Parents usually know what to look for as children age and develop. Young ones have predictable stages as they start to form their own identities and enjoy areas of interest. Yet, for some of us the danger of an unfamiliar imposter sometimes enters our lives in the form of mental illness. Regardless of comforting words and knowing looks from well meaning friends, dealing with bipolar disorder is still a mystery for many of us.
My guest this week is a brave woman, Madeline Sharples, who wrote as a way to cope with the tragedy of her eldest son’s suicide. Together we make it through, but our pain is individual.
Paul was a talented musician, charming, intelligent and well-liked. Later on his twenties his behavior changed and at times he became a stranger to his own mother and family members. How does a parent explain, let alone begin to understand, her child?
Below his my conversation with Madeline Sharples:
SR: What would you like to say to us about dealing with your son’s death?
MS: One of my greatest regrets is that I did not try harder to find out what support organizations were available at the time my son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The couple of groups I attended early on were so depressing; I didn’t believe my son was so sick that I needed to subject myself to that kind of “help.” How wrong I was! Our son Paul didn’t know enough about his illness either. I truly believe he felt the stigma and shame that can come with mental illness and that is what kept him from admitting he had the disorder and seeking the help he needed.
So, I recommend parents find out as much about bipolar disorder as they can—the best doctors, hospitals, medications available, and how to get to them. It also 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. They need to also know that when left untreated, this disease may also result in suicide – my son took his life after a seven-year struggle with his illness.
Here is some information about a few support organizations. There are a lot of them out there, easily found on the Internet.
From its inception in 1979, the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) has been dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness by:
- Educating people about mental illness
- Peer education and training programs, initiatives and services for individuals, family members, health care providers and the general public
- Being the voice on Capitol Hill and in state houses for the millions of Americans living with serious mental illness.
Another organization is bringchange2mind, created by Glenn Close, who has a sister with bipolar disorder and a nephew with schizoaffective disorder. Its mission is to provide quick and easy access to information that combats stigma and quick and easy access to information and support for mental illness
The work Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services does in the Los Angeles area to erase the stigma of mental health and to prevent suicide through its mental health programs and suicide support groups and suicide-prevention hotline would have been so useful to us while Paul was alive if only we had known that a place like Didi Hirsch existed.
SR: How did the stigma of having a child with mental illness affect your self- confidence and career?
What a great question – one I’ve never been asked before. And, looking back, I don’t think the stigma of Paul’s mental illness affected my self confidence and career at all.
I didn’t think about stigma when my son was first diagnosed or shy away from openly talking about his mental illness to friends, family, and work colleagues, Unfortunately that didn’t translate into getting him proper help. I just had my head in the sand about how serious his mental disorder was. I knew he needed help, and I don’t feel I was proactive enough in urging him to get it.
Later on my son’s mental illness raised my awareness about it. After his death (much too late) I began to learn more. Then once my awareness was raised, I decided my mission in life would be to help raise awareness in others and help erase stigma and prevent suicide.
Of course that is not to say that stigma doesn’t exist,
A couple of years 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 in the history.
That was proof enough for me that the stigma of mental illness still exists.
Although my husband did not mention our family’s mental illness in the history, I openly discussed my grandmother’s, uncles’, and mother’s mental illness in my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On. I truly believe that our family’s genes passed on bipolar disorder to my son. I wanted to put our story out to the public and didn’t let stigma stand in the way.
SR: How have you changed since your son’s death?
I was 59 years old when my son took his life. Following an aftermath filled with guilt and grief, I made the decision to come out of that experience alive, whole, and productive. Instead of doing the expected: getting a divorce, having a breakdown or an affair with a beautiful younger man, or going into years of therapy, I chose to live and take care of myself as a woman, wife, and mother.
First, I went back to the job I had retired from several years earlier – as a technical writer and editor and proposal manager for a large aerospace company. This job provided the routine and socialization I needed – getting up at the same time every morning, dragging myself to the gym first thing, dressing in business attire, putting on make-up, doing my hair, and interacting with groups of people on the job every day. I thought about my work almost twenty-four/seven. I had no more energy or time to wallow.
Then I began to hone my creative-writing skills. Instead of taking creative detours into drawing and painting, sewing, quilting, and needlepoint as I had done in the past, I went back to writing, a love I discovered in high school and college. I took writing classes and workshops, I got into the journaling habit, I began writing poetry to keep my son’s memory alive, and I created a memoir about living with my son’s illness and surviving his suicide. Leaving the Hall Light On that was released on Mother’s Day 2011. Writing became my therapy and a healing balm. It still helps in my work toward erasing the stigma of mental illness and suicide in the hope of saving lives.
Now, almost fourteen years later, I’ve retired from my day job and embarked on a whole new writing career. Since my memoir was published and re-released in paperback and eBook by Dream of Things press in 2012, I’ve reinvented myself into a published author, poet, and web journalist. And, I’m now writing my first novel. As my husband now says, my will to survive the tragic events in my life have made me a much stronger person than I ever was before.
Find Madeline’s website here .
BIO: Madeline Sharples is the author of Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide (Dream of Things) and Blue-Collar Women: Trailblazing Women Take on Men-Only Jobs (New Horizon Press). She co-edited The Great American Poetry Show and wrote poetry for The Emerging Goddess photography book.
Her articles appear regularly at Naturally Savvy, Aging Bodies, PsychAlive, and Open to Hope and on her blogs, Choices and Red Room. She is also writing a novel. 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.
* Mental illness can be camouflaged *
Thank you Madeline. I feel strongly about women supporting women, and writers supporting each other. We live in a competitive world where often the deepest subject may be avoided in order to look good to the outside world. I’m sure readers will find courage by reading your work.
Keep the light on with your journaling!
photo credit prairie dog: Jesse C. Jones