[The names of the people in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.]
Sam, a young man in his late twenties, was recently hospitalized for thirty 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.”
Ted explained that while the highs are much higher than what athletes call a runner’s high, 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 Ted and Karen realized something was wrong. They went to several police stations but received no help there.
Ted said, “It was then that we realize that, oh my goodness, this is the same kind of thing that happened to my sister, who is also bipolar. 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 cell phone, walked right into one of the houses and sat down at the kitchen table.
“Miraculously 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 Sam, called us, and after hours of frantic search, we picked him up.”
Ted said that 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, the family can do a lot to assist the one who has the disorder to manage it.
Ted, for example, not only had a sister with a 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 said. “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 that it has nothing to do with the way he and Karen have raised their son.
He said that because of the experiences he has had with his sister and his own depression, “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 which are living with mental illness as well as support groups to help them cope. He said that one time when Sam was in a hospital which was not helping him, NAMI provided him with advocates who helped him get Sam moved to another hospital.
Another important resource for Ted and Karen is God. Ted said, “God is a big part of our dealing with this. I say that my recovery, beginning many years ago, was a miracle. Karen and I pray for Sam.”
Ted said that his willingness to share his story in the Review is motivated by gratitude. “God did this [his own recovery] for me. 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 ten 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 that important words in that definition are “seems to” and “can.” Based on personal knowledge regarding medication, he said, “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 that he has a disorder.
Ted also 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 said, for people who are hospitalized and using medication for mental illness is how to pay for their care. Pointing to the issue being debated in the presidential campaign, he said that insurance is a big deal.