Sheila Hamilton: Learning From Mental Illness and How You Can’t Erase the Past
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Our daughter celebrates her birthday each June. I can’t help but measure her birthdays with an equal sense of apprehension and elation. She’s a teenager now, and still no sign of the brooding, the polarity, the darkness that descended on David like Portland’s thick grey clouds in January, refusing to budge. Yes, she has his intellect but she also has my relatively sunny nature. She is physically stunning with long, muscular legs and a waist that defies her voracious appetite. She has David’s European cheekbones. The color of her skin is his. Her ears have the same shape. There are times I find myself staring at one of her features for too long. She bats me away, “Mom, enough.”
But David’s genetics also carry a downside. “There’s a fifty percent chance your daughter will present with the same disorder,” a well-meaning psychologist once advised. “It is most common between the ages of 16 and 21.” He exaggerated the percentage by a lot, but I understood his point. Family history is the greatest predictor of bipolar disorder.
After David’s death, I’d read every book I could get my hands on about bipolar disorder. I’d measured the likelihood of a gene mutation against the things I could influence– her diet, her sleep, exercise, a sense of well-being and unconditional love. She is just fine, so far. Becoming aware of our family’s genetic vulnerabilities was painful, but it provided a unique gateway to also focus on our genetic strengths, and Sophie has inherited a majority of the good stuff. She leaves for Stanford this fall with the sensitivity, compassion and intellect of a person who will be better than “just fine.”
We’ve also chosen not to keep our history secret. David’s parents may have known about his struggle with mental illness, but they never let on. It was only after David’s second suicide attempt that I learned his father also suffered from a similar disorder—at the age of 43, his father had hung up his Harvard MBA and abandoned a successful business career, because like Michael, he just couldn’t work for someone else.
Mental illness, unlike breast cancer, isn’t celebrated with big marches or pink ribbons. The stigma is stifling and it prevents most people from seeking help. David refused to accept the label of bipolar disorder. He could not imagine a life of medications and therapy, which did so little to help. David’s path is not unique. Suicide is now the ninth most common cause of death for men and women in America. Every thirteen minutes, another American dies from suicide. What could we have done differently? What should we have known?
It is my belief that many people could benefit from hearing more about how psychiatric conditions unfold. In the years, months and days leading up to David’s death, I didn’t classify him as mentally ill. I missed many signs. I ignored others, believing it could get better. And I scrambled, as the world came crashing down around us, I scrambled to maintain my own sanity and the health of our daughter.
In the weeks and months ahead, I’ll be using my blog to share what I’ve learned. I’ll be interviewing the world’s best researchers and scientists who are working to find a cure for mental illness. I’ll be sharing dispatches from mental health conferences and from my work at the Flawless Foundation, a mental health advocacy group. I’ll also be sharing my journey as I publish my first book, “All the Things We Never Knew.”
My interest is in preventing another loss of life as exquisite as David’s. I welcome your emails, your stories, and hopefully, your support. If you so desire, you can pre-order “All the Things We Never Knew” on Amazon.com and sign up for my newsletter at sheilahamilton.com. I’d be so grateful if you did both.
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