Letting Go

September 30, 2010

When John got home from his latest business trip on Friday night, I was reminded of what a difference a year makes.

A year ago, John went on his first business trip since his diagnosis with bipolar disorder. (Prior to his manic episode, he’d been taking several business trips a month. It took about six months of being back on the job before his company sent him on another one.) I remember how nervous I was the whole time he was away: Did you bring your pills? Have you taken them yet? Did you sleep well? Are you feeling stressed out?

Poor John! I’m sure my anxiety did not help him stay relaxed.

When John travels now, it’s not a big deal. I trust that he has his pills with him, I trust that he knows when to take his PRNs (Ambien and Klonopin). I trust that one night of so-so sleep is not going to send him immediately back into the tailspin of the psychosis.

Letting Go of Trauma

Last year, I was still struggling to come to terms with the trauma of dealing with his delusions and paranoia. I worried that if I wasn’t constantly overseeing my husband’s recovery, he wasn’t going to get well. You see, that had certainly been our experience when he was in the thick of the mania—he felt great, nothing was wrong, why didn’t I believe that his colleagues had hypnotized him, or that there were security guards posted outside our apartment door? I’d been forced to advocate for his health at a time when he couldn’t do it for himself, and I was having trouble giving up the reins.

Time, experience, and joint therapy sessions helped alleviate this, but so did prayer. God used me to help my husband at a time when he could not help himself, but that time has passed, and I have to remember that God—not me—is in charge.

And right now, what better reminder do I have of that fact than the little baby that’s building itself inside me? I’m not directing this baby’s growth. I’m not deciding, “Okay, baby, today your kidneys are going to start working and you’re going to gain 0.05 ounces.” All I can do is take care of myself and trust that the baby’s development is progressing the way it’s meant to. Without that trust, I’m a constant ball of anxiety and stress.


One Marriage. Two Mental Illnesses.

September 29, 2010

When John and I got married in 2006, he was well aware of my history of binge eating and bulimia. He’d come to Twelve Step meetings with me and heard me talk about all the dirty details of my eating career. He knew that without the FA program, I’d be a heavy, depressed mess. He also knew that with it, I am a happy, healthy, and vibrant woman. With it, I am the woman he loves.

Moreover, John was aware of all the limitations my recovery from this eating disorder—this mental illness—entails:

  • I don’t eat flour or sugar.
  • Unless I’m eating at a restaurant, I weigh and measure my food.
  • I go to three Twelve Step meetings every week.
  • I call my sponsor (my mentor in the program) on a regular basis, and I get up early every morning to take calls from my sponsees (the people I mentor).
  • I spend time in prayer and meditation every day.

John went into our marriage with his eyes open. The fact that I had actively pursued a solution to my problem (versus his mother, an alcoholic who died of her disease) was attractive to him. My limitations were no big deal.

I, on the other hand, was blindsided when mental illness struck John two years into our marriage. His breakdown was sudden and violent and scary. Overnight, psychosis changed his personality radically. I questioned whether the John I knew and loved would ever return.

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September 28, 2010

A super interesting post about some new research from John Hopkins on how stress affects mood-related genes in a mother and her unborn children got me thinking about the transmission of mental illness from one generation to another.

Before John and I got married, we took a couple of marriage classes. One was through the church, and one was with a pair of married therapists. We took the course led by therapists about nine months before our wedding. At that time, John had not yet experienced any symptoms of bipolar disorder, but we knew that I was a food addict (in recovery), and that his mother was an alcoholic. I remember telling the woman therapist about our situation, and how I was worried that our children would be getting the “addiction gene” from both sides of the family.

“You two are doing great,” she said. “I think your kids will be fine.”

I believed her. After all, after my struggles as a teenager, I had found a way to cope with my disease. If a child born with addictive tendencies grows up with a parent who is in recovery, that would count for something, wouldn’t it? Nature isn’t everything—nurture counts, too.

Well, when John got sick, it once again made me question whether we wanted to pass on our DNA. According to some research we read in my Family-to-Family class, a child with one parent with bipolar disorder has a 27% chance of developing the disease, versus a 1-2% chance for the general population. For a while there, I wasn’t liking those odds, particularly when I’d hear stories from parents of mentally ill children about suicide attempts, hospitalizations, drugs, and prison.

Here’s where I came down on the whole thing: Yes, our child has a higher probability of developing a mental illness, but John and I have both found ways to deal with our mental health issues and be happy, productive members of society. We both have good jobs, we both pay taxes, we participate in the community and do service where we can.

You can’t live your life in fear of something that might, maybe, some day happen. Any “normal” couple could have a baby with Down Syndrome, or cancer, or SIDS. My husband and I are smart, we’re educated, we’re caring, and I think those traits are worth passing on.


September 26, 2010

In church this morning we read the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), a poor, sick man who lay at the rich man’s door. The rich man did nothing to help Lazarus—perhaps he hardly noticed him—and when the men died, the rich man suffered. Of course, the moral of the story is that we must treat other people—no matter how poor, how sick, how wretched—as our brothers, and help them when we can.

I will admit that when it comes to mental illness, I have not always been great at this. Growing up, I’d seen many a homeless person sleeping on top of a subway grate in the winter—an incomprehensible action if I’d ever seen one. Canadian winters can clock in at five, ten, fifteen degrees below zero. Why wouldn’t you go to a shelter? Why would you leave home in the first place? Why wouldn’t you impose to stay with friends?

Tempting death and frostbite by sleeping outside didn’t seem desperate to me, it seemed foolish. Who in their right mind would do such a thing?

And so, until John’s breakdown, I’d always skirted by bums and beggars on the other side of the street; their dirtiness and lack of pride scared me, plus I figured I’d be better off donating my money to charities, where I could be certain it wouldn’t be spent on booze. You see, as someone who’d sought a solution to her own addiction, perhaps I was a little intolerant of those who had not done the same. Homeless? Must be because you’re an alcoholic: Get thee to A.A.!

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10 Years

September 25, 2010

John had a psychiatrist appointment on Monday morning. He goes about once every three months, and I pretty much always go with him.

We like his psychiatrist, Dr. Wilson, a lot. The first psychiatrist John saw after coming out of the hospital misdiagnosed him, immediately started taking him off Risperdal (substituting Pristiq), and pretty much ignored me when I tried to tell her that John was psychotic again.

After John’s second hospitalization, Dr. Wilson met with the two of us for an hour, listened to me when I told him about John’s symptoms (because he was delusional, John didn’t perceive a lot of manic behavior as symptomatic), and diagnosed John with bipolar disorder. Over time, he tapered John off the Risperdal, relying solely on the mood stabilizer Depakote. When John continued to experience residual depression months after his psychotic break, Dr. Wilson gradually switched him from Depakote onto Lamictal, which has been working great for about 15 months now. No depression. No trouble concentrating. No manic swings.

On Monday, Dr. Wilson confirmed that John’s been very stable. He cautioned us, though, that sometimes when people are stable on the meds, they begin to question whether they really need them. He explained that due to the severely disruptive nature of any mood episodes (John was on disability for 3 months, and he was lucky that he didn’t lose his job), he doesn’t recommend playing with a medication that’s working unless a patient has been stable for ten years.

John didn’t have a problem with this recommendation. With the Lamictal, he doesn’t experience any side effects, so taking a pill every night is no big deal. Now, if he were still on the Risperdal, which left him lethargic and messed with his ability to focus and do complex math (he’s an engineer), I think it would be a different story. Fortunately for John, Risperdal isn’t part of the equation right now.

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Eulogy for my Grandma

September 24, 2010

On July 13, my grandmother passed away. My sister called me on the 10th to let me know the end was approaching, and I flew home the next day. My grandmother smiled when I came into the room–it was the last time any of us saw her smile–and she inquired about John. I told her that I was pregnant, but I don’t know if she heard me or understood what I’d said. I hope she did, but at least I know that the news of the pregnancy served to cheer my grandfather up a bit in the days following her death.

About 15 months before my grandmother died, my mother-in-law passed away. Being home for Grandma’s funeral was a very different experience than accompanying my husband to Mary Ann’s.

Mary Ann was an alcoholic. She drank herself to death.

Which is not to say that her family didn’t love her. They did, but it was a difficult kind of love. It was a love for the woman she had been, and not for the woman she’d become. You see, addiction cuts you off from acknowledging the effect of your actions on other people. If you must drink, then you must drink, and you can’t afford to see what your drinking is doing to the people you love. For many years, it was hard for Mary’s family–her three children, her spouse–to be around her, and her death, although sudden, came as (I’ll say it) a relief. Relief that they wouldn’t have to deal with her anymore. Relief that a problem had been removed.

When Grandma died, we were relieved that she was no longer in pain (her lung had collapsed, her back was broken), but we were not relieved that she was gone. Grandma lived for her family; she gave us all so much.

And that, I think, is what I took away from the contrast between the two experiences: I do not want to be a burden on my family. I don’t want to be so self-centered that I can’t see that I’m hurting the people I love.


Here is the short speech I gave at my grandmother’s funeral:

My name is Heather, and I’m the oldest of the grandchildren. One of my very first memories is of the lengths I would go to to spend time with Grandma and Grandpa. I was about two years old, and my parents put me to bed. I knew, however, that Grandma and Grandpa were sleeping on the pullout couch in the basement, so after my parents left, I crept out of bed, snuck down two flights of stairs, and asked my grandparents to read me a story. A few minutes later, my mother appeared at the top of the stairs, frantic because she was unable to find me. I, of course, was happy as a clam, laying in bed between Grandma and Grandpa. Wherever they were, that’s where I wanted to be.

A few years later, Grandma and Grandpa took me and my sister to their Sunday school class. We were a few years younger than the other kids, which is usually a recipe for being teased or ignored. Well, let me tell you, not that day! Those kids loved Grandma and Grandpa almost as much as we did, and they wanted to know everything there was to know about what my grandparents were like outside of class. My sister and I were the most popular kids there that day.

So that is what I will remember most about my grandma–her unfailing love and kindness. Growing up, Grandma was always there with a hug, a smile, and a chocolate bar for us in her purse. Even when she was calling us by the wrong names–Misty, the name of our dog, was her favorite one for me–we knew that Grandma loved us dearly, and we loved her dearly in return.