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    Posted May 7, 2014 by
    Woodland Park, Colorado
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    Going public with mental illness

    Surviving Bipolar Illness: A Story of Unconditional Love


    Max Maddox and Kathy Brandt speak, blog, and write extensively about mental illness and have been interviewed about bipolar illness on radio and TV. They have written a memoir about surviving bipolar, “Walks on the Margins: A Story of Bipolar Illness.” Max is a trained NAMI speaker and Kathy is the past president of the local NAMI afflliate. Visit them at www.kathybrandtauthor.com  and www.walksonmargins.com. See Max’s art at www.maxmaddox.net


    My son, Max, was 20 and beginning his junior year at Grinnell College in Iowa when he had his first bipolar episode. There had been no signs, no childhood problems. Mental illness was simply not on my radar until the morning he called from school. It was 5:00a.m.when the phone rang.


    “Turn on the news,” Max said. “There’s been an epiphany.”


    I flipped through the channels in an idiotic and desperate attempt to find answers, praying that it was the world that had tipped and not my son. Wally and The Beav shot baskets in the driveway as June watched from the window, her arms elbow-deep in soapy water. But I knew this wasn’t the idyllic new world my son was talking about. By that afternoon he was in the hospital and diagnosed with Bipolar 1. It was the beginning of a journey that has lasted until this day.


    Two months later the other half of manic depression hit him hard. Writes Max, “Quick was the rant and rattle of suicidal ideation to snuff out completely any lingering hope for a normal life. The question of how and where I could end the agony soon turned into a habit of minute-by-minute thinking, like a compulsion to open and close a door."


    Something had to be done. More mood stabilizers, fewer antipsychotics, a different family of anti-depressants, a new one, a proven one, an experimental one, a conservative one. Very slowly he began to pull out of it. He returned to college and I found myself hoping that this episode had been a fluke, the planets out of alignment, some temporary shift in brain chemistry.


    “Months went by” he writes, “and I began to wonder how anyone could’ve called me sick, or if anyone ever really had. Maybe this is, after all, just another coming of age story. It could be just that lame."


    A year later Max disappeared on the streets of Chicago. I feared the worst, picturing him sleeping under a bridge, bleeding in a back alley, or laying unidentified in a Chicago morgue. I kept my phone in my pocket and when it rattled against my hip. The call finally came late at night. Max was being admitted to a psychiatric unit in Chicago, unharmed but psychotic. I told myself he would get through it just as he had the last, that his dreams would not be buried under the rubble of manic-depression, that every page studied, paper written, canvas painted wouldn’t seem like a lie.


    After that Max had an episode every year. Each time he regained his footing, he lost it to manic depression again. He disappeared among the big city homeless, ended up handcuffed in the back of police cruisers, and came within inches of jumping from a shattered eighth floor window in Philadelphia. By the time he was twenty-six, he’d earned a dozen commitments to psychiatric institutions.


    Of his illness he writes: “She never came, and where I thought my walk had ended, it had only just begun. She was a promise, one that could never be made good. But a promise so great that its very mirage crippled even the strongest of wills. If I finally do recover, it will be from my undying love for her; it will be from a broken heart.”


    For me the homeless pushing grocery carts scrawled with intimations of the second coming became encounters too close to home. I struggled to come to terms with my changing role as parent and confidant. Stymied, bullied, blindsided by doctors, hospitals, and the law, I chased Max’s collapsing dreams and feared he wouldn’t live through the next crisis.

    I've spent hundreds of hours in psychotic hospitals from Colorado to Pennsylvania and places in between and have become intimately familiar with the workings of the units and with the people in them. Over the years I’ve learned how horribly inadequate our mental health care “system” is, that to call it a system at all is an illusion. Finding good treatment for Max has been more than just difficult—it’s often been impossible.


    Patients and families are dictated to, appointments with doctors are hard to come by and then last just enough time to write out another prescription, those in crisis end up in emergency rooms where they wait for help that never comes, outpatient care is practically non-existent, and too many psych units are simply holding tanks, places where little treatment occurs except for the piling on of medication.


    Already severely traumatized from his illness, Max has been restrained, isolated, and physically abused by staff that are undertrained or just don’t care. I’ve learned first-hand that places I thought were safe were anything but. It felt like such a betrayal. That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of caring people on psych units: there are. But failures and abuse abound.


    I’m angry at a mental health care system that had failed us so completely. I began to put my anger to good use when I found NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). I have taught classes, run programs, served on the board and as president of the local affiliate. I am advocate for my son and for others with mental illness.


    I know that those with mental illness can and do succeed. They live fulfilled lives, working and developing significant relationships. They engage in the process of recovery, knowing that recovery doesn’t mean cure. How do they do it? They believe in themselves. They persevere through hardship. They risk failure. They define their own life goals and design their unique paths based on their own limitations, needs, strengths, preferences, and backgrounds. They find meaning and purpose in jobs, school, volunteerism, or other endeavors. They find a way to live on their own terms.


    They are supported by family, friends, peers, who believe in their potential to be their best, who stand by them, offering hope, support, and encouragement. Their doctors and therapists partner with them, listening rather than dictating. They offer hope rather than dismal prognoses. They allow their patients to live up to their potential and find purpose by helping them find good outpatient care and support. They support their clients in their own personal journeys.


    Max has succeeded for many of the reasons others do. He’s earned his BA and his MFA. He’s lived on his own for years, he’s taught art, is married, and is a serious artist. He’s been scared and discouraged, but strong and determined. He believes in himself and so do those around him.


    About his “graduation from therapy” Max writes: “I will never be sure of the odds that led me to choose one way over another. It seems that uncertainty is still my greatest obstacle, though I have my doubts. I fold up my last yellow receipt and stuff it in my pocket. I won’t bother with the diagnostic chart on the back, having gotten the idea, by now, that he will never circle “In Full Remission.” Besides, I’m not sure any of us within the columns really ever enjoy the luxury of being ‘cured.’

    “I’m embarrassed to confess that I feel a little sentimental, walking across the lobby with an almost unbearable smile on my face, like I just won the Pulitzer. The white noise of Philadelphia at noon fills my ears as though the city meant to remind me of where I am. Of who I am.”


    It's been fourteen years since Max called me from school that morning.and we have decided to tell our story. It’s a risky venture for Max, who has brought his illness into the light for everyone to see. But it’s been good to come out of the shadows, to speak honestly and openly, and to put a face on mental illness.

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