Friday, November 9, 2012

Answering questions about bipolar disorder and suicide at SkatingThru2012

Dr. Pam Young, former professor and current Holistic Health Practitioner, was the ninth host of my three-month marathon virtual book tour, AKA blog tour. She graciously posted this Question and Answer session with me on her blog SkatingThru2012 on November 6. I thank her so much for her support and all the work she did to put this post together. I have been so fortunate to have so many folks join me on this tour.

Author Madeline Sharples Answers Questions About Bi-Polar Disorder & Suicide

Memoirs can educate us by showing how one dealt with a particular circumstance.  In that way, they offer a sort of lighted pathway.  Such is the case with Leaving the Hall Light On by Madeline Sharples whose book tour included an invitation to bloggers to post questions about her experience not only to promote her book, but also to facilitate her mission since the death of her son: “…to raise awareness, educate, and erase the stigma of mental illness and suicide in hopes of saving lives.”
I selected these questions from my experience and shared desire to turn the light on, to dispel the darkness surrounding these issues.  Madeline’s experience is intensely personal.  She writes from a mother’s perspective–living with a son’s bi-polar disorder and surviving his suicide:
Q: What symptoms did your son show that caused you to seek help?   
Just before his first manic break in February 1993, he had traveled from New York where he was attending college at the New School to attend my mother’s 85th birthday celebration. I have a wonderful photo of him playing Happy Birthday on the piano with her sitting beside him. He was perfectly normal. Two weeks later his girlfriend called to let us know something was very wrong with him. He was babbling, writing all over his apartment walls with a blue felt-tipped marker, and saying people were lurking in doorways out to get him and poisoning his food and cigarettes. His clothes were strewn all over the place, his dishes were stacked up—all behaviors so foreign to the orderly and neat guy he normally was. Most important, he was a jazz musician no longer able to sit still long enough at the piano to play a song through from the beginning to end.
Q:  Were there any warning signs about your son’s suicide? 
About a month before he died, he told me his girlfriend had broken up with him for not staying on his meds. In fact he asked me if I thought he could get her back. Since he had successfully reunited with her several times in the past, my answer was yes. During that conversation I got him to make an appointment to see his doctor because he seemed depressed. But he didn’t keep the appointment and became increasingly uncommunicative. However, since he still worked every day and stayed well groomed, I didn’t expect suicide. Both Bob and I thought this behavior—no meds and depression—would surely lead to another manic break, which had been his pattern in the past. I spoke with him the night before he died, just after he returned home from work. He was calm, pleasant, and loving—he certainly didn’t look like a person on his way to death.
Q:  How have you seen the stigma of mental illness and suicide play out in your life?
My son was a young adult, age twenty-one, when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And throughout the seven years he struggled with the disease,  I thoroughly believe the stigma of his mental illness stopped him from a program of treatmentthat might have saved him from his destiny, suicide. He was a master of hiding his illness. In fact he worked as a trouble-shooter for an internet service provider the last two years of his life, and his co-workers had no idea he was ill.
Stigma is also rampant in my family. A few months ago my cousin came to our house to review and discuss the family history my husband had been writing. After reviewing the material he made one request—leave out the part about his father’s bipolar disorder. In fact he didn’t want to see any discussion of any of the mental illness that permeates my side of our family. That was proof enough for me that the stigma of mental illness still exists.
Q:  What can a person do to help and comfort a family that has experienced a suicide or other tragedy?
My greatest comfort after our son’s death came from my next-door neighbor Patty. She offered to put up out-of-town relatives, she brought over bagels and cream cheese in the morning, and she supplied the coffee for the open house after the funeral. The word “suicide” didn’t make her back off.
Before the first Thanksgiving after Paul’s death, Patty left a basket on my doorstep. Her note said that she dreaded the holidays after her mother died, so she gathered a few things to ease the holiday season for me. As I read her note and looked through the basket, I cried, not only out of the dread of being without Paul on Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and his New Year’s Eve birthday, but for the generosity and caring of a person I hardly knew.  In such a quiet and unassuming way, she showed me real human compassion and understanding. She never asked me a lot of questions, and she didn’t intrude on my privacy.  She just let me know she was there for me if I needed her.
Among the items inside was a poetry book about coping with the loss of a love—she knew I wrote poetry. She also included a journal, a sweet smelling candle, a box of absolutely delicious chocolate covered graham crackers, and a smooth gray stone.
This stone became my biggest comfort. Just large enough to fit in the palm of my hand, it feels the perfect size when I close my hand around it. One edge is round and the other is triangular. One side is plain; the other has the word “son” carved into it. Right after Patty left the basket on my doorstep, my little stone became my nighttime friend.
I got into the habit of going to bed with it. Once settled, I held it on my chest just between my breasts. I liked its coldness on my aching heart. It helped me relax. Holding it in my hand and reading the word with my thumb also helped. I carried it around in my pocket for a while. I wanted to feel it there for me. Then, I began to wonder about my own sanity. Was I trying to exchange my son for a stone?
When I got myself more together and began to feel better, I let go of it and let it rest on another item from that basket—a little, silk-covered, sachet pillow that smells of lavender with butterflies and the word “heal” painted on the silk. These two gifts from Patty are still there on my bedside table after all these years.
Q:  Did writing about your experience help you?  
Even before Paul died, I started writing about him and his bipolar disorder.  Keeping a journal got out the frustrations of dealing with his episodes, hospitalizations, and erratic behavior, and I continued doing it after he died. I also took classes through UCLA Extension’s writing program, a private instructor in Los Angeles, and at workshops at my healing place, Esalen, in Big Sur, CA. This material and my new-found passion for writing poetry became grist for my memoir. Writing helped me recover, and it enabled me to keep Paul’s memory alive.
Q:  What advice do you have for families that have been affected by mental illness or suicide? 
First, I recommend families find out as much about bipolar disorder as you can—the best doctors, hospitals, medications available, and how to get to them. Also know about suicide prevention. What I didn’t know when our son was diagnosed is that bipolar is a killer disease—especially in young men. Then try to give your loved one with the disease the facts. That way he/she will feel less stigmatized and will be more likely to accept help. It is important to know that bipolar disorder is a disease of the brain just like asthma is a disease of the lungs. It can be treated. A person with bipolar is not violent, is not a sociopath, is not weak, is not stupid. A person with bipolar is like everyone else except with a treatable chemical imbalance in the brain.
Second, I would want people affected by bipolar disorder and suicide to know that it is possible to survive and be productive after the death of a child. I would advise them to:
  1. Take your time—don’t let anyone tell you that the time for grief should be over.
  2. Take good care of your health: workout, eat healthy, get enough rest, meditate, travel, and be open to new friends and new experiences.
  3. Pamper yourself: stay in shape physically, stay well groomed, buy a new article of clothing once in a while, take long healing walks.
  4. Pretend you’re feeling better by putting on a smiley face and pretty soon you will feel better (I call it playacting).
  5. Find an artistic outlet and other diversions to take your mind off of it.
Madeline and her husband of forty-plus years live in Manhattan Beach, California. Madeline’s mission since the death of her son is to raise awareness, educate, and erase the stigma of mental illness and suicide in hopes of saving lives.
Thanks Madeline–not only for sharing your experience, but for your commitment to raising awareness, educating, and erasing the stigma of mental illness and suicide in hopes of saving lives.  It’s been a pleasure to be part of your book tour!
What about our readers?  Is there someone out there who can help shed light on bi-polar disorder or suicide to share Madeline’s mission? Please add your comments below. 
Till next time, when “Stormy Weather”–my journey back from elbow surgery–continues. ~Pam

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