Editor’s note: The names of the people in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.
Sam, a young man in his late 20s, was recently hospitalized for 30 days because his bi-polar disorder had become unmanageable. The Mayo Clinic website says that “bipolar disorders cause extreme mood swings that include emotional highs (mania or hypomania) and lows (depression).”
Sam isn’t alone. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 42.5 million American adults (18.2%) suffer from some mental illness, and 9.3 million adults have a mental illness serious enough to impede activities like going to work.
Sam’s father, Ted, described what happens when his son is having a manic episode. “Sam pretty much loses touch with reality,” he said. “He becomes very agitated, has high sexual energy and there’s a high spiritual element. He can have bouts of anger and be belligerent. The high in a manic episode can be exhilarating. That’s why some people with bipolar disorder don’t want to take their meds.”
While the highs are much higher than what athletes call a runner’s high, Ted explained, the lows are much lower than when most people are having a bad day. “The other extreme,” he said, “is the depression side, and with that there’s always a fear of suicide.”
Ted and his wife Karen at first didn’t recognize what was happening when their son had his first manic episode. Sam drove off with one of the family’s cars and his parents didn’t know where he was for hours. At that point, they realized something was wrong. They went to several police stations but received no help there.
“It was then that we realized that, oh my goodness, this is the same kind of thing that happened to my sister, who is also bipolar,” Ted recalled. “What happened was that Sam had driven far out of the city to a wooded area where people didn’t lock the doors of their homes. Sam had gotten out of the car, thrown away his cellphone, walked right into one of the houses and sat down at the kitchen table.
“Miraculously,” he said, “the woman who owned the house was home and because she was a nurse, she recognized what was going on with Sam. She coaxed our phone number out of Sam, called us, and after hours of frantic search, we picked him up.”
Having a family member with a bipolar disorder can have a huge impact on the whole family because when he is in a manic episode, Sam demands a lot of attention. On the other hand, when a family is educated about mental illness and/or has even had prior experiences with it, they can do a lot to assist the person in managing it.
Ted, for example, not only had a sister with bipolar disorder, but years earlier as a young man, he had gone through bouts of clinical depression.
“They couldn’t find the right medication,” he remembered. “During that time, I had this feeling that I would never get well. It was like I was in a deep hole and I couldn’t climb out.”
The doctors finally put him on Zoloft and he’s been holding down a job, volunteering in the community, and raising a family ever since. That background helps him be far more understanding of his son’s situation. He realizes it has nothing to do with the way he and Karen raised their son.
Because of his experiences, he said, “I know it’s just an imbalance in the brain’s chemistry. If you don’t have knowledge of mental illness, you as a parent can blame yourself or blame a person like Sam. A few people even accused me of faking depression in order get attention.”
In that regard, Ted is a big fan of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI, he explained provides lots of information to families that are living with mental illness, plus support groups to help them cope. When Sam was in a hospital that wasn’t helping him, NAMI provided him with advocates who helped him get Sam moved to another hospital.
Another important resource for Sam’s parents is religious belief.
“God is a big part of our dealing with this,” Ted said. “I say that my recovery, beginning many years ago, was a miracle. Karen and I pray for Sam.”
His willingness to share his story is motivated by gratitude.
“God did this for me,” he said. “I now have to do what I can to help and inform other people because I owe God.”
During Sam’s recent 30-day hospitalization he underwent a series of 10 ECTs — electroconvulsive therapy — which, according to the Mayo Clinic website, “is a procedure, done under general anesthesia, in which small electric currents are passed through the brain, intentionally triggering a brief seizure. ECT seems to cause changes in brain chemistry that can quickly reverse symptoms of certain mental illnesses.”
Ted said the important words are “seems to” and “can.”
“A good doctor will tell you, ‘By no means does every medication fit every patient.’ It can be very complicated. Sam’s doctor said, ‘Let’s try ECT and see if it works.’ Regarding treatment, it’s a crap shoot.”
Ted added that Sam can have long stretches of time in which his mood is within a normal range.
“During those times,” he said, “he’s so stable that we forget he has a disorder.”
Ted noted that mental illness has become much less stigmatized than it was when he was hospitalized for depression decades ago.
“People are much more accepting of mental illness now,” he said. “Most people no longer think you’re ‘crazy’ when you suffer from a mental illness.”
One big concern, he added, for people who are hospitalized and using medication for mental illness is how to pay for their care. It was an issue debated in the presidential campaign.
Insurance, he said, is a big deal.