[ Godsends ]
Not Just Bi-Polar:
A True Message of Hope
Part I: Childhood in an Up and Down World
The wooden wheelchairs had backs almost taller than the nurses pushing them, their faces were as hard and stiff as the wheelchairs they pushed. Absent of laughter and joy, it was a dark, gloomy, scary place for a child to visit—something that would haunt me in the years to come.
I squeezed my mother’s hand tight as she whisked me through the darkened corridors that would bring me to my dad. The last time I’d seen him was right after two men dressed in white came to our house to take him away. I hadn’t seen my dad struggle as they put the straitjacket on him. Minutes after they arrived, I had quickly run for cover under my bed, just in case they tried to take me too. I was four years old.
We met dad in a room that was flooded with fluorescent light. There were hard plastic chairs haphazardly placed around the room. I tried not to pay any attention to the other people present until a big burly man started waving around a knife and talking about the injustices of the hospital. Two husky orderlies tackled him and took him away.
It was then that I decided that I hated the men that brought my dad to this place. Sadly, there was a deeper hatred for God, who had allowed my dad to have whatever makes people wind up in a place like that. For the remainder of my childhood, dad was in and out of mental institutions, on and off hundreds of different medications and never really getting well. I learned early on how isolation, shame and guilt are just some of the debilitating effects of mental illness. I observed how close family friends, even my godparents stopped calling or coming by the house. I watched as my dad’s spirit slowly deflated until only his body remained. I can only imagine how difficult this time must have been for my mom.
Mom didn’t have time for self-pity though. She had to figure out a way to survive, caring for five kids and a sick husband. Mom started cleaning houses and waiting tables. I am so thankful that my Mom put more than dinner on the table and clothes on our back. She rekindled hope in our spirits. Whenever anyone asks me who my hero is, I tell them my Mom. Even through the storm she stayed faithful to her children, and took care of her husband devotedly. My dad became a prisoner to the disease of manic-depression. His bedroom became his cell that he would leave only to watch television or eat. His pajamas were his prison clothes. He would get dressed to go to his doctors’ visits or to church, but I mostly remember him in p.j.’s.
I learned at a very young age that ours was a bi-polar existence, “making happy” for an unsympathetic outside world while our inside world swung into a darker, sadder place. People would much rather believe that my father had suffered a heart attack instead of a nervous breakdown. They would treat me with more gentleness when I told them he was home all the time due to a bad heart, than the truth that he couldn’t leave the house because of his nerves. It was odd that they would have compassion and understanding for one and not the other, but I learned to become a top-notch liar, giving society the answers it wanted to hear and denying the truth.
There were times when dad would shower, get dressed and even look for work. This always brought the hope that dad was getting well. Sadly, it was during these times that he was beginning his cycle of mania. He would talk about new businesses he was going to start, and show us homes in the country he planned on buying. Dad would also tell us how the FBI was watching us. e drove around with him identifying the car license plates that belonged to the imagined, undercover agents. He was also very confident he had privileged information that he needed to share with the President. His phone attempts to contact the President always failed.
It was during one of these times that my dad started taking down all the curtains and blinds in the living room. He said, “We don’t need these curtains or blinds anymore. Paradise is coming.” Then he walked over to my sister Mary and took off her glasses and broke them and said, “You won’t need these in paradise.” I could tell by my mother’s worried look on her face that paradise wasn’t coming, but another trip to the hospital was. This same scene continued to replay on and off for the rest of my dad’s life.
We all coped as best we could. My choice was to drink. By the time I was 21, I had started a program to help me quit. I would come home from meetings and share with my father the hope and refuge I found and would pray it would light a fire in him. But he never wanted to come to meetings because he always felt like he had nothing to offer. To him, it would be just another place he’d feel judged.
One hot summer day, my dad did venture out with the family to my sister’s boyfriend’s house in New Jersey. All the children were young adults and were getting on in life pretty well, in spite of our beginnings. We swam, played croquet and barbequed. It really felt great getting together with the family and just having fun like I imagined other families did.
While the sun was setting I was sitting at a table with my dad and said, “Isn’t this great, dad? Did you have a nice time?” He looked at me with his big, piercingly blue eyes and said, “Maureen, I can’t feel joy like you can and I can’t feel sadness. I just feel numb. I wish I had the courage to take all my pills and end it once and for all.” I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of my dad’s mouth. I was crushed.
A few years later my dad got his wish and his life did end. His liver failed because of all the medicines he’d taken and early alcohol abuse. He was on the list for a transplant but one never came. When dad died, my hope of him ever getting well died, too. I had never lost hope that dad would get better one day and start to enjoy life. The reality that he never would get well was heartbreaking. I mourned what could have been, more than I mourned what was.
Part II: Denying My Own Truth
I was about four years sober when he died. That same year a Nor’easter flooded my basement apartment and ruined everything I held dear to me. My poetry, short stories that I had written from my childhood, my one-year anniversary box, school yearbook, clothes, bed—everything, wiped out in over four feet of water. I was devastated. I started to lose weight rapidly and lost thirty pounds in the span of a few months. Diagnosed with Epstein Barr and chronic fatigue syndrome, I began having difficulty sleeping. Slowly at first, to my horror, I too began to lose touch with reality. The same FBI agents that protected my dad were now helping me.
My family and doctor begged me to start taking medicine for the mania they saw happening in front of their eyes. I thought they were the ones who were sick. I believed they were jealous of all the success I was having in my life and wanted to slow me down. After all, I was working with a major special events company in New York City and what’s more, the mayor’s office. I was considering starting up my own business. My acting career was ready to launch. I was studying at Carnegie Hall with one of the greats. That teacher even had a nickname for me: “Red.” My life was incredible.
I was finally going to be somebody and show all those people that had turned their back on my dad and our family that they had made a very big mistake. I continued to sleep less and talk more. Most people who met me at this time thought I had a lot of energy and was very driven. A close friend of mine who had known me for years thought that the problem was with my family, not with me. So I ignored their pleas and got sicker and sicker.
I wound up at JFK Airport on January 4, 1994, looking for my private jet to whisk me off to Florida. I was very convincing to those in the airport because I was adamant my private jet was waiting. I was so determined to get to my jet that I wound up on the tarmac and walked into one of the hangars. Soon after, I was picked up by the police.
The details I won’t go into, but I wound up staying on the mental ward of a local hospital for 28 days. I refused medication for the first few days because I was “sober” and wouldn’t take “drugs.” My still-delusional world came crashing down when I got a phone call from my friend Kevin.
“Maureen, you have to take the medicine that they have prescribed for you” he said.
“I am not taking pills, Kevin, I can’t; I have five years of sobriety.” Kevin took a deep breath. “If you don’t take the Lithium, they are going to ship you off to Pilgrim State Hospital.”
Memories flooded my head like a hurricane while I squeezed the phone. My head started spinning as I recalled the state institution that still haunted my dreams. Horrible memories poured out of a once-locked vault that had been broken open. My most terrifying fear was coming true. “God please, I will take anything but this sentence,” I pleaded.
But reality had caught up with me. I had mental illness just like my dad. “I have to go take my medicine, Kevin,” I said as I hung up the phone.
At 26 years of age, I was living my worst nightmare. My incredible life was over. I felt like a failure, one of the misfit toys from “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Of all the things dad could have passed on to me, why did it have to be mental illness?
When I got out of the hospital, everything around me seemed to be going so much faster. People treated me differently, as if they got too close to me they might catch what I had. The quiet condemnation and ridicule in my friends’ eyes cut into the deepest part of my soul. Who would want to be friends with a mental patient, let alone marry one? I just couldn’t imagine living out a life like this. I was not that strong, nor did I want to be. I didn’t mind being a sober alcoholic, but I could not bear a lifetime sentence of being bi-polar. I’d seen firsthand the horrors.
I went to my bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet, put a handful of pills in my hand and cried out to God. In my mind, I saw a scene of my mom finding me, dead from an overdose, and knew how that would destroy her.
“All right, God,” I cried,” I can’t live like this; I’m not strong enough. I need You to carry me.”
Part III: Beyond the struggle, a mission of hope
God met me there on the bathroom floor and picked me up and held me. He has since carried me over thirteen years, one day at a time.
Thankfully that one episode of mania was all I have had to date. I take my medicine daily and I love my life most of the time. Shame and guilt have been replaced with peace and serenity in my walk with God. I have been married to my wonderful, loving and understanding husband for over ten years and we are blessed with two beautiful children.
I have found that my experience with mental illness can give hope to others battling this seemingly hopeless disease. One way is as a member of the drama team in the nondenominational church in which our family is very active. It has been a true blessing to be there. My debut speaking role on God’s stage was that of a fifty-something-year-old woman struggling with diabetes and loss, spending her whole life in front of her TV set, waiting to die. Her character reminded me a lot of my father.
At the end of the skit, I was to sit in a shadow silhouette while the video for REM’s song, “Everybody Hurts Sometimes” played on the screens next to me. By playing the character of Aunt Lorraine, I understood my dad’s prison much deeper. Seeds of compassion were planted in my heart as tears poured down my face. I dedicated all four performances to him.
Every day I have a choice to walk in the crowds of millions as just another normal-looking person with a normal life, or to step out of the shadow and silhouette of “looking normal” and share my story with others in hopes that all will be able to realize that mental illness is not a choice or shameful shortcoming, but a disease that can be treated.
I recently called some local hospitals recently to see if I could talk to the captives of this disease and I was informed of an upcoming public forum on this very topic. I knew I was at a crossroads: would I choose to save face and sit silently at the forum, like one of the family or friends of someone who is mentally ill? Or would I choose to step out, stand up and say I am free from the shackles of shame of a disease I did not ask for nor want?
My choice was to stand up and speak. Speak for the one that is too weak, too frightened, too bruised, too ashamed. Speak the truth that the sum of who we are is far more than our mental illness, just as being diagnosed bi-polar is not a life sentence to prison. I stood up and said, “My name is Maureen and I am a mother of two, a wife, a daughter, and I was diagnosed bi-polar thirteen years ago.”
Today I continue to stand and speak out for the many who can’t speak, who dearly want to be loved and accepted for who they are. I stand up and speak and God carries me one day at a time.
The Woodlands, TX