Y is for the true You inside
Welcome to part 3 of the Mental Health stories that are part of the memories I carry with me. This mini-series resulted from the April 2018 A to Z writing Challenge. If you’d like, you can go back to part 1 and start at the beginning. Again at the end of the post, I will add a couple of links to provide resources for additional information.
At some point, my life path crossed with those of the individuals that I write about this week. These are not stories of magic wands and happy endings but of audacity and survival. I may not know all the details of their lives, but I cherish the snapshots they left behind. They remind me that, at the core, we all have our “you,” our essence that makes us who we are. In these posts I will tell you about two women; their stories are very similar, but each one of us is unique in the way we face our challenges or our demons.
Della Mae and Margaret had a lot in common. I met both women when they were around middle-aged. They both were married once; both had children they did not raise. They had experienced multiple long-term hospitalizations in the wards of state mental hospitals in the 1960’s and 70s – before patient rights and deinstitutionalization. They both carried the dual diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder and Substance Abuse. Their Bipolar Disorder was with manic episodes, and their substance of choice was alcohol. Alcohol abuse is common among persons who try self-medicate and manage their symptoms without professional help; it’s socially acceptable, legal and at least initially slows the racing thoughts.
Della Mae was born and raised in the South. She met her husband shortly after high school while he was stationed at a military base near her hometown. They were married and moved North. Together they started a family and a business. She helped with the secretarial and administrative duties at the company for many years. Eventually, they were divorced; he had custody of the children – a boy and a child.
I met Della Mae as part of discharge planning from the state hospital. She was familiar with the system. She had been to various state-run hospitals since her first “break” decades ago. She didn’t talk about past; it was not necessary in order to make plans for the future. She was angry at herself and the world because she had gambled with life and lost it all – again. As she walked through the gray metal doors upon discharge, she squared her shoulders and held her head high carrying all her worldly possessions in one shopping bag.
Della Mae went to live in a small supported housing apartment with another woman, also making her way back to the community after a lengthy hospital stay. Staff was onsite but not in the unit. She started volunteering, eventually obtained a part-time job at a local non-profit and bought a used car. Because of her age, she was able to get on a waitlist for Affordable Housing for seniors. At first, she was reluctant. She did not want to be living with “old busybodies,” but soon realized age was an advantage because general subsidized housing vouchers had a ten-year waitlist. She had her own apartment in a little over a year.
Things were stable for Della Mae. She had not required a psychiatric hospitalization for several years. I was meeting with her less frequently. Her daughter Kara, now an adult, started coming over for visits. One day Della Mae called me to move up her appointment, she needed to talk. We went for coffee at a small quiet shop near her apartment because her daughter had stayed with her and was taking a nap.
As soon as we sat down, Della Mae told me she had started decreasing her medications. She had not told her doctor yet, but she had made up her mind. It was her right to refuse treatment. She explained that on her medication, she felt numb. Things were going on in her life and her daughter’s that merited some kind of reaction, but she could not feel a thing, not sadness, nor rage, not even joy at reuniting with her daughter.
Della Mae and I talked about the risks, but she knew all about it. This was not her first rodeo. We scheduled an appointment with her doctor and therapist to review her Safety and Crisis Plan to try to mitigate the risks. No, she didn’t want her daughter involved. We talked about that point of no return where nothing was going to stop the snowball effect in her life. Even though her history told a different story, she believed that if she remained sober, she could make it work. This was her life, and she was in charge.
As it turned out, her daughter had also been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. Della Mae’s rage and sadness were from not being able to protect her daughter from that. Kara had left her father’s house to stay with Della Mae, but that jeopardized the subsidy at the elder housing complex. Della Mae could not ask her daughter to leave, and that’s where the snowball started for both of them. The stress and conflict around the housing situation proved to be what tipped the scale. Eventually, Kara was also referred for supportive community services, and they both began to restore what they had lost.
There are plenty of people who are able to rebuild their lives without community supports, but I am telling the stories from my experience. I found that in the absence of a robust natural support system these dedicated professionals have helped countless individuals fight stigma and get back to a life worth living.
Please check out the links below for additional information for family supports as well. Many times family and friends want to help but don’t know how. There is also information about Peer support groups and peer mentoring programs. No one has to do this alone.
SAMSHA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration) at https://www.samhsa.gov/
NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness (a grassroots organization run by families and consumers) https://www.nami.org/About-NAMI