I’d like to introduce you to my friend, “Melissa,” (yes, I have changed names here) one of the most powerful, passionate, deeply loving people I have ever had the privilege to know. She’s one of those people who lights up a room. Her smile is genuine and is deeply interested in connecting with everyone she talks to. I share the story of Melissa not because of her loving smile, but because of her strength to save the lives of her daughters in the face of adversity…with lessons for all of us to learn.
I met Melissa over twenty years ago when our daughters were in kindergarten together. They were one of those awesome families where both mom and dad were clearly engaged and involved in their daughters’ lives, cheerleading at the soccer games and volunteering at the school. Everyone knew them. Everyone loved them. They were the cool, fun couple. What none of us realized until several years later was that Melissa’s husband suffered from bipolar disorder, which was undiagnosed until an episode sent him into a major depression and then extreme manic state.
“Daniel” had had episodes of both depression and mania earlier in their marriage but Melissa just thought that was part of being the creative genius that he was. It wasn’t until the months-long severe depression followed by wildly frightening cycles of manic behavior that she realized there was a serious problem. His behavior spiraled so badly that he put their two young daughters in harm’s way, as he displayed frightening behavior in front of them and repeatedly drove them in the car when not in control of his faculties.
Melissa took the brave step of removing him from the house and ending their marriage. This was no easy feat. They were business partners as well as husband and wife. This move would destroy everything that she knew. But, Daniel had become dangerous and in his manic state it was nearly impossible to have a rational conversation with him. Instead, they entered into a multi-year extended court battle as she had to time-again prove that he was no longer of sound mind and capable of safely interacting with the girls.
Every time I saw her during this period she would share tales of horrifying behavior that he displayed and the endless series of legal meetings and expenses required to make her case to the courts. All of this while trying to protect her children from the pain of the process and help them through the emotional trauma of the destruction of their family and the loss of the father that they knew. It was heartbreaking. Fortunately, Melissa had a tremendous support system that included wonderful psychological counselors for her kids… and herself. Helping her girls to survive was everything to her, putting all of her energy into doing whatever was necessary to give the girls the information and emotional support that they needed as they built their new lives. Eventually this included Melissa remarrying an angel on earth who stepped in to be a solid and available father figure for them all…not trying to replace Daniel, but finding a wonderful person who would provide balance and calm, structure and sanity in an otherwise insane world. And the girls thrived… as best they could given the circumstances.
Fast forward several years and the tragedy of bipolar disorder struck again as Melissa’s older daughter, “Rachel”, was diagnosed with it, suffering her own emotional roller coaster that included hallucinations, suicidal thoughts, extended periods of depression and more. It was horrible. But once again, Melissa threw her everything into supporting her daughter, being by her side or on the phone when she went through her episodes. Fortunately they both knew and understood what was happening so rather than pretend it didn’t exist, the focus was on understanding, learning to manage and helping this similarly brilliant, sensitive and creative young woman find a way to accept and survive a lifetime sentence.
I saw Melissa and Rachel last week having not seen them in a couple of years. Rachel is amazing (as is her younger sister). She graduated with honors from a leading university. And, typical to Melissa’s straight forward sense of humor, she told me of how when other students spent junior year abroad in exotic foreign lands, Rachel spent her junior year “abroad” at a psychiatric hospital working intensely on healing herself. Rachel is now a PhD candidate pursing her doctorate in understanding risk and prognosis in mood disorders based on biomarkers, and she is going to change the face of understanding bipolar disorder because unlike the many researchers and instructors who have come before her, she has experienced bipolar disorder and it’s mental, emotional and physical impact first hand.
Here’s the real lesson for all of us. Rachel would not be alive were it not for having her mother and step-father listening deeply and being there for her. They did not cast her into hospitals or write off her disease as life limiting. They helped her know that she is safe and loved and that whatever hallucination-derived ramblings were running through her mind, they were real and worthy of hearing. Melissa told a funny story about holding Rachel in her arms during one of these episodes, holding her daughter through the pain of the event while simultaneously taking detailed notes of what she was saying in an effort to aid in her future research and understanding of her experiences.
This is love. This is empathy. And this is what is needed for the very serious growing mental health problem in our country. Some of the sufferers have bipolar disorder and must be treated medically, but much of it is not. These people are often being treated with marginally effective cocktails of prescription medications or by self-medicating their misery with heroin, crack, marijuana or more, sending them all too often to live on the streets.
People are throwing money at homeless shelters and having rallies to support the homeless. But most of these people wouldn’t be suffering if they had a Melissa in their lives. If more people took their loved ones in their arms and said “I hear you” and “I am here for you” how different would their illness be? If parents spent more time being available to their children playing games or throwing a ball or cooking together rather than over scheduling and running them from activity to activity or using video babysitters how much healthier would everyone be?
Mental illness is a significant and growing problem. Some is genetic.. much is environmental. Let’s shift the environment