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.

Emerson Nailed It

January 4, 2014

We recently had a snow storm here and I was reminded of this poem...

The Snow Storm

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden's end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier's feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

"A tumultuous privacy of storm." Read that line again. "A tumultuous privacy of storm."

What a perfect way to describe a snow storm. And what a perfect way to describe how it feels to have Bipolar Disorder. A tumultuous privacy of storm. 

According to the dictionary, tumultuous means: making a loud confused noise; uproarious. 

But Emerson says the tumultuous storm is private. Isn't that what goes on in our minds when we are battling episodes of mania or even depression? The "storm" is private, yet "tumultuous." No one else can come in to help..."all friends shut out." It's our private storm.

I've read that Ralph Waldo Emerson may have suffered from Bipolar Disorder. I wonder if it occurred to him that his poem could be compared not only to a snow storm but to what it feels like to have a mental illness. Or maybe my bipolar mind has just twisted Emerson's words to apply to what's going on in my mind today.

I have a private tumultuous storm brewing.

As I watch the blanket of white "veil" my backyard, I embrace my "tumultuous privacy of storm." Days like today pass. Just like snow storms.


December 26, 2013

Since Thanksgiving, I've been trying to live like a perfectly wrapped gift. Smiling, laughing, trying to seem "in the spirit" of the holidays... but I've hidden behind the fancy ribbon and shiny paper. I've tucked away my tears inside my perfectly wrapped gift box.

Today I've been unwrapped.

No more artificial smiles and empty laughter. I'm out of the box. I'm unwrapped.

Let me cry now. Let me feel now. Let me grasp the gristly heartache that comes with having a child in prison during the holidays.

I'm unwrapped. It happened last night.

My older son, imprisoned since March 28th, sent a beautiful letter to my family. So last night, after the presents and the feasts, after the stockings and the caroling, after the holiday ho ho hos and hugs all around, we passed around his letter. It was addressed to each of us individually, each of us named in his blue pen scrawl. His heartfelt words of jolly good cheer and best wishes for a healthy, happy new year leapt off the page like a sleigh full of toys and eight tiny reindeer.

My parents read it first, as grim, bleak looks darkened their faces. I took it next in my hands, trying not to shake. Then my stoic younger son read it and I swear tears welled up. And finally, my siblings each read it, growing solemn and tearful. With reverence we held it. Ritualistic almost, handling it like precious china as we passed it from one to the next. Each of us reacted in about the same way. The room deflated. The holiday cheer escaped.

Reading his letter shredded my shiny paper and yanked my red ribbon right off.

I came unwrapped in less than a minute.

Time to Heal

Dec. 22, 2013

Time to Heal


I can hardly stand it
staring at my phone
don't even want to think of you
in there all alone

Then back inside my pocket you must go
I'm wearing that same mask that they all know
I'm trying not to show it
But I can tell they see
The face they're looking at just isn't me
How could it be?

Sitting by the window
waiting for the rain
thinking of our mem'ries so that
I can feel the pain

Then back inside my pocket you must go
I'm wearing that same mask that they all know
I'm trying not to show it
But I can tell they see
The face they're looking at just isn't me
When will it be?

Suddenly, it occurs to me
that none of this seems real
when is it my turn 
to feel?

When I finally hear you
you simply let me know
with your laughs and promises
that you love me so

Then back inside my pocket you must go
I'm wearing that same mask that they all know
But suddenly it's clear to me
that all of this 
is real
Finally it's my turn 
to heal

StillHopefulMom...One Year and Counting

December 22, 2013

Today is day 364 of this blog. I remember typing out my story as tears streamed down my face that morning. And the tears stream down my face today as I type this now. So much has changed, but there is a thread that hasn't...that thread is HOPE. I am StillHopefulMom.

A year ago I was nervous about my son visiting my home for Christmas after two years of being away, being estranged from us.  Today, one year later, I just returned home from a visit to my son...in prison. He's been there since March 28, 2013.

A year ago I worried that we wouldn't have anything to say to each other when he visited. Yet today we filled all 45 minutes with tears and laughter, memories and promises.

In this hellish 364 days I have seen a twenty-one year old boy transform from a place of denial to a place of acceptance. I have reunited with my firstborn son--we are closer now than we have been in years. And I have renewed confidence that he will continue to seek the mental health support he needs as we await his release. Sentencing is February 14th.

I don't know when this hell will end yet, but there is hope. I still have hope. I am StillHopefulMom.

One Mother Who Cannot Be "Still Hopeful"

I just finished watching the movie Blackfish. I felt compelled to share my personal connection to this amazing film. I am not a radical animal rights person nor am I a film critic. I am simply a mother who misses her son.

The documentary reveals the inhumane treatment of orca whales by SeaWorld. These enormous, beautiful mammals have many similarities to humans. Besides the obvious mammal connection, they have their own language that has been studied extensively. They are smart, curious, playful. They live in complex social structures much like our communities. And one last similarity is the attachment a mother has to its young as so poignantly portayed in the film. Watching and hearing an orca mother as her young baby is seized and essentially kidnapped was heartbreaking. I could completely relate to this mother's anguish. Losing a child, no matter how or why, is a pain that cannot be explained.

SeaWorld, for years, has been holding orcas in tiny pools away from their families. They have "trained" them to do tricks for food. These mammals are secluded from their own families and instead, put in with other orcas from other waters and expected to get along with them. Fights break out and yes, the orcas become agitated. Wouldn't you?

The whale called Tilikum has quite a history. He was "extracted" from the wild when he was approximately 2 years old. One extremely difficult interview from this film is that of a crewmember from the ship that took Tilikum. He described the mother's cries as none he'd ever heard before.

Tilikum went on to become an enormous (literally and otherwise) hit at SeaWorld. And for years, things seemed to go along just fine. What the general public didn't know was that at numerous SeaWorld parks, trainers had suffered injuries and even death while working with orcas. These creatures had attacked the very people who were their caregivers. SeaWorld disputes these accusations, of course, saying that these accidents were due to trainer error.

But let's think about this for a moment: "Extracted" from one's family? Imprisoned with foreign strangers? Food withheld as punishment? What would you do? Some say Tilikum went "crazy"...

I think of my own son. Imprisoned. Away from his family and housed with strangers and I worry about his mental health. He is not violent. I do not fear that. But I do wonder if he will be forever changed by this experience.

And I think about Tilikum's mother. They say orcas in their natural habitats have lifespans upwards of one hundred years. So she's out there somewhere. Circling her waters. Missing her son. Only she has no chance to be hopeful.

Top Ten Reasons I Should Still Be Hopeful or How Hollywood Compares to My Life

December 7, 2013

10. My younger son is thriving in school, in activities, and in life. (Though he's much like Ferris Bueller sometimes, he has a heart of gold and brings me joy everyday.)

9. My significant other completes me. (Seriously. Just like in Jerry Maguire.)

8. My place of employment continues to make me happy after all these years. (No Office Space problems here. I truly love my job.)

7. My extended family is happy and healthy and we all get along. (We're basically the Cleavers, with a dash of Modern Family thrown in.)

6. I am healthy. (So I'm not a size 0 Hollywood type, but I've got good genes.)

5. I have amazing friends who I trust and can always count on. (Think Steel Magnolias minus the terminal illness.)

4. I have a good solid home and a reliable car, both affordable. (No Money Pit issues.)

3. I have creative hobbies that occupy my ever-worrying mind. (But I'm no Martha Stewart.)

2. So far I have been strong enough to handle what life has thrown at me. (Like in Finding Nemo, I just keep swimming, swimming, swimming...)

1. And, most importantly, my older son is alive and healing. (Sometimes there is no comparison to be made.)

Freedom is Relative

Nov. 23, 2013

My son is finally out of "The Hole" now. The powers that be gave him a "hearing" and found him "not guilty" of fighting. There's a shocker. Had they given him the hearing BEFORE putting him in there, he'd never have gone in there in the first place. He would have never had to live that horrifying experience at all.

So now he's in a new part of the prison with new cell mates whom he finds nice enough. He is "free." Relatively speaking. His letter to me sounded upbeat. He was pleased to be in just a regular cell with new "cellies." He was glad that he'd get back his phone privileges and get back to "normal" life.

He's still awaiting the oral surgery which was put on hold due to the fighting incident. He'll have that surgery soon but he doesn't know when. Information is given on an as needed basis in there. Apparently he doesn't need to know when they'll be cutting out four of his teeth.

Life inside is a life so different from ours. It pains me to know that he is beginning to see his life inside those cement walls as normal. How I wish he could experience what a "normal" 21 year old's life could be.

The Hole

November 19, 2013

My son finally reached me today. I received a letter. It has been ten days since I have heard from him. That's because he's been in "The Hole"--solitary confinement.

According to his letter, he was jumped by two guys who had been giving him a hard time for a while. He defended himself. He ended up with two black eyes and stitches over his left eye. And he ended up in The Hole.

This means he spends 23 hours a day in a small room. He may only write and sleep. "No phones, no books, nothing," were his exact words. The hour he gets out includes a shower. They told him that they seemed to misplace his towel so he doesn't have one. Also, his food is squished down into a "loaf" and served to him that way.

What more can they do to humiliate and demean him? He has to sit in there for 23 hours a day completely isolated. He showers and drips dry. And his food is a squished up loaf. They have told him he could be in there for as many as 20 days.

How is this humane?

He was only defending himself. He did NOT initiate this assault. He was JUMPED. How is this humane?

Someone tell me?

Please, I do not understand. I do not understand. I do not understand...

The Not Knowing

November 17, 2013

Do all mothers worry when they haven't heard from their adult kids in a while? Do they jump each time the phone rings? Do their imaginations run wild with the possibilities for not receiving a call?

Or is it just me?

It's been a week and I haven't heard a word from my incarcerated, twenty-one year old son. This is very unusual--we speak almost everyday-- so I am quite worried. After checking in with his dad, I've discovered he hasn't heard from him either. This has me doubly worried. Why no call?

My son was scheduled to have his wisdom teeth removed--all four--sometime this week. We didn't want him to do it behind bars fearing the quality of the health care would be subpar, but his pain had become unbearable and the prison dentist insisted on taking immediate action... but he wasn't told exactly what day it would happen--only that it would happen this week sometime.

What they did tell him was he would not receive the anesthetic typically used in this kind of oral surgery. He was terrified and so were we.

Now, today marks one week since we've heard from him. We've called the prison and received no assistance.

So not only am I worried about my son's well-being behind bars (like I am every day), now I'm worried that his oral surgery has gone wrong and he's suffering terribly. I can't get this vision out of my head that he's writhing in pain and no one is there to comfort him. Though he's twenty-one years old, he's still my baby.

When he was younger and skinned his knees, I cried when I cleaned his wound. After he tore his ACL in a high school basketball game, I actually passed out in the ER as they examined his injury. I feel it when my sons are hurt. Isn't that part of being a mother?

This time, though, I don't even know if he is hurt. I don't know if he's had the surgery, and I don't know if he's recovering well.

This time I don't know anything at all. So for now...I just wait.

Handcuffs Save Lives

Nov. 3, 2013

So much media attention has been given to the connection between crime and mental illness, but I am not here to join that fray. I am simply stating a fact: my 21 year old bipolar son is in prison.  Though he had no criminal record, he may serve more than 3 years for the crimes he committed. 

There are days when I barrage myself with questions, aching with anxiety over my son's new reality. Why him? Why us? Where did I go wrong? What did I miss? Why did he do it? And, Why didn't I just bail him out? Was I too upset? Too hurt? Too angry? Too frightened? Why didn't I just bail him out? 

There were so many factors involved in my decision not to bail him out. Not only was his bail set so high it exceeded the value of my home, I was standing behind something I'd been telling him—“If you get arrested, I am not bailing you out.” Tough love they call it. I'd been telling him this for over a year, “If you get arrested, I am not bailing you out.”

Today, seven months after his arrest, I definitely go through pangs of heavy guilt for not trying harder to gather the bail money. I probably could have done it with family and friends' help. But when I am really honest with myself, I know the truth: 
Being arrested saved my son's life.

During the time leading up to my son's arrest, he was a ticking time bomb. He self-medicated with drugs and alcohol, unable to hold down a job. He no longer lived with me, a choice he made when he refused mental health treatment the year before. Instead, he planted his belongings at his dad's house but more often than not, slept wherever his head hit a pillow or even floor. More than once, he was even kicked out of his dad's house for stealing, something he'd done to me too.

And the lies. The lies he told us just added to our pain. He had himself convinced that we didn't know about his lifestyle, but we knew. We all knew. In his own words, now seven months later, he calls himself “a lying, cheating, piece of sh*t con-artist.” I can't disagree. That's who he was. That's what his illness left untreated allowed him to become. So back then I was living day to day with this reality: I will someday get a phone call telling me one of two things—either my son has been arrested or my son is dead.

When I received the call in March, there were no theatrics. I didn't cry or yell. I simply sat down in a daze and thought, “At least he's not dead.” There were no tears that night, just a thick fog in my mind and a sick feeling in my gut, neither of which have subsided since.

These past seven months have been filled with a lifetime's worth of pain for our family. And the pain is not over yet. There will be years of it. But there is hope. Yes, there is indeed hope. On the day of his arrest, my son told the officers that he was bipolar and that he'd been off his medication. He asked if he could go back on it. So after a short bout of detox the hard way, cold turkey, my son began to take a prison prescribed regimen of bipolar medications. While these aren't the desired ones that his doctors would have prescribed, they are at least something in the right direction. His mania and depression are somewhat treated, though not completely. But in prison, mental health care is subpar, or at least that's what we've experienced.

Today, though, my son is a new man. Yes, he wears DOC whites and speaks to me through glass when I visit, but he is completely a brand new man. He has accepted the consequences of his actions. He is seeking forgiveness from all those in his life that he wronged. 

And he is himself again. He is the articulate, curious, clever, creative, witty, charming lover of life I knew before bipolar disorder took him from me. My son is back. And when he gets out of that cement hell, he will be a man whom people will respect and revere. 

Being arrested saved my son's life.

I Wonder How Much the Commissary Charges for My Heart

October 29, 2013

We made it over another hurdle in my son's case today. The plea.

This has been such an arduous, gut-wrenching, not to mention expensive seven months. All the waiting, all the crying, and all the costs. The attorney's fees are one thing, but the prison system gouges inmates left and right with unreasonable commissary prices. $1 per envelope, $2 for a bar of soap, and $4 for a single dose of Tylenol.

And it's not over yet.

But today we made it over an important hurdle. Now the sentencing date has been set...it will be Valentine's Day. Yes, that Hallmark-hyped, over-priced flowers and mediocre chocolates day will be the day we will finally hear the legal consequences of my son's actions last March.

It's kind of ironic. I never liked that holiday much anyway, but now and for years to come, it will remind me of this long, painful process we've been enduring for seven months. And the day will come just like the Valentine's Day flowers--late and overpriced.

Yes, today we made it another step of the way. A bittersweet hurdle. We now have a timeline--we're no longer left wondering when the sentencing will come. And, best of all, thankfully, it seems we have a judge assigned to the case who is said to be fair and kind. Finally, some good news. Finally.

So now we wait with our wallets and our hearts. Just like waiting by the mailbox for our Sweetheart's Valentine, we wait. Just like hoping for those $15 chocolates, those $45 flowers, that $5 card. Only this time, we're hoping for something that won't melt, or wilt, or fade on a shelf. This time, we're only hoping for a fair sentence. One that will allow him to be a healthier, better version of the boy he was before. How much do they charge for that?

The Pain of Normal

October 13, 2013

Today was another visiting day. We are getting into a routine with this by now. It almost seems normal. My younger son and I go to meet his dad in the lobby of the prison. We sign in. We are scanned by metal detector. We are stripped of any belongings except our keys. And we are corralled like cattle from the lobby to a series of confined spaces including an over crowded elevator. Finally, we are escorted to the room where my son waits behind a glass wall much like the one in the picture above. For months now we've been doing this so we've become accustomed to the institutionalized way we are herded through the labyrinth of the prison in order to see our boy. Today, though, I noticed something different.

I noticed the children.

There are children for which this is normal, routine. Going to see Dad, Uncle, Grandpa, Brother in prison is part of their everyday lives. Like today, the children there seemed so relaxed, so casual as they were searched, jackets removed, pant legs lifted, and as they were guided through the concrete hallways of the correctional institution. For them, this was normal.

I noticed one little girl, about four years old. She held her younger brother's hand in the elevator. He was probably about three. They were with their grandmother. She seemed a bit frazzled as anyone with two toddlers waiting in a prison lobby might be. And she seemed too young to be a grandmother.  But the two little visitors giggled together inside the crammed elevator showing each other their chewed gum and giving each other what they called "bist fumps." For them, this was normal.

When it wasn't my turn to talk with my son, I observed these two tiny visitors. The girl sat on her grandmother's knee while she spoke on the phone to the inmate. She jabbered on and on in such an animated fashion using her hands to tell her stories. The inmate nodded and smiled clearly amused at what she had to say. Meanwhile, the younger brother sprawled himself out on the grimy linoleum floor flicking a dime and then chasing it. Flicking it again and then chasing it. For them, this was normal.

At the conclusion of our visit, after I'd said goodbye to my son, I looked over at the tiny visitors again. The younger brother had been whisked up by the exhausted grandmother and placed atop the table facing the inmate. "Say bye to Daddy," the grandmother said. The boy immediately put his palms up against the glass as his father did the same. The grandmother put the phone up against the boy's ear. "Bye, Daddy," said the little visitor. For him, this was normal. She then brought him back down to the floor and took each child's hand preparing to leave.

The girl let go and ran back to the table. Without lifting the phone receiver, she yelled, "Hey Daddy, I love you!" But the father never heard her because he had already fallen in line with the other inmates heading back to their cells.

This little moment made me think. We are now living our new normal so I hope that my son always hears us when we tell him we love him.

The Wait Is Almost Over and Yet Has Only Just Begun

Oct. 7, 2013

Through blurry eyes streaming with tears I type this today. Gasping for breath, nearly vomiting with nausea, I struggle to manage my fingers on the keyboard to spell out my thoughts. Maybe I should have waited to post something once I calmed down? No. I need to share this now. While the pain is still fresh, ripping me open. I need to document this agony.

Waiting. That's all we've been doing for months. Waiting for news about my son's potential sentence. Well, the news has finally arrived.

All we've wanted to know for 7 months is what time will he actually have to serve for his crime? This first offender with a history of mental illness. This man-child who has been nothing but cooperative from the start, confessing to everything and asking for help with his substance abuse and bipolar disorder. This boy. My boy. What kind of time will he be away from society unable to make positive contributions of his talents to the world outside cement walls?

I yearn for the feeling I had yesterday of not knowing. That hope of hearing, "Time Served" or something equally as positive. That feeling of hope that maybe they'll see the boy I know and realize that he doesn't belong there.

But instead, when his attorney calls today to tell me what is likely on the table at this point, I hear "3 years." There were more legal details discussed explaining that they have to go before the judge who ultimately hands down the final sentence, but all I remember were those words: 3 years. He entered prison almost 21 years old. He will be nearly 24 before he is out. A third of his twenties will be gone.

I'm trying to wrap my head around this news, trying so hard to find the good here. It could have been much worse and I realize that. His attorney did a wonderful job and got some other charges dropped or brought down to lesser charges.  My brain sees that. It's my heart that is so very broken.

So the wait is just about over and a new wait will begin.

This Unexpected Road

Sept. 22, 2013

When I started this blog back in December of last year, it was a form of therapy. I was venting about the problems I was having with my 20 year old bipolar son. I poured my heart out into the anonymous abyss of the internet hoping to feel some kind of relief.

That early December morning I found blogspot.com and set up this page. I decided to call myself "Still Hopeful Mom" because I still had hope that my son would acknowledge his illness and finally seek treatment. Then I wondered how I could share my story without revealing it to my friends and/or family. How could I find others who may want to read my story while still remaining anonymous?

With very little experience using Twitter, I decided to give that a go and set up an account. Posting a link to my very first entry, I wondered if anyone would even read it. I checked my Twitter account over the next few hours. One. Two. Five. Ten. I was getting readers who then "followed" me on Twitter and I in turn "followed back." Within a few days I was up to about fifty followers. That felt good, like I was making a difference. Like something I was sharing may be positively impacting others' lives. I kept blogging and people kept reading.

It has been about nine months now. As I've continued on my blogging journey using Twitter and later Reddit as my vehicles, I have had the privilege to "meet" hundreds of people whom I consider cyber-friends. These people come from all over the world. They are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, and daughters. They are mental health care workers, teachers, film makers, and writers, and most importantly they are stigma fighters. Because over time, this blog has morphed into one voice for ending the stigma of mental illness.

Through this blog, I've heard from people facing all sorts of challenges and I've been asked for advice on a variety of mental health related subjects. I have never pretended to be any kind of psychiatry expert. Who knows? Maybe that's a plus. All I have to offer is my own experience which seems to be actually helping other people.

I know I am merely a whisper in this vast cyber universe. And I'm so thankful that my whispers sometimes strike a chord with people. I've heard from mothers trying to connect with their bipolar sons and sons trying to detach from their emotionally abusive fathers. I've even heard from teenagers seeking a "mother's advice" while on the verge of self-harm. I never expected this blog to be anything more than a place for me to unload. And yet, somehow it has become so much more. Now I've found myself on an unexpected road traveling with courageous people who have stories of their own to tell. I feel so privileged to walk beside them.

Foresight (Updated)

September 1, 2013

Pictured above is Van Gogh's Rain. Van Gogh is my older son's favorite artist. For his 20th birthday in May of 2012, I took him to see the Van Gogh Exhibit which happened to be near our hometown that month.

He loved it. And I loved that he loved it. That day was an amazing respite from the days we'd been living. We hadn't seen each other or spoken in months at that point. He was in the midst of his diagnosis denial and living a wild life of booze and drugs.

But that day he settled down and went with me to the art exhibit. One of the features of the exhibit was an opportunity to write a haiku inspired by Van Gogh's Rain.  He and I both wrote one.

Springtime sadness seeps
through the grey blue misty sky
waiting for my son

The field swells with guilt
wallowing, faded, almost
swallowed by the view

How did we each capture the future in 17 syllables? How did we know that there would be sadness and waiting and guilt to come?  I have no idea. I have no idea. I truly, have no idea. But somehow we did. Today, a year and a half later, I would do anything to have that poetry card back again. I'd write a new haiku. 

I'd write:
Weep, misty skyline
But see the sun shining through
There is hope ahead

Oct. 6, 2013
I asked my son to write his own haiku. Here it is:

Little figures fall
building a giant steel trap
time is not wasted

Two Sets of Bars

August 30, 2013

It isn't easy to find the right medication for mental illnesses. Some people try for years to get just the right "cocktail" of meds to work for them. They call their doctors, report the side effects, and try again until they get it right. But they eventually will get it right.

But when you're in prison with a mental illness, the rules change.

When you're in prison with a mental illness, there are certain medications that are not allowed at all. Medications that are easily abused are not permitted. These medications may be what you took before, but that doesn't matter. The rules change when you're in prison.

When you're in prison with a mental illness, you get what they give you when they give it to you. If you complain of side effects, you risk being taken off all meds completely.

When you're in prison with a mental illness, you are visited by psychiatrists once a month if you're lucky. You might get to see a counselor or you might not. Your symptoms might get reported accurately or they might not. You might receive adequate treatment or you might not. The rules change when you're in prison.

When you're in prison with mental illness, there are two sets of bars: the ones that keep you from the world and the ones that keep you from the you you used to be.

The Tipped Scale

August 22, 2013

Keeping things in balance is difficult. At times we have all felt like we're adjusting and readjusting the time and effort we're spending on certain aspects of our lives in an effort to keep things in check.

But Bipolar Disorder can hinder that ability to keep things in balance. In fact, those of us with some form of Bipolar may not even know what true "balance" feels like. For us, the scale is always tipped one way or the other.

As the disorder suggests, there are two poles of me: depression and mania. As a BD2, I usually gravitate toward depression, but I have plenty of mini spells of hypomania too.  These fluctuations in mood not only alter my feelings, they alter the choices that I make. If I'm not careful, they can affect the people who are the most important to me. So how is it that even knowing such consequences exist, I still allow my scale to tip?

An example. Sometimes my energies are so devoted to composing my own music that I forget to eat. I don't want to go to sleep. And I can't concentrate to do necessary routine things like clean the house or pay the bills. My son, patient as he is, will eventually cry out, "Mom, could you PLEASE stop playing piano?" For this I am ashamed, yet I can't explain the magnetic force that draws me back to the keys the very next day.

Then sometimes my focus at home is completely dedicated to doing school work (I'm a teacher). While this may seem like valuable time well spent, when it conflicts with recreational time I could be spending with my 16 year old son, the cost of missing my son far outweighs the gains I make with my school work. I know this yet, mentally, I am unable to shift from school-mode to parent-mode sometimes. My relationship with my son may suffer on days like this. Again, I am ashamed to admit this.

Here is a list of things that ebb and flow on my life scale: working on my novel (I've got 53 pages but just can't get to #54), running with some sort of routine (I had a half-marathon in sight months ago...missed that one), eating healthfully (which involves shopping the same way), playing word games on my ipad (I could spend an entire day doing this), becoming a better cook (a goal of mine), completing the house projects that have loomed overhead for years, and writing on my blog (ahem, here I am).  And the list goes on.

So mentally, I know when my focus is adrift, I feel it, I hear my son say it, I see the consequences of it, yet somehow, I am unable to change the course. There are times, many times, that my life is out of balance and I yearn for that stability. But for now, I suppose, I am just a tipped scale.

The Give and the Take

[Originally posted on http://internationalbipolarfoundation.com August 13, 2013]
August 18, 2013

Recently, I went to my first mental health support group meeting. I must admit I was nervous. What would people talk about? What would people think of me? Would I have to talk? If so, what would I say? Though I've never been afraid to speak my mind, this was different. I was actually nervous to tell my story. That is, until I started hearing the other stories. I quickly realized that there are a lot of people right here in my community who live with bigger challenges than mine.
The meeting was held in a nearby church inside a small conference room. Chairs and love seats were turned inward surrounding a coffee table filled with mental health pamphlets and a strategically placed box of tissues. We were a circle of solemn faces, some young, some older, some in pairs, some alone. And we were united with one goal: support for the mental illness affecting our lives.
There were tragic stories of loss as well as inspiring stories of hope. Mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, friends. Each of us, in clockwise order, took our turn guided by the encouraging kindness of our group leader. Some had lots to say, while others uttered very little. It was obvious who had told their stories before. Theirs were told with stoic poise and sometimes slightly uncomfortable humor. Those who were new to this were obvious too, as tears streamed down their faces as they spoke of their suffering.
Since I sat nearest to the group leader, I didn't share until last. Secretly, part of me hoped we would run out of time so I wouldn't have to say anything. But another part of me was anxious to speak, to share the grief that clouded the room.
“I'm here because of my son. In the fall of 2010 he wanted to kill himself...” I began to tell my story aloud for the very first time. Sure, I had told it in pieces to my loved ones and friends over the last couple of years. I'd written many posts on my blog, too, but never had I laid it out so openly, so raw, to a group of total strangers. I told them everything. My voice quivered as I told them about the gun my son acquired at the mental hospital. Tears swelled up when I confessed the fear I felt for my very own child. My stomach clenched as I spoke so freely. My story just told itself.
My listeners were more than kind. They hung on my every word. They nodded in recognition of my feelings, my experiences, my story. They chuckled at my attempts to lighten up such a heavy topic. And they shared the tissue box.
When I'd poured out everything, I was surprised at how I felt. It wasn't a void of losing something I'd been secretly harboring so long, but instead, a renewed sense of strength that had grown inside of me. I'd emptied my heart into the laps of strangers and in return, I'd gained hope and understanding from them. I was even marked a “success”, a “survivor” a “model of strength”. The people there listened to my story with hope of learning something from me. That's what was the most surprising. While I attended the meeting hoping to find support, after sharing, I discovered I actually provided support and hope to others. That was the best part of all.

Dare to Be a Teacher

August 17, 2013“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.” - Segoyewatha, Seneca ChiefAs the new school year approaches and the back to school sales bombard you, consider yourself a teacher. Acknowledge your duty as a teacher, because you are a teacher. A teacher for change.While you may not have your own classroom of students to influence, your day to day actions affect others.Your daily choices and behaviors are observed and quite possibly emulated by others. Is this a good thing? Of course it is. Just think of what you can do as a teacher. You have an opportunity to be a model for change. Find a way today to promote an end to the stigma of mental illness. Just do one positive thing for this important cause.Listen to how others speak. If they are using derogatory terminology, gently suggest alternatives. Our culture remains ignorant to what the mental health community deserves. Respect. Even people like Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, and Brian Williams have shown that society does not know enough about mental illness.You are a teacher. Teach.Find your local NAMI office and become a member or seek out other community organizations that support mental illness. Attend a support group or participate in a 5K walk that benefits a mental health organization. Volunteer.You are a teacher. Let's educate and change the way the world sees mental illness. Dare to be a teacher. 

Unpacking Bipolar

August 12, 2013

All summer long I've had little trips to anticipate. First it was the beach, then Las Vegas, NYC, the Pocono Mountains, and then the beach again. I'm so grateful to have had these opportunities spread across the summer months. Family and friends have been so generous and I'm so thankful. I've been given the chance to rest and recover (somewhat) from the worst spring of my life. These trips have helped distract me from the stresses and unknowns here at home. But the summer is coming to an end and I'm not ready yet.

Because, well, I'm not unpacked.

Sure, my suitcase is empty. I've put away all the cute little bottles of shampoo I've been collecting and my laundry has all been cleaned, but I'm not really unpacked. Not really.

See, my bipolar mind is still away, far away, still packed for the hustle and bustle and constant distraction of travel. It's still chock full of beach sand and slot machine receipts and big sunglasses. I've still got sundresses and swim suits and subway tickets shoved inside here. My bipolar mind is packed with a loaded Kindle and Candy Crush on my ipad. The alarm clock hasn't been set for weeks and I've got Facebook, not Outlook, opening when I log into my computer. I am not unpacked, not really.

And there's something else.

My mind hasn't room for the nonstop tears and the anxiety that come with worrying about my imprisoned son day in day out. Not to say I haven't been worried. Just scroll down through my posts...I've been thinking of him constantly. But that's just it. My suitcase had room for that worry when I was away on vacation-I had plenty of free mind space for that worry because I didn't have work stresses loaded in there too.

I think it's my bipolar mind that gives me the ability to compartmentalize these things. Vacation. Worry about son. Vacation. Stress about his sentence. Vacation. Agonize over the call from the attorney. You get the idea.

But the summer is winding down and I'm staring straight ahead at the beginnings of a new school year. I will soon have bright, eager, new faces staring at me ready to learn. The trouble is my mind is an overflowing suitcase of worry right now. And I can't unpack it. The zipper's stuck.

"So Maybe You're Not Bipolar"

August 6, 2013

Seek Treatment. That's what we hope people with mental illnesses do. We want them to feel free to acknowledge their condition and seek treatment. Talk to a therapist. Try medication. Follow a doctor's plan to treat your illness. "You can feel better if you seek treatment." Isn't that what we say?

Well, that's what my 21 year old son has done. Finally. After over two years of ignoring his diagnosis, he's finally acknowledged it and sought treatment. In prison.

See where it's gotten him.

He is currently incarcerated in our state prison. Inside, he has had to convince the DOC psychiatrists that his Bipolar Disorder is real. The psychiatrists on the payroll who are expected to treat inmates for mental illnesses have been less than helpful.

All this time, while my son has been in prison, he's been trying to tell them he's "Bipolar". At first, they believed him and gave him a generic anti-depressant and a low dose of a mood stabilizer. Not the meds he'd been on in the past, but at least they were something. Then he was experiencing bad side effects so he reported them to the psychiatrist making her rounds on his tier that day. This was her response:

"So maybe you're not Bipolar!"

You can imagine my shock when my son told me a medical professional said this to him. Isn't it her job to diagnose and treat mental illnesses? Yet she can speak to a patient like this?

But the worst part was what she did next.

She took him off the anti-depressant completely. She told him that in order to receive any more treatment, his doctor needed to contact her and inform her of his Bipolar diagnosis. She left him on the low dose of mood stabilizer which he said did "nothing". Subsequent visits from her and other psychiatrists doing their rounds on his tier did nothing to improve the limbo in which he'd been damned.

So for the last several months I've been trying to acquire all of his records to prove that he IS, in fact, Bipolar. First, I called his regular doctor who was unable to call the doctor at the prison- this is because the diagnosis did not come from his regular doctor, it came from a psychiatric hospital. Makes sense.

So then I went the route of requesting his medical records. Sounds easy enough. But consider the fact that he's 21 years old. This means every single medical professional he saw in his lifetime required a separate release form signed by my son. So, through snail mail, I began my quest of accessing the forms, sending them to him to be signed, having him send them back to me, and then sending them to the correct establishments in hopes of receiving the records. This was a nightmare. Thankfully, the nurse at his regular doctor's office helped me with this and eased the stress considerably.

We were almost home free when we realized that the release forms we'd been using were not accepted at certain mental health facilities. 

Back to the drawing board.

Thankfully, at this point our attorney stepped in and worked his magic to acquire the records more quickly. It's amazing what attorneys can accomplish. What took us months took him less than a week. So now, we may have finally struck gold. The last of the records have been acquired and presented to the prison mental health ward director along with a personal note from our attorney.

After FIVE MONTHS, my inmate son may finally be given the proper medication for his Bipolar Disorder.

So Maybe he IS Bipolar like he's been saying all along.

Just Look at That Face

July 30, 2013

I began writing this post telling you about my son's early years, about what his strengths and weaknesses were. It was a clinical description, much like one a teacher, doctor, or educational diagnostician would give. I'd posted a picture to go along with my icy words.

But then I re-read it and deleted everything on the screen but the photo. Too cold. No heart. So I started over, thinking about what I really want you to know about my first born son. And I looked at that face. That face posted here.

Here's what I see: HOPE. It's in his eyes. Look at that face. His eyes sparkle as if he's looking into his own future and he knows it will be bright.  His baby round cheeks hide a hesitant smile suggesting a waggish way about him. Doesn't he look like he's planning something mischievious? Something funny? Well, he probably was...something delightfully funny. That's who that little boy could be, who he sometimes was. And that's what this picture lets me remember. Not the difficult impulse control issues. Not the temper tantrums. Not the sleep problems. Not the tears, his or ours.

Look at that face. Just look at it.

When he was that age, he was into telling jokes. Knock Knock jokes and real groaners. And they were complicated jokes that he couldn't really remember completely. He'd get knee deep into telling one and then stop, forgetting it, and say, "Oh, well, I'd better work on that one!" and he'd run away laughing, cracking himself up.

His biting wit is still with him today--when his mood is up. But he doesn't bother telling jokes anymore. Instead, when he feels good, he shares hilarious observations about his daily life. Even while behind bars, he can actually have his brother, his dad and me laughing. He's in PRISON. That's not funny. But somehow he can spin it into something to make us laugh. He loves to make us laugh, but cracking his brother up is probably his favorite thing to do. When the two of them get started, the world is shut out and all you hear is hearty chuckling. The last time I heard that was a few weeks ago. One son was on one side of plexi-glass while the other was on the opposite side, with a telephone between them. I still heard the laughter though. And I still saw the sparkle in those baby blue eyes of his.

So yes, I can look at that picture today and still see HOPE, even now. This "still hopeful mom" will not give up. Even with that baby faced blue-eyed boy behind bars serving time, I can look at that face and dig deep for some hope. Sometimes I really have to dig deep. But I can find it.

Now, in closing, I was going to tell you a joke. But I forgot the ending. I'd better work on that one.

To Do List

July 25, 2013

As I arrive home from a long, much needed vacation, I am greeted by a 10 inch stack of mail to sort. I haven't unpacked yet, but already I know my to do list is growing. The refrigerator is empty, pantry bare. There are messages on voice mail to retrieve and answer, and there is a day's worth of laundry to do.  Welcome home.

So why is it that all I can do right now is stare blankly at the television, muted? Why is it that my full suitcase remains unopened on the bed while I nibble mindlessly at a cherry poptart?

My emotions are vacant. I am numb.

Then it dawns on me. I don't want to feel real life again yet.

Because for me, real life means that my 21 year old is in prison. Real life means that we don't know yet what the length of his sentence is. Real life means more hounding the mental health care facilities for my son's records to help his attorney make a mental health case with the prosecuting attorney. Real life means worrying about something that can't be controlled. Real life is hell.

So I will finish my poptart before I check my email. I will solve this Law & Order episode before I answer my voice mail. I will sit for a while and dream about some other mother coming home from vacation to greet her 21 year old son at the door. Home from college. Juggling a job and a steady girlfriend. This mother has problems of course, but none of them involve the anxiety that comes with the fact that your baby is sitting behind bars waiting to start his life.

Can a Little Getaway Get You Far Enough?

July 16, 2013

I'm on vacation. I can sleep in. I can stay up late. I can spend my days with my toes in the sand. I've even eaten dessert two nights in a row and not felt guilty about it (well, not too guilty.) My younger son, my boyfriend and I are spending the week with my family at the beach. But even with great chic lit on my Kindle, my mind can't escape the realities of my life. 

Don't worry. I brought my medication: the high dose of anti-depressant and the new mood stabilizer that together work as my psychological cocktail to keep me in relative balance. Lately, my psychiatrist has been working overtime to keep me out of bed and off the ceiling. Being bipolar II, I know my meds are not optional no matter what paradise my suitcase and I land in. I've ventured off meds a few times in the past but never successfully. And I would never even think to try that with the life I'm living to date.

For those of you who do not know my story, my older son, 21, has bipolar disorder. In a two year downward spiral, experimenting with self-medication and ignoring his diagnosis, he ended up in prison with six felony charges. He's been incaracerated since March 28. And so have I. We all have to some degree. But as a mother who shares her son's illness, I am indeed in prison too.

Vacationing doesn't feel the same this summer. And I suppose it shouldn't. There is a guilt cloud floating over my head. How do I deserve to bask in the sun when my boy hasn't felt solar rays regularly for almost four months? How do I deserve to enjoy relaxing jogs along a shaded seaside trail when my son is only limited to every other day yard time within the perimeter of an electric fence? I can't shake the guilt. It haunts me.

But now, with so much time to think, I wonder, are we all a little guilty of feeling guilty when we experience pleasure? Do we all carry some weight of something that makes us feel unworthy of happiness? Unworthy of joy? Is it my bipolar mind that makes me feel this way? Or is it motherhood? Could it be both? I do not have bipolar friends to ask. Only those who read this blog. I would love to know if my feelings sound familiar to you.

In any case, this little getaway hasn't gotten me far enough away. It has only gotten me far enough to see that happiness remains out of reach, unattainable. With every moment of laughter, there is a dull weight in my gut reminding me that laughter isn't allowed. Joy is not an option. And freedom only exists in my dreams. When I awake, whether it's with sand between my toes or at home in my own bed, the nightmare of my reality is still there to greet me. This vacation doesn't get me far enough away.


July 4, 2013

Today marks America's Independence Day. Parades, BBQs, fireworks displays. Red, white, and blue in every direction. A celebration of FREEDOM.

But I am in a fog. Just a few days ago, my younger son received his driver's license. His indendence is budding while my older son is INside for his IN-dependence day. He is INside a prison cell.

The other day the boys had a visit together. I wrote about it in my last post. I was fearful of it, but it turned out to be a wonderful experience for both of them. My older son has never looked so happy since I've seen him behind bars. And my younger son seemed perfectly at ease with his older brother clad in white state issued attire, telling him his latest bad joke and filling him in on what his life as a busser for a restaurant has been like. It was like they were back at home again.

Only there was a wall of inpenetrable glass between them and they were talking on telephones.

So this Independence day isn't one I'm embracing. I am as patriotic as any American, and I, of course, recognize this holiday's significance, but I am overwhelmed with my boys' new independence and IN-dependence. I wish I could celebrate freedom.

Maybe next year.