A Daughter With Bipolar Disorder is Frustrated With Her Father With Bipolar Disorder

I  receive dozens of emails a week from family members who are frustrated by our failed mental health system. All of them are poignant. Here is a recent one that I found especially compelling.

Hi Pete Earley,

…I came across your book while looking for a source of comfort during my own family’s time of need. Two months ago, my dad was finally forced into treatment for his undiagnosed severe bipolar disorder and coexisting extreme alcoholism. My mother and I (I am an only child) have been trying unsuccessfully for years to get him help.

In order for him to finally be involuntary subjected to treatment, he had to have a major traumatic psychotic episode. He had a previous psychotic episode earlier this year that landed him in a mental health facility for one week. But the latest one proved even more traumatic to all of us.

My father was in Las Vegas and within hours after landing his deluded mind told him he had won 146 million dollars at a casino. It took two phone calls to 911 to get help. The first time the police refused to intervene and suggested my father drink juice to get better. The second call came after he was spotted walking around naked and couldn’t remember what had happened last week. The police finally succumbed to our pleas.

It took 9 men and 2 women to sedate him. After one week, my mother was going broke due to the cab fare to visit him in the hospital and the 500 dollar charge that he had racked up at the minibar prior to his hospitalization. The hospital released him under the condition that he would get treatment upon returning home to the East Coast. When he got here, he went to a mandatory appointment with his primary care doctor who shrugged the whole thing off and told him he just needed to attend AA.

My mother and I were livid. What did it take for the “experts” to listen to us?

What it took was him going completely psychotic.

On a Thursday morning, my father was acting more manic than usual. My mother took him to a 24 hour mental health crisis center but they turned her away – stating that she was kidnapping him. She needed to get a judge to approve it if she wanted him admitted, as if she could do that in time to save him from going completely insane! Less than 3 hours later, my mother was forced to escape from her own house.

After my mother fled, my father accidentally locked himself out of the house and broke a window to get back inside. He cut his foot on the broken glass on the floor and then ran all over the house with a foot that was bleeding profusely… He covered my parents’ entire house with blood. .. He turned on the shower and couldn’t figure out how to turn it off so he thought the house was trying to drown him. He ripped up 2 toilets, broke a window, broke a mirror, short circuited half the electricity to the house, broke a pipe, flipped his bed (to preserve his life) and cut off all running water.

My mother called the police’s nonemergency hotline and asked them to check on him. When they got there the house was destroyed and he was taken to the hospital via ambulance. He was in the Alzheimer’s unit for a couple of days before they realized his problem was psychological instead of memory related. 

I wasn’t allowed any information on my father’s hospitalization until he had been there for weeks because he was too mentally unstable to figure out how to sign his name to release his information to me and by law they weren’t allowed to even confirm that he was in the hospital. They could not acknowledge it even though he was calling me 6 times a day from the psych ward, saying that he was being released (which was terrifying and untrue, but I couldn’t verify it).

Very frustrating! 

I took a video on my phone of the house for evidence if we needed to force him into treatment and the next day called a crime scene clean up company that cleans up scenes for our state police. Its cleaners said they had cleaned up triple homicides and had never seen so much blood. The area supervisor had tears in his eyes when he saw the house and said, “This isn’t just alcoholism, this is bipolar. I know because my brother has it and I have had to pick up from the streets of Boston where he likes to wander around in nothing but his underwear.”

My father served 32 days in a locked psych ward and is now in an Intensive Outpatient Program where he must go for 4 hours a day. He’s on 9 different prescription drugs including antipsychotics, antiseizure meds, and alcohol addiction meds.
 
One of the scariest parts of all of this is that I have bipolar disorder too — except I was diagnosed at 15 years old instead of when I was in my fifties because I wanted to get better. If you have bipolar disorder there is a 1 in 7 chance that your child will get it. As the only child, I sure got lucky! (sarcasm). Your book comforted me because it showed me that my mother and I were not alone in our frustrations. My only criticism is that you never mentioned what it is like to have a parent with mental illness (it’s incredibly frustrating because they are the parent and yet you are taking care of them at 24 years old when they should still be there for you not vice versa).
 
Sadly, my father is like a 7 year old with Alzheimer’s because his psychotic episode structurally changed his brain permanently along with 17 years of self-medicating with alcoholism.
 
I also wonder if you ever interviewed someone who has their own mental illness AND has had to deal with a loved one with mental illness that refuses to get help. My dad’s social worker tried to lecture me while he was at the hospital saying – ‘ it’s not his fault that his brain acts this way’ – when I called him in a rage because the hospital wanted to release him prematurely. I responded to the social worker that I have bipolar disorder too and I don’t act like an idiot like him! When he was sane, but showed the early warning signs, he refused to get help. I blame him 100% for this because he could have prevented this tragedy, but he didn’t want to see a doctor — even though he received therapy for years prior to this mental breakdown (once through mandatory sessions because he had a DUI).

Not one of the psychologists, therapists, doctors, or counselors ever diagnosed him with bipolar disorder even though all the evidence was there. I knew what it was because he had given me this illness.

Like you, I refuse to sit around and despair about our challenges. A few weeks ago I did a presentation on ‘Mental Illness and Substance Abuse’ for my graduate course. My fellow classmates said I was very brave for admitting I have bipolar because it is so stigmatized, but I wanted to show that not all people with the disorder are violent monsters or whacked out homeless beggars. I am a 3rd grade teacher getting a Master’s in Moderate Special Needs and from the time I was 15 years old to the present I went 9 years without any medication. After my dad’s hospitalization, the stress that his destruction put on my family caused me to ask my doctor for bipolar meds because the stress of my father’s mental illness was triggering mania in myself. I don’t suggest that people with this disorder go without taking medication, I only did so because I have type II and can always detect the symptoms and solve them before things get out of control.

At 24 years old, I know my battle is not over, but I consider myself a success story and my major goal in life is to never let my illness control me. I hope that gives you faith that mental illness doesn’t have to be a death sentence for all its victims.
Love,
Courtney

Thank you Courtney for sharing your personal story. I am especially happy that you wrote : “My major goal in life is to never let my illness control me.” You should never be defined by an illness and you should never let anyone define you that way either.
 
Have hope, be well, and continue to help others by advocating for a better system and better laws.
About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.

  • P8nlady

    Courtney, I sAm a friend of the Earley family. I also had had close friends who wher Bi-Polar. I admire your resolve to keep your health and grieve your father’s ordeal.

    The one thing I say to you is realize the paranoia and mania can sneak up on you, sometimes before you realize it.

    Your story brings tears to me because I know how devastating this illness is. I know that Pete’s son comes from perfectly sane parents, having known and do know them personally for many years.

    • Anonymous Daughter

      It’s true that it can sneak up on some people (especially people in their late teens and early twenties), but it did not sneak up on my father. In contrast, it was a very slow progression in which he was told to get help, but he made up a bunch of excuses like he didn’t want to have drive 4 miles to see a doctor. It’s really sad that he had to hit rock bottom before he would finally institute the dramatic changes he needed to make in order to save his life. His psychologist said if he stops taking his medications now he could very well die. He waited too long to get treatment and the law made it so we got front row seats to his downward spiral yet we were unable to intervene.

  • Terri Wasilenko

    Courtney, you are a strong, determined young woman and a role model for individuals with bipolar disorder. My 29 year old son speaks on behalf of NAMI NYS as an In Our Own Voice trainer/presenter. I am proud of him as he stands up to his mental illness on a daily basis. I am also proud of you for your passion to advocate for all individuals living with a mental illness. Education is
    essential in eliminating stigma, so in your third grade classroom encourage empathy and tolerance as you work with our future generation. NAMI has a Breaking the Silence curriculum that can be used in 5th grade. Part of the lesson teaches students that mental illness is an organic brain disease.
    Take care.
    Terri Wasilenko
    NAMI Cayuga

  • TanjaW

    Courtney, I am so glad you are doing well. Hopefully, that will be an inspiration to your father, as he gets better. I’m not surprised he has an addiction, too. I know it is quite common for people with mental illnesses to self-medicate. One thing I would say, though, is, unless your psychiatrist tells you otherwise, I think it would be wise to keep taking your medications. I also have bi-polar II, and I have found it better to stay on my meds even if I am not having an episode. But of course, follow the advice of the medical experts!

    Good luck to all of you!