s what I imagine is happening in many of my students’ minds most of the time. So, to battle the bacon beckoning, I do my best to put on a good show every day during class. Like I said before, as a teacher, I am extroverted. That’s the “Teacher Me.” But that’s not really who I am. Not really. In truth, I’m actually kind of shy. My bipolar 2 diagnosis came as no surprise when I received it a few years ago. My mood swings were apparent early on. In fact, all my life I’ve had trouble creating and sustaining good, healthy relationships. What I’m about to tell you is very difficult to admit. First: I’ve been married before. Twice before, actually. And second: I could chart my life on a timeline marked not by years, not by jobs, not even by husbands. No, I could chart it by friends. There were the “Laila* Years” and then the “Sharon* Years” followed closely by the “Krysta* Years” and the list goes on. So the fact that I’m on my third (and LAST, thankyouverymuch) marriage is NOT what is most humiliating. No, what I’m most humiliated by is the fact that I don’t have many friends. Not really. If you’re looking at my Facebook page you’re saying, “Of course you have friends! Look at all those friends! Oodles of them!” Sure, “friends” on Facebook. But real Friends? The capital “F” kind? The kind of Friend who turns to you when they need a shoulder to cry on, a funny story to share, or someone to hold back their hair when they’ve had too much to drink. I mean that kind of Friend. Besides my husband, who is by far and away my very best Friend on the planet, my Friend pool is quite shallow. But please, don’t stop reading. This isn’t a “Feel Sorry for Me” post. I promise. Because, honestly, it’s my fault. The pre-diagnosis/medication/therapy “Me” was pretty difficult to be around. There were times I couldn’t stand to be around myself, so I have no idea how anyone else could. I totally get that. I do. And since I’m naturally an introvert, making Friends hasn’t been too easy. But now as my life is settling down, and I have a loving husband, a calming home life, and a solid career, I feel like it’s time to focus on building some Friendships. The capital “F” kind. Which brings me to the purpose of this post. C.S. Lewis said, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” And I think I may have met that kind of friend today. I mean, it’s a little early to say for sure. But there was that “What? You too?” thing going on. We talked and talked and laughed and cried. Yes, full disclosure: there was a little crying. But I don’t want to jinx it, so for now I’ll just say this: Hey, Friend, if you’re reading this, “I thought I was the only one.” *Names have been changed for privacy.

A Thread of Hope

April 11, 2015

Today was Decision Day at the college my younger son plans to attend this fall. From the moment we arrived on campus, the positive energy was palpable. Helium-filled balloons, giant welcome signs, blue and gold pom-poms and, of course, excited college students welcomed the thousand or so high school seniors as well as their parents for a day of university pride. Once we were checked in, and given our $20 gift card to the school book store, my younger son and I entered a giant reception area where we could fill up on “free” muffins, coffee, juice, and fresh fruit. I say it was “free” because it technically didn’t cost us anything…but once you pay the tuition and room & board fees, those breakfast treats work out to be about $10,000 each! Enough negativity though. The day was about school pride and we bought into it hook, line and sinker.  Since the school is in our home state, he was happy to see a few kids he knew from high school while I had a chance to meet and chit chat with their parents. Everyone was brimming with excitement and it was contagious. I fought back tears all morning. Not because I’m sad he’s growing up, though I certainly am. No, my tears were tears of pride and relief because my baby is going to be ok and this morning it finally hit me that he really is. He’s going to be ok. After a few helpful presentations, we walked around the beautiful campus, took some pictures at the admissions building and visited the book store, where we spent more than $20, by the way. All in all, it was a pretty great Saturday morning.

We left just after lunch because I had an appointment; I was scheduled to visit my older son in prison.

Though my son has been incarcerated since March of 2013, I’ve never visited him alone. I’ve always either gone with my ex-husband or my younger son. Today, though, I was solo. What struck me as I walked in was the stark difference between my morning and my afternoon’s activities. When I arrived at the prison, there were no balloons, no friendly faces, and certainly no free food. Instead, I was led through a metal detector and then made to reveal the contents of my pants pockets as well as lift up my pants legs to ensure I wasn’t armed. And the crowd that gathered with me definitely contrasted from my morning’s company. The afternoon bunch consisted of young mothers quieting their babies, older couples frowning to one another, and single visitors like me just politely smiling, not making eye contact, and hoping the visit will begin soon. And, though I was grateful to see my older son again, I wasn’t able to muster the same level of excitement for him as I did for my younger son just a few hours before. Just like every visit I have with him, the tears welled in my eyes from the moment I saw him through the plexi-glass when he lifted up the receiver of the phone. We talked about his most recent run-in with the pod bully and the progress of his current GED students that he tutors. And though he still faces several more months of prison, we can see the end now and we talked about what he’ll do when he’s released. We talked about the halfway house rules he’ll need to follow and how he’ll have to use the city bus since he no longer has a car. We talked for the entire hour and some of it was mundane, but all of it mattered to me because it was all evidence that reminded me that he’s going to be ok. He really is.

Though my morning and afternoon experiences couldn’t have been more different, I have managed to find one thread of similarity between them: Both experiences involved hope. While this morning’s hope was about new opportunities, this afternoon’s hope was about simple survival. 

Either way, though, both my sons are going to be ok. They’re going to be ok.

Two Year Anniversary of the Worst Day of My Life

March 28, 2015

It's been two years. Two years since I finally received that call I'd been expecting I'd get. Two years since my world was turned completely upside down. Two years since the wide open field of my son's future was squeezed into an ever-narrowing shaft of fading darkness.

It has been two years since my son was arrested and incarcerated.

So much has happened since then. Our entire family has endured so much heartache. But my son has definitely suffered the most.

He has been attacked on numerous occasions (the most recent one resulted in a cracked molar that wasn't repaired for 3 days). He has witnessed two deaths, one, a murder by stabbing with a homemade shank, and the other, his cell mate who died in his sleep apparently of natural causes. He has been sent to "the hole" (solitary confinement for defending himself in a fist fight). He has been put on suicide watch, sent to a padded room and left naked for 48 hours (a conscious choice he made due to fear he'd be jumped by his co-defendant who had been placed in my son's pod in error). And he has received sub-par medical care: his bipolar condition has been treated with the cheapest, least effective medication with the most side effects, and his wisdom teeth were all extracted without adequate pain medication. He has gained weight from the poor diet high in refined sugars and low in protein and lack of opportunity to exercise, and his skin has become pasty and gray from such little sun exposure.

And these things I mention because they are the things my son has told me about. He said he won't tell me all the "bad stuff" because he doesn't want me to worry.

But we can finally see the end of this nightmare now. We expect that he'll be released by the end of this calendar year though they haven't told him a specific date yet.

His little brother has been working on lining up a possible job for him when he gets out.

He's making plans to attend college classes as soon as he's released.

And, most importantly, he is finally being realistic about his illness. He has learned more about it, and he has accepted it as a reality. It is part of who he is. It does not define him, but it is something that mustn't be ignored. He knows firsthand what kind of tragedies denial can cause.

And here I am.

I feel like I've aged ten years not just two.

But I am still here.

And I'm hopeful. Still.

A Documentary about Mental Illness and Its Stigma

May 11, 2015

In June 2013, my younger son and I were interviewed by a documentary film maker who was traveling the globe for his project about mental illness and its stigma. Here is the link to the original post from my blog.

We were honored to be involved in this powerful film with such an important message. The film is now finished. I hope you'll take a peek at the film. The director, Tim Hill, plans to submit it to film festivals later this year, but hopefully, you'll help us share it via the internet as well.

A New Perspective from the Cab of a Tow Truck

January 18, 2015

The other day I had a flat tire. The night before I had run over a good-sized rock that must have slowly deflated my tire overnight. So the next morning, I went out to the car and discovered the flat.

As luck would have it, both my husband and my son had already left for work and school so I was on my own to solve the problem.

And these new cars don't have spares in the trunk. (Not that I would have been able to change the tire anyway...) Good thing I had a service program in place. I called for a tow truck.

When the tow truck driver arrived, my first instinct was to snap a photograph or two and "check in" on social media so that if the driver was some kind of maniacal killer at least my "friends" would know where and when I disappeared. (Yes, I watch too much Dateline.)

But the driver of the tow truck didn't frighten me at all. Instead, he reminded me of my sons. He was young, early twenties, with a round, boyish face. He wore silver wire-framed glasses and his dark brown hair was short and combed. I didn't catch his name.

We first talked about how he became a tow truck driver. He joined the crew a year ago when his cousin told him about a job opening. He had been "a pizza guy" before that and had not been satisfied.

But driving a tow truck is not his goal. He plans to join the Air Force next month. In his words, "I just need to get out."

I certainly could relate to his sense of urgency. My younger son seems to feel that way, too. With all that has happened over the last few years, my younger son yearns to break free from the dark clouds of his older brother's poor choices and his father's struggle with alcohol. So, because I could relate to this young man's feelings, I shared with him a small part of our story.

It's funny how just a few words can make a difference.

After hearing about my sons' struggles, including my older son's battle with mental illness, suicide intentions, and eventual felony arrest, the young man said this, "That reminds me of my brother."

And then he was quiet.

I wasn't sure if I should ask anymore. He gripped the large steering wheel firmly and stared directly ahead pursing his lips.

I waited.

Then he said, "My older brother had mental problems since middle school. But he was a really good student. He was valedictorian. And he got a free ride to Drexel... But then he killed himself."

Suddenly, I was washed over by a series of realizations:

I had hit a rock.
That rock had caused a flat.
That flat had required a tow truck.
The tow truck I was assigned had this driver.
This boy needed to tell me this.
And I needed to hear it.

The silence was broken eventually. We went on to discuss mental illness and those it affects beyond the patients themselves. I told him about NAMI and what I'd been doing with it lately. I urged him to check it out for himself or suggest it to his dad. His mother, unfortunately, was out of the picture.

Our conversation continued until the moment he shifted the large truck into park. He tilted his head and gave me a crooked, awkward smile before hopping out to unhitch my car. I climbed down and stood beside his giant vehicle suddenly feeling exceptionally small.

What had happened to me in that 25 minute drive? My head was still spinning when he approached me with paperwork to sign.

"Thank you," I said.

"You're welcome," he said sheepishly.

"No, really. Thank you. For talking to me. That was very brave and I really do appreciate it. You're a strong guy. And I think you'll do great in the Air Force. Good luck."

"Thanks," he shrugged.

I extended my hand to shake his, but then quickly decided that wasn't enough. "Can I hug you?" I asked. "I feel like I should hug you."

He smiled, "Sure, yeah, thanks."

And we hugged. Then he climbed back up into the cab of his giant tow truck and drove away.
I never did catch his name.


November 29, 2014

My younger son is applying to colleges and the deadlines are looming. The choices about where to visit, what questions to ask, and when to hit “send” are overwhelming. To help him with this arduous process, I offered to proofread his application essay.

The prompt was about identifying an event in his life that triggered his transition from childhood to adulthood. He chose to write about his older brother’s incarceration.

He was not eager to share it with me, assuming that the subject matter would be too difficult for me to handle.  He knows me well. I considered it for a moment. Would I finally be able to get a glimpse inside the iron fortress of my younger son’s mind? The emotional wall he has built over the last few years has grown tall and wide, but in this moment he offered me the lone key to the only door. I chose to step inside.

I took the essay and began to read. In doing so, I learned a few valuable lessons.

First, I realized that I am stronger than I thought. Not only was I able to read this moving account of his fallen hero and how he consequently discovered himself, I was able to compartmentalize my own emotions in order to help draw out his insightful viewpoint about that difficult time. I listened for his unique voice through the din of my own muddied memories, and I helped him shape his thoughts into a well-crafted piece about his personal journey of becoming a man.

Secondly, I remembered that we do not live in a vacuum. The choices we make do not only affect us, they affect those we care about, those we hold dear. And, because of those first choices, more choices must be made.  It is a ripple effect. Four years ago, my older son made the choice to ignore his bipolar disorder diagnosis. Eventually, he paid the price: he is now a convicted felon. My younger son, who is guilty only of being born into a household affected by mental illness, has faced difficult choices too. He could have easily played the victim. He could have allowed his brother’s illness and incarceration to destroy him too. Instead, though, he has made the choice to embrace the challenges in life as opportunities to become a better person every day. His brother’s choices have affected him, but he has chosen to use them for good.

Lastly, I discovered that my younger son is going to be okay. I see now that he is healing. While internalizing his feelings was his natural coping mechanism, in his own way, he has dealt with them too. He has sorted through his disappointment, his anger, and his despair and he has resolved to thrive despite them.

Love You Forever-The Book and the Promise

Oct. 5, 2014

I used to read this book to my son every night before he went to bed. It's a wonderful story about the love a mother has for her son all through his life. No matter what trouble he got into from childhood to adulthood, she never stopped loving him.

While the concept of a mother crawling across the floor of a grown man's home to rock her adult son to sleep may seem silly, the message isn't silly at all. It's about unconditional love. It's clear that the mother would never desert her son; she just wants to comfort him. The boy in the story makes some bad choices, but she never stops loving him. She never stops rocking him back and forth, back and forth.

And though I can't crawl across the floor of his prison cell today, I feel that unconditional love for my son just like the day I first laid eyes on him 22 years ago.

So because I can't crawl across his floor, this morning I wrote him a letter. And I consider it quite an accomplishment whenever I complete one because it's never easy writing him letters. That may seem strange coming from someone who fancies herself a "writer," but it's true. It's incredibly difficult to write to my son in prison.

The challenge is really about balance, trying to share my thoughts with him without revealing too much of the gut-wrenching pain I feel when I think of where he is and why.

Tears pour down my face as I carefully select mundane topics like my plans for the show I'm directing or my ideas for re-landscaping our yard. I can't let my broken heart bleed through the drivel I'm crafting for him to read. I don't want him to know how hard this is for me because for him, it's already too hard.

But no matter what I write in his letters, I always conclude them the same way... with the lines from that special book. While she cradles her great big boy in her arms, she sings:

I'll love you forever
I'll like you for always
As long as I'm living
My baby you'll be.

An Innocent Bystander

September 22, 2014

About two weeks ago during a busy work day, I discovered three missed calls from my ex-husband. Though he and I have been divorced for 13 years, we remain on good terms and have always tried to stay unified when it came to decisions about our two sons. So when I realized he had tried to reach me three times in quick succession, I thought something must be wrong.

My hunch was right. It turns out that he'd lost his job that day. He was devastated and rightly so. He'd worked there for more than 15 years and had an excellent reputation. While he certainly has had his share of personal issues, he'd always been on top when it came to his job, but not anymore. He was suddenly unemployed.

While this news doesn't exactly have a direct impact on my life because I'm not married to him anymore, it definitely affects our two sons, especially our younger son.

At 17 years old, our younger son is planning his future. He's a senior in high school making big decisions about the man he wants to become. He's got so much on his mind already: school work, his job, college applications, his friends...Then there's the fact that his older brother is in prison. And now this. His father is suddenly unemployed. Obviously, he's worried about his dad now just like he's been worrying about his older brother for the last year and half. My concern is that he's going to get so tangled up in their messes that he will lose sight of his own needs. And while I've referred him to his counselor at school, he isn't the type of kid who expresses his feelings too well. He plays his cards close to the vest.

As his mother, I just want him to escape all of this and be free. I want him to reach his full potential without the distractions of his brother and father holding him back. I fear that they will always be burdens he must bear. He's just an innocent bystander in all of this. Why must he suffer? He's already seen much too much in his 17 years. He has learned firsthand what mental illness looks like and how it rips open a family. And he's seen what happens to a man whose lifelong career vanishes in a heartbeat. He has done nothing to deserve such heartache.

I love both my sons. And I want what's best for both of them. My older son is in the midst of turning his life around, but it can't happen until he's released from prison. My younger son has his whole life ahead of him, and he's got such amazing potential. I just hope that the pain he's suffered watching his brother and father struggle will make him a stronger person. I wish there was more I could do to keep him safe and get him away from all of this sadness.

I suppose I need to remember that I am still hopeful mom. That's just what I have to be.


July 29, 2014

I have typed this first sentence more than thirty times.

But instead of deleting it again, I will continue describing what I am experiencing right now. Maybe you have felt this way too.

I feel anxious, incredibly anxious. I am worrying about the little things like the eye doctor appointment I need to reschedule and the weeds in the flower bed that just keep reappearing. And I am worrying about the big things like what job my older son will be able to get when he's released from prison and how I will afford to pay for my younger son to go to college next year. And I am worrying about worrying. And that worries me.
Seriously, it does.

I am unable to focus on any one task for more than a few minutes. Typing this blog post is going to take me all day. And I don't have all day. This summer is zooming by and I haven't got much to show for it. I had big plans for this summer: finish some home projects, start a second book, plan for my upcoming school year...But I'm finding it hard to focus at all.

As the calendar approaches August, the stress increases. I know I have important things to accomplish before I return to school in a few weeks. Right now, though, all I can see is a daunting to-do list and nowhere to begin. Would crawling into a hole and sleeping help at all? Because that is seriously an option right now. It's what I'd like to do, honestly. My logical side knows avoiding the workload is only going to make it worse, but it doesn't seem to matter. This anxiety is crushing me.

How can I be a good mother, a good wife, a good teacher, a good friend, if I feel this way?

After re-reading this post, I am tempted to just delete it all. My ramblings make little sense. But instead of wiping the screen clean and starting over, I will post this as is in hopes that someone else out there has felt this way too.

So I'm avoiding one more thing today: the DELETE key.

Bipolar in Paradise

June 22, 2014

Moist, sugar-soft sand squeezed in between my toes as I ambled along the beach. The oranges, reds, and yellows swirled across the horizon and the rhythmic sounds of the ocean blended in perfect harmony with the steel drums tapping out an island tune. For seven days I was in a Caribbean heaven vacationing with my family. And yet, for seven days, bliss eluded me.

It's difficult to know just what kept me from feeling as carefree and euphoric as one might expect under the circumstances. It could be my recent change in medication for the treatment of my Bipolar II. Or it could be the simple fact that my firstborn son still sits in prison after more than a year. I don't know. But the truth is while my entire family celebrated the joyful occasion of my parents' 45th anniversary in ocean waves of St. Croix, I secretly battled a different set of waves all week, the waves of melancholy that have plagued me for as long as I can remember. In the midst of a week-long island vacation, I was sad, plain and simple.

Now, don't get me wrong. I didn't spend my days in a darkened room with the covers pulled over my head. I was very active and quite social really. I jogged every morning followed by an elaborate breakfast at the resort restaurant. Then I sunned and swam, snorkeled and celebrated with everyone. But there was this gray cloud over my head all the time. I couldn't seem to thoroughly enjoy myself no matter how hard I tried. I knew how amazing this vacation was and how much I should be loving it, yet I couldn't. I just couldn't.

I suppose that's what living with bipolar really is for me-- being aware of how I should feel, yet feeling the opposite. I guess I am lucky that I am usually aware of what I am missing when my illness strikes. Others may not be.

After this vacation, I've learned that the waves of bipolar illness can crash any shore, even in paradise.

Sentenced With a Side of Stigma

May 23, 2014

Today my son was sentenced to 3 years in a level 5 facility for crimes he committed in March of 2013. Because he has been incarcerated since his arrest last March, he only has 2 years more to serve. The sentence he received was the mandatory minimum sentence so for that we are grateful. We are also hopeful that with time off for good behavior and with completing a court-ordered treatment program while in prison, he may be released earlier than scheduled.

So the sentencing is over. Now we know what to expect; we have a clearer picture of the future. But something else happened today in court that has me troubled. Actually, the more I think about it, the more it bothers me.

There is something in my state called Mental Health Court. This has different implications depending on the severity of the crimes committed. In my son's case, Mental Health Court would allow him to have a probation officer who has mental health training once he is released and put on probation. Today our attorney asked the judge to consider this as part of my son's sentence, citing the volumes of documentation he has of my son's mental illness history. The judge denied his request.

But that isn't what bothers me. What bothers me are the words that he used while denying this request.

The judge said instead of Mental Health Court, he thinks my son should "just do it himself."

Do what exactly, your honor? Do you mean he should manage his neverending waves of mania and depression alone?  Isn't that what landed him here in the first place?

While I would have liked to see my son assigned to Mental Health Court for his probation, I am not really angry about that decision. I don't understand it, but that's not what upsets me. No, what upsets me is that a person in such an important position of power, a well-educated, seasoned professional --a judge-- could be so ill-informed about mental illness that he thinks it is something one can simply self-regulate.

And to think, May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. Perhaps he missed the memo.

This experience is just one more in a long list of ways that the stigma of mental illness has affected our lives. The stigma kept us from revealing our crises and seeking help in the first place. Now it has surfaced once again, in what I hope is the last chapter of this hellish story.

The Gavel

May 21, 2014

This Friday at 9:30 am EST, my 22 year old son will stand before a judge and receive his sentence for crimes he committed over a year ago. He has been incarcerated since March of 2013. I will not share the details of his arrest. I will only say the crimes were committed while he was heavily intoxicated, he did not harm anyone or himself, and he made a complete confession upon his arrest. I am past the point of blaming him for what he did. Or at least I think I am. At this point I just want to know what his sentence is. I'm just so tired of waiting.

But now, the wait is almost over. In just a couple of days we will know how long my son will have to sit behind bars before he can begin the next chapter in his life, before he can really begin his young adulthood in earnest.

Nausea has settled into the pit of my stomach. My hands and legs tremble. My mind darts from one worry to the next. The anxiety I feel is growing more intense each day. I know my son feels it too. He has called me nearly every night. He talks about his fears. He tries to remain hopeful without setting himself up for a great disappointment. Instead of dreaming of the best case scenario, he is trying to prepare himself for the worst case scenario only that's not easy to do since we really don't know what that is. Our attorney has given us as much information as he knows which isn't that much. What can a defense attorney really say to prepare a defendant for sentencing? What can he tell a defendant's mother? I do not blame him for the tension I feel. And I do not blame my son. I just want some resolution.

To say I am ready for the gavel to strike the judge's bench is not exactly true. I don't think I will ever be ready to hear a judge announce the sentence my son face, but it's time. And I am doing all I can do to prepare myself and my son for what that sentence may be.

A Big Step Forward

May 9, 2014

Today I took a big step forward. I told our story in public.

Our local NAMI organization hosted a Crisis Intervention Team training for police officers. It was a one week course designed to prepare them for mental health crises. I was asked to give a fifteen minute talk during the Family Perspective portion of the program. 

There were about forty people crammed in the stuffy room where I was scheduled to speak right after lunch. I was sure that my audience would be ready for a nap, not ready to witness an emotional mother blubber on about her bipolar son in prison. 

But I was wrong. They were ready and willing to listen to me and for that I am grateful.

It wasn't easy. I am a teacher so I can talk to a thousand twelve year olds without a problem, but put me in a room with forty grown ups, that's another story! My voice quivered as I began to speak. My tremor kicked in and my hands began to shake. I had to steady my papers on a nearby projector cart. I probably looked and sounded like I was falling apart...

But I made it through and I think I may have had an impact. Or at least I hope I did. Afterwards several people came up to thank me for sharing such a personal story, and they asked lots of questions. Many of them also shared their own personal mental health stories with me. One gentleman told me that he lost his fifteen year old daughter to suicide, calling it "the S word." He thanked me for talking about it because it's so rarely discussed in public. He reminded me that I still have a chance to reach my son and that I should be grateful. Talk about powerful. That really got me. Lump. In. Throat.

So what I did today was important, even if is was emotionally exhausting. 

One thing I said was, "Though my efforts ultimately weren't enough to keep my son from going to prison, I hope that by talking to you here today I may make a difference for someone else's child before it's too late for them."

And if I do make a difference for someone's child some day, even just one, then I've begun to turn this tragic chapter of our lives into something more positive. That's definitely one big step forward.

"Black Box" is a Black Hole for Bipolar

April 26, 2014

ABC attempted to do what no other network television show has been able to do: depict bipolar disorder realistically and openly. Unfortunately, ABC failed miserably with "Black Box" which debuted this week.

If you want to see bipolar illness portrayed in a classically cliched way, act fast. This show won't last long unless the writers wake up and smell the stereotype. "Black Box" follows Dr. Catherine Black who specializes in rare brain disorders. The audience "sees" these illnesses through her eyes as she diagnoses and treats the patients affected by them. But Dr. Black has her own secret. The "clever twist"...wait for it... is that she has bipolar disorder. 

In the pilot episode, we learn that Dr. Black has been dating Will for a year. He wants to marry her but she is afraid to commit and it isn't long before we learn why: she hasn't told him about her bipolar diagnosis. Not only does Dr. Black perpetuate the stigma of mental illness by keeping this secret, as a medical professional who specializes in brain disorders, she certainly should know better. Do know harm? I think not. What does this say about how society views mental illness still today? While I can understand if the writers are planning for Catherine Black to recognize over time that her illness isn't something to hide, the way the plot of the first episode unfolds suggests a terrible misunderstanding about how bipolar illness actually affects people.

In the pilot, Dr. Black decides to go off her medication one day and within a few hours she is in the midst of what seems to be a full blown psychotic episode. During this "psychosis" Dr. Black dances erotically to music no one else hears, she stumbles through the city streets mumbling to herself and climbing lamp posts, and she instigates a fight with a complete stranger. While any one of these events could possibly happen to someone in a manic phase of bipolar, none of them could happen within hours of ending medication. I don't know who to blame for this stereotyped portrayal of someone "crazy" but it's a shame. Finally, a show comes along that appears to offer a wide-eyed view of what bipolar looks and feels like, and instead it continues the on-going misunderstandings society has of this very treatable illness.

Those of us who understand mental illness know that people who have bipolar are not defined by it, so why paint Catherine Black as just one dimensional? Despite her apparent brilliance and obvious beauty, she is simply a crude caricature of what society believes mental illness to be. Why not take a lesson from Silver Linings Playbook? Bipolar illness isn't a one size fits all disorder. Bradley Cooper's portrayal of Pat Solatano offered a more nuanced view of what bipolar can look like. He was real. He had depth. Couldn't Catherine Black have layers too? 

While ABC may have made the first network television attempt at ending the stigma of mental illness, it may be doing more harm than good. In true Stillhopeful mom fashion, I plan on giving this show another chance. Maybe it can redeem itself before it loses every last viewer.

FAQ One Year Later

March 16, 2014

On March 28, 2013 my world turned upside down. My then-20 year old son was arrested. He had been spiraling downward psychologically for some time, preferring to treat his diagnosed bipolar disorder with excessive alcohol and drugs rather than effective medication and therapy. I knew he was running with the wrong crowd, and I had warned him that if he were ever arrested, I would not bail him out. Sadly, that day came. It was the hardest decision I've ever had to make, but I decided that he needed to remain locked up until he got sober, received bipolar medication, and had time to reassess his life.

It has been nearly a year now...easily the worst year of my life. I have been asked many questions over the past year. Here are some of them along with my answers:

How are you?

Would you like the real answer or the polite one? The polite one is easy: I'm fine. But the real answer is not so simple. Let's start with this: How do you think I am? My son is in prison and I am partly responsible for the reason he is still there. Guilt haunts me constantly. Though I know my decision was the right one, the fact remains that he is still behind bars and not out on bail because of me. So I am shitty. That's how I am.

How is he?

He is sorry. Every minute of every day he is sorry. He completely accepts his circumstances as the natural consequences for his actions. He is also healthier. Not only is he sober, he is medicated somewhat effectively for his bipolar symptoms so he can think more clearly now. And he is hopeful.

How often do you see or talk to him?

He calls a lot, but I am not always available to answer like when I'm teaching. But we talk several times a week. And he writes some too. We don't exchange letters quite as often as we used to but we still do sometimes. We see him about every two weeks which is plenty for us all. Seeing each other may seem like a wonderful thing, but it is actually gut-wrenching for everyone involved. He has told me that the days we visit are days he looks forward to but also dreads because it is so painful when we leave. It is the same for me. It takes so much emotional energy out of me that every two weeks is about as often as I could manage.

How do you keep going day after day?

I just do. I'm not sure how I do it, but I do it. This year has certainly taken its toll on me though. While I have been able to continue working full time, I have not had the strength or commitment it takes to maintain my health as well as I should. I have put on weight. My sleep is erratic. And my diet is not ideal. I suffer from chronic neck pain which is exacerbated by stress. And my exercise routine is virtually non-existent. Though I am only 43 years old, I study the new lines on my face and the new gray hairs on my head and I see a women much older than that.

How is your younger son?

Honestly, this question may be the hardest one to answer. He and I have always been close and through this we seem to have become closer. From what he says, he has been able to compartmentalize this and move on with his life. And from the outside to most people that is what it looks like. His grades are quite good, he participates in after school activities, and he has a wonderful close knit group of friends with whom he spends a good deal of time. But I still worry. Because he has not spoken much about his feelings over the last year, always saying he's "fine," I worry that he's not dealing with them and instead, only stuffing them down deeper into himself. I suppose only time will tell.

You call yourself "Stillhopefulmom." How do you still have hope?

 Let me first say that I remember joy but I can't feel it anymore. I am numb to it. I remain hopeful that there will be a day that joy may wash over me again, but for now, I must be satisfied with the few moments I have each day that distract me from my nagging fears. So hope is all I can have right now, and I'm clinging to it for dear life.

A Watched Pot Eventually Boils

February 16, 2014

This morning I had a scheduled visit with my 21 year old son in prison. But as I was being ushered through the security line this morning, much like I have been every other Sunday for nearly a year, something hit me.

For the first time since my older son's arrest last March, I stood in that line and felt something other than anticipation, fear, sympathy, or regret. Instead, I actually felt rage.

Suddenly it dawned on me that because of my son's actions (or inaction in the case of seeking mental health treatment), my life and the life of his younger brother will never be the same.

I will never be able to erase the gut-wrenching experiences from my memory. And neither will my younger son. What 17 year old knows just what to wear in order to move quickly through the security line at the state prison? What 17 year old even knows someone in prison? My 17 year old visits his older brother there.

What 17 year old has to endure the echoing sounds of inmates' heckling while walking from the parking lot to the entrance of prison? What 17 year old has to listen to the jingling sound of the prison guard's keys while being escorted through several locked doors and up an elevator to a filthy telephone room? And what 17 year old has to see the image of his older brother dressed in gray-white scrubs perched on a stool beyond a grimy plexiglass wall? My 17 year old does.

So yes, I feel angry today.

And I think it's about time to be angry. The last eleven months have been the absolute worst days of my life and I'm sure my younger son would agree. Do I have sympathy for my incarcerated son? Of course I do. But today I am letting myself feel angry for once. I'm allowing the rage to wash over me and fill me up to the brim. Because it's time.

I Am

January 22, 2014

I am a writer. This is what I call myself. I am also a daughter, a mother, a teacher, a lover, a friend. I am many things to many people, but today I call myself a writer.

These words "I am a writer" mean I am a world traveler. A dreamer. A memory-maker. A wish-giver. A confidant. A whisperer of words.

"Writing is nothing more than talking on paper." This is what I tell my students to encourage them to write. This is what I say to let them to see how easy it is to write. But writing is so much more than just talking on paper, isn't it?

Writing is seeing that baby boy's toothless grin smiling back at you. Writing is hearing those hearty giggles and soothing those tears. Writing is smelling the fresh soil as you plant the little seed in the paper cup with him eager to see it grow. Writing is feeling that little boy's hand gripping yours as you walk through the apple orchard on that crisp Autumn afternoon.

I am a writer today. I am a handprint from Kindergarten. I am a sea shell necklace sitting on the dresser. I am a trophy standing proudly on the shelf. I am a pair of basketball sneakers tired and worn. I am a dusty treasure chest of photographs.

I am a mother missing her son.

I am a writer.

These Letters Spell H-O-P-E

January 13, 2014

If writing is conveying important thoughts and feelings using words, and words are created by rearranging letters into different configurations, then letters convey important thoughts and feelings when they've been configured accurately. Right?

Letters, when crafted with care and honesty, can spell hope.

My son's attorney suggested that I ask some family and friends of my son to write letters to the judge who will be sentencing him. The purpose of the letters is for the judge to get to know my son through the eyes of those who know him best, before deciding his sentence.

Over the last week or so, several letters have arrived. Each time I read one, I cry.

Not only am I awestruck by the incredible love that envelopes my son from his friends and family,  I am astounded at the accuracy with which each person has described him.  From his gift for working with children and older adults to his talents as a visual artist, writer, musician, and actor, these letters verify what I've known for the past 21 years. My son is a wonderful, caring, gifted human being. My son is not a criminal.

Most letters mention that my son has struggled with mental illness, but not one uses it as an excuse for his behavior. Most letters emphasize his geniune contrition about the events that led him to prison and his 100% cooperation since the moment of his arrest. But all the letters convey the overarching message that my son has amazing potential and, when released, is determined to use his gifts in meaningful ways. 

These letters have served as validation for me as a mother too. I read them over and over again. I just want to be reminded that it's not just me who sees my son as a kind, talented, bright young man just waiting to be given a chance to begin his life as a productive adult. There are others who do too.

I am (still)hopeful that the judge will read these letters and view my son through a compassionate lens, recognizing what kind of man my son will be once he is allowed back into society.

For me, these letters spell H-O-P-E.