Chasing Yesterday’s Rainbows

Mom & Bonni

I took this photo of my mother and my sister during one of our many visits to a mental hospital in northern Virginia, many years ago now. It was a lucky capture of something increasingly fleeting – tenderness, trust, and a smile, between a mother and her daughter. I haven’t been secretive about my mom’s descent into severe mental illness. It is highly stigmatized, which is stupid, because that makes it far more difficult for all of us to bear. So I will always speak up.

Mom battles Delusional Disorder and Paranoid Personality Disorder, which have no cure and no trusted form of treatment, due to the patient’s inherent suspicion and lack of insight into her condition. We’ve seen her through psychotic breakdowns, hospital stays, suicide attempts, jail time, and homelessness. As hard as that is, the reason it’s most excruciating is because Mom was our best friend growing up. She was a loving and energetic person. But her delusions have transformed Bonni, my dad, and I into the enemy, causing her a great deal of fear, anger, sadness, and pain – which causes her to lash out. And now, it’s hard not to hate the manipulative and abusive person she has become. Continue reading

Hope Springs Eternal

I have long been considered the writer of the family, but I recently stumbled across my sister’s personal statement essay for admission into graduate school, and it kind of blew me away how eloquently she summarized our story… Some excerpts below.

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“I grew up in a military family. The nomadic lifestyle made long-term relationships difficult to establish, thus making strong family ties essential. Year after year, one military base after another, my sister and I were taught the adaptability, resilience, and interpersonal openness required by those who are always meeting new people. In addition to these qualities came a unique bond with my parents, especially with my mother. She was everything you would expect from an exceptional person: warm, loving, open, perceptive, gentle, humorous, joyful, and extremely intelligent. She had an incredible love for my sister and me and devoted her life to providing us with the best opportunities she could. From her came my ability to retain a childlike glee in life, as well as the desire to establish a personal value system that would allow me to live my life with the same dignity I saw her display every day.

My highschool and college years marked a terrifying and dramatic transformation in this loving relationship. The changes encroached subtly at first, then rapidly and severely. Space limitations make it impossible for me to describe this process in its horrifying reality, but the final outcome was the onset of a ruthless and life-altering mental illness. The incredible person I described earlier became callously eaten alive by a mental illness that countless professionals cannot name, explain, or treat effectively. This unrecognizable person would be described as cruel, inhumane, abusive, and dangerous. She became manipulative and narcissistic, and suffers debilitating delusions. She has attempted (but survived) suicide numerous times and spent many months committed to in-patient facilities…

My undergraduate years were spent as the primary caregiver for my mother. This meant constant management of suicide attempts and threats; interventions when my mother would end up with the police, or scared and confused on a roadside somewhere; frequent conferences with medical teams; active navigation of the mental health system; and the day-by-day challenges of trying to conduct your life efficiently while living with an individual who can turn on you—or herself—without warning.

Though my mother remains predominately noncompliant and possesses no insight into her condition, she continues to oscillate in and out of treatment. Psychiatric professionals remain baffled on her specific diagnosis, citing everything from Bipolar Disorder with psychotic breaks, to Borderline Personality Disorder, to Schizophrenia, to Delusional Disorder, to Paranoid Personality Disorder. Many forms of treatment have been attempted; none have been successful. On more than one occasion, I have heard a psychiatrist, a psychologist or a social worker tell me this condition is permanent and the person I love and cherish is gone forever — that they have done all they can do. My reaction to this has been heartbreak and loss, but more importantly dissatisfaction and determination. My response to their declaration is: That’s not good enough…

From these collective experiences – and especially through my personal challenges – I have learned and achieved many things that will help me succeed in your program. I have learned strength, but not at the expense of compassion. I have achieved understanding – through experience, not simply theory. I have learned humility by accepting we can never know it all, but should keep striving to. I have learned that the insurmountable challenges of today can be overcome tomorrow. I have learned the basic values of organization, persistence, resilience, and hard work. Most importantly, however, I have learned that hope really does spring eternally. Even in my darkest moments of sadness, discouragement, and exhaustion, the slightest flicker of hope will bubble to the surface and give me the desire to try one more thing. It is this very human quality that keeps us all working for something better.”