Mental health is always on my mind. Maybe it’s because the protagonist in my ready-to-be-published book is frightened out of her skin by watching her mother slowly unravel not once, but twice.
Laura, my fourteen-year-old main character, can’t get a straight answer about her mother’s condition from anyone close to her in this typical lower-middle class family during the early sixties. The doctor calls it a nervous breakdown, and that’s as far as the explanations go. It’s up to Laura to deal with it on her own, so she retreats inside a shell for the most part.
I forgot to mention that Laura is a standout artist who can’t imagine life without a sketch pad or paint canvas. Shy, blushing, high-strung Laura has inherited her mother’s artistic gift. In fact, it’s her only claim to fame at Crawford High, and they are counting on Laura to bring in the state art award this year. But after her mother falls apart during a frenzied painting spree, Laura literally shoves everything to do with art under her bed. Pursuing it is too much like playing Russian roulette.
With her mother in an institution and her only passion buried, what’s left? You’ll have to read the book, (or offer to represent it or publish it, heh, heh) for now. But I can tell you this. Laura, like many members of dysfunctional families, has to define reality based on the circumstances of her immediate environment. And she has to make choices upon which her survival depends.
Choices play heavily in families dealing with bipolar disease. The term “nervous breakdown” is often used, by the way, to loosely describe a diagnosis of bipolar disease.
It seems at least once or twice a week an article appears in the news that features the devastating aftermath of a bipolar rampage. Different scenarios play out. Sometimes the mentally ill member chooses not to take the prescribed medication. Sometimes one or all of the family members choose to ignore that the condition even exists. Sometimes the choice is made by the health care professionals who choose to release a distraught and dangerous patient before effective treatment can be accomplished.
Last month the Charlotte Observer reported the case of Kenny Chapman. He twice sought help at an outpatient clinic, and was twice released when he said he wanted to harm and kill his wife. He convinced them he wouldn’t act on his threats. The technicians chose to believe him, and sent him home with medication. Just hours after he left the hospital he killed his wife and two kids. He spared two remaining children, his own by birth, but threatened them with their lives if they let on at school. They chose to keep quiet for two weeks until somebody caught on. They survived.
Today the paper chronicles the hospital and court history of Austen Minter, a documented patient with bipolar disease, who killed his pregnant wife and two kids and himself. One seven year old survived to tell the story that “daddy did it.”
I choose to write about this horrid form of mental illness because I am an adult child of a mentally ill person, and I would do anything in my power to help someone else along on their journey.