By: Dina Schultz
It was a cold day in December, right before Christmas, when I carefully poked my long-haired, red-headed self out the front door of our farm house to observe my dad laying down on the gravel road. He had his arms wrapped behind his neck looking up into the blustery sky talking gibberish and clearly not making sense. A sense of fear and shakiness came over me. Over the years, my dad seemed to be very moody, but being nine years old, I had no idea what this incident was about but I knew something was wrong. My dad, a good man, had lost himself. My mom seemed to be in denial when I questioned his behavior.
The day was a blur as my dad drove our family to town and left my four siblings and mom at the grocery store, and said that I would go with him to church. However, he left me there and said please pray for me. He walked to the Mississippi River bridge to try to jump to escape the world. The police managed to stop him from suicide but he spent six months in a mental hospital before he returned to our family - not totally healed but more stable.
During the 70s, mental illness was not discussed openly nor did my parents explain to their children that my dad had a mental illness, would need medication, therapy and professional help the rest of his life. The only hint of his mental health issues were the pills he took each day that seemed to calm him. And, many days, my dad lived in his own world. Fear hit me every day so I tiptoed around him just waiting for the next episode. My mom never talked to us about his health issue. However, it was years later before my dad passed away at age 63 due to brain cancer, when I had a moment to privately look at his meds - lithium and stelazine. After looking up the use of these meds, I suspect he had some form of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder leading to psychosis.
After dad passed away, I felt a relief that I would not be dealing with mental illness again – that agonizing daily fear went away. However, years later, I received a call from my precious 26 year old daughter indicating something was wrong. She had not been quite herself for several months after a break-up with her boyfriend. I had noticed since she was age 14 that her emotions and moods would go up and down. Sometimes she seemed to be in her own world and would isolate herself away from us, her parents. And, when my dad passed away, she did go through some depression but I thought that was very normal.
However, on that December day, during what would be one of the most important phone calls of my life, our daughter needed our help. I asked a very simple, yet significant question. “What do you need from me right now?” With a shaky, tearful voice, she said, “Mom, I need you and daddy to come to Madison right now. I am afraid I am going to hurt myself and feel suicidal. I am afraid” She was with a friend who stayed with her until we could get there. I assured her, “You are not alone. We are here for you.”
When we saw our daughter’s wrists with cuts to self-harm, a significant loss of weight, her eyes full of depression and loneliness and with the anxiety-state that she exhibited, it was clear she needed immediate help. We rushed her to the emergency room where she was admitted to the mental health center for diagnosis and care. The worst day of my life was saying good-bye and leaving my girl to be taken care of by others and having the door shut and locked in my face. All the fear and anxiety that pervaded itself as a child came through me in that one moment. I cried .. my husband cried … but we knew she would get the help she needed.
Being in the hospital for a week, she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder 2. The medicine regime began. It took months to get her back in order and to see the girl we knew so well. She came back to us stronger and better with the care she received. We realized later the phone call was a gift to us and our girl.
The reason I share this personal story above is to let everyone know that help is there in the recovery process. We were not alone. My daughter learned about NAMI-Dane County’s support groups that encouraged her in her recovery process. This not-for-profit provided the essential education, support and advocacy that our family needed. We were affected by mental illness all of our lives and for the first time, the stigma behind mental illness was lessened and actually eliminated for our family. We learned so much about mental health care and read lots of information about our daughter’s diagnosis. We learned to talk openly about this disease and to be our daughter’s advocate. She took a lead role in the peer to peer counseling program for NAMI-Dane County. This role was crucial in her recovery as she began to accept her disease and helped others affected by mental illness.
We appreciate NAMI-Dane County so much! We participate in the NAMI-Dane County Walk to raise funds and personally provide as much monetary and volunteer support as we can to help the cause. Every day, we are so proud of our daughter. If you are affected by mental illness, remember that “You are not alone.” And please continue to support NAMI-Dane County by donating or volunteering your time.