October 9, 2017

Mental Health Awareness: My Mother's Story

My mother passed away several years ago...she would have been 75 this month.

I have so many memories of her...

I remember her teaching me to row, her hands on the paddles next to mine, back and forth and the swish of the oars.

I remember quiet rainy days, sitting at our kitchen table cutting paper hearts, making yarn ropes, or mosaics with allspice and cloves.   She was so creative and she passed that on to me. 

But I have other memories too... 

Memories of her sitting cross-legged in her room, tears straining down her face, talking about how she didn't want to live anymore.

My mother had bipolar disorder.  It was, for her, a roller coaster that took her at times so high there seemed to be no consequences, and at others so low that it cut her off from herself and brought her thoughts of suicide.   It could make her euphoric, or paranoid, a powder keg, a bundle of nerves or a shower of tears.   In between those swings, she was a good mom.

She was not the first in her family to have this disease.   My great aunto spent most of her life in a mental institution with an illness that didn't even have a name then, much less a treatment. 

When my mom first showed signs of something being wrong, sometime in her teens, they had a name for what she suffered from:  Manic Depression (the name later was changed to bipolar disorder).

She spent some time in mental hospitals too.   Once during these stays she received electroshock therapy.  She said it probably saved her life, literally jolting her out of her severe depression, but it also took something away, a part of her that she said she never got back.   The last stay at a mental hospital was when I was very young.  I remember the strange lonely feeling and the worry I felt, staying with friends while she recovered.   When I visited her the place was cheery and bright.  She brought back crafts, but seemed ashamed to have been there.  (Sadly much of the mental health support available back then, in the 1970s, no longer exists.  Read more.)

What kept her out of the hospitals (most of the time), was a drug called Lithium.   Early on she looked at it as a crutch, something she should be able to function without.   It was a pharmacist who finally got through to her...told her it was nothing to be ashamed of, that it was something she needed like a diabetic needed insulin.  And so she faithfully took it, even when doctors had trouble getting the dosage right and it would make her ill.

That attitude, that the medicine is just a crutch, is still far too common.   I met a girl in high school who shared that she was bipolar, but "was working to get off the pills."   She said it like someone would say "I want to quit smoking" --as if this necessary medicine was an addiction she needed to break free of.

And no wonder.   Throughout my mom's life, ignorant people have told her that it's all in her head, that she just needed to "get things together," and even that her illness was caused by demons.  But bipolar is just as much a real medical problem as cancer, or Parkinsons.
Recently scientists studied brain scans of those with and without the disorder, and discovered what bipolar disorder actually did to the brain:  Brain scans of thousands of bipolar individuals showed thinning of grey matter, especially in areas of the brain that control inhibition and motivation.   They  also looked at scans of patients that took lithium, and discovered that it provides an amount of protection from this.  

My mom passed away several years before this information came out.  I think she would have found it vindicating...but she had already benefited from the research that has been done. Even in her lifetime additional medications came out that worked better for her than the ones she was originally prescribed, that helped immensely during the last decades of her life.  I have so much hope that things will keep improving for those who face this illness in the future.


If anyone reading this feels like they might need help, I wanted to point you to the Suicide & Crisis hotline, which is NOT just for those who are suicidal.  It's also for those in any sort of crisis who need to talk with someone, and for those seeking help for a loved one.   1-800-273-8255

Mental Health Awareness Collab

A group you-tubers and one blogger (me) are collaborating to talk about Mental Health issues today.   Check out the other collaborators videos below.