Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Taming Wild Horses

Hello friends, I’m happy to share with you the success we’ve seen since taking our oldest son off Lithium. After almost 7 years of taking Lithium, he is now only taking Wellbutrin, melatonin, a multivitamin and fish oil. We were all very nervous about this transition, even held our breath a little, but to our joy he came off it without any side effects or withdrawal symptoms. But beyond that, he continues to thrive in ways we could once only imagine.

Thanks to the help of ABA therapy, our son is now riding the public bus to attend a college class for a career in network security. He is still only a junior in high school, but thanks to his homeschool program, we were able to enroll him in his first college class at a local junior college. He is earning both high school and college credit for it. Plus he is able to further develop his passion for computer programming and make steps towards a future career.

Even though he is 17 years old, he isn’t ready to drive yet, so we introduced the public bus system to him so he can travel a 1 hour trip to his college campus on his own. I’m not sure if this made him or myself more nervous. But we were both ready for him to take this next step in independence. On his first day of school, my son texted me before class telling me that he felt like he was going to pass out because his anxiety was so high, it was his first public classroom in over 1 1/2 years, but I was overjoyed to hear after the class that he thought it was “AMAZING!”

Beyond that, he’s preparing for his first job interview, another bonus of having ABA therapy. In addition, he continues to work on his social skills that are challenged by his autism and slowly he is seeing small improvements that feel spectacular. Just the other day he said that he was able to ask a store clerk if they had a particular piece of merchandise, in the past, he wouldn’t have been able to talk to anyone in public and would’ve wasted time while trying to find it on his own. Other positive changes are his willingness to try new foods. Just last night he ate his first salad EVER! We all celebrated that!

Unlike his younger years, we are not seeing the anger and violence that his rages once produced. Instead, he may get irritated in the moment, but he can more easily use a coping skill, such as leave for a walk. We notice more than ever the challenges of autism in this area, his rigid thinking and struggles with perspective taking make it hard for him during conflicts, but he is able to have restraint in these moments and we are hopeful that his ABA therapy will continue to help.

It’s a beautiful thing seeing him blossom, there was a time where we weren’t sure what his future would look like, it was worrisome for sure, but as he has gotten older, he has grown into a very responsible young man, in fact he doesn’t even let his brothers break any rules, he is very conscientious and really wants to please others. He is also so very kind, and has a gentle spirit about him.

Just yesterday a song came on the radio, Wild Horses by the Rolling Stones, it brought me back to a dark time, many years ago when this song came on after one of my son’s violent rages.
wild horses, couldn’t drag me away
wild, wild horses, couldn't drag me away...
Years ago, as I heard those lyrics, I cried my eyes out, feeling determined at the time that no matter how “wild” my son was, no matter how much his body raged, I was never going to leave his side. It was a moment of clarity in my mind and heart that my love was bigger than this challenge.

Yesterday, this same song brought me to tears once again, but this time I was filled with joy, a feeling of triumph, that we have overcome the worst and that all of our hard work and perseverance was worth it.

We won the battle and love still remains.

Though we still have work in front of us, I share this today to encourage those of you who are still in the dark trenches, who email me looking for a ray of hope. I want you to know that no matter how bleak the future seems, hold on to hope. It can get better. It does.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Reducing Lithium & Questioning Bipolar Disorder Diagnosis

It’s been almost a year since my last post, but for those following our story, or just tuning in for the first time, I believe it’s important to share the whole journey, especially with the use of medication over the years. Today I wanted to share with you a big change regarding our oldest son’s use of Lithium and our questions regarding his previous bipolar disorder diagnosis.

Our oldest son started taking Lithium 6 years ago and from the first month of taking it we saw incredible results. Our son shared that he felt happiness for the first time, his rages almost completely stopped and he has remained stable for the past 6 years. We only recently had one violent rage over a year ago, after which we discovered he outgrew his dose causing the Lithium to fall below therapeutic range. After increasing the dose, he immediately became stable and has been free of rages since then.

Today we face a difficult decision about his continued use of Lithium.

Our son was born with a kidney defect that caused damage to his kidneys when he was 6 months old. Throughout his life we have monitored his kidney health, making sure that the kidneys keep up with his growing body. Now at 16 years old, he stands 6 feet tall and his kidneys have started to show signs of distress. For the first time, his protein levels in his blood are gradually increasing. This is the expected result of kidneys not being able to do their job. Due to his birth defect, he now has one kidney half the size as the other, it’s only working at 10% and the other kidney at 60%. It’s reasonable to assume that the increase in protein is the result of his damaged kidneys trying to keep up with his growing body.

But there is another possibility.

Lithium is known to cause kidney damage in some individuals. Is it possible that the increase in protein is due to the Lithium? Possibly, but we just don’t know. At this point, his team of doctors have researched this from every angle and they have determined that there is no way to know for certain if it is the Lithium or his birth defect responsible for the increase in protein. But what we do know is that we can’t keep doing what we are doing.

Our psychiatrist has encouraged us to remove our son from Lithium because he is fearful that he might end up on dialysis, but the nephrologist wants to keep our son on Lithium so he stays mentally stable and instead add another medication to help protect the kidneys. As she said, “I can fix kidneys, but I can’t fix a kid who takes his own life”.

If you recall, my best friend died from suicide after removing herself from Lithium. I am hyperaware of what is at stake.

It’s challenging having both teams of doctors not agreeing about what to do, leaving the final decision to my husband and I. Even if Lithium isn’t a problem today, I know that with the condition of my son’s kidneys, it may be a problem in his future. So we have decided to slowly remove the Lithium and see what happens.

This is scary for us.

My heart still races when I remember my son’s last violent episode, I remember being terrified to my core as I looked into the eyes of a person that did not resemble my son.

It’s hard not to feel vulnerable about quitting Lithium since our son responded so positively to the increase that followed this episode.

On the flip side, I am trying to take into account that last year our son was diagnosed with Autism (Aspergers). So it does bring into question his original bipolar disorder diagnosis. Is it possible that what he has is autism, depression and anxiety? If so, can he go without Lithium now that he is older and more in control of himself?

In response, our psychiatrist agrees it’s worth considering in light of his new diagnosis, yet, he also expressed the following:
“Both Autism Spectrum Disorder and bipolar disorder are common so it is not unexpected that by chance someone could have both conditions. Neither Autism Spectrum Disorder or bipolar disorder is just one thing (like strep throat or appendicitis, where there is a single and necessary cause), but rather syndromes of clusters of symptoms that are seen together, and which can have many possible causes. There is much uncertainty about true bipolar disorder type 1 in children, but in teenagers we expect to see symptoms and cycles similar to adults. Who knows what his adolescence would have been like if he had not been on lithium carbonate. I have been reluctant to stop the lithium carbonate in the past because you and he see him doing so much better, and when he started to slip with behavior, he improved with a dosage adjustment. While a response to a medication does not prove or disprove a diagnosis, a dramatic stabilization with lithium carbonate and reduction in rages and mood swings and emotional reactivity makes the possibility of bipolar disorder sound likely. Only time will tell.” 
Ugggg... it’s the “time will tell” that’s hard to live with.

But our psychiatrist stands by his opinion to remove Lithium:
Even if I were certain he had bipolar disorder, I would not want to have him on lithium carbonate if his renal function were deteriorating.
As we consider the possibility that our son may not have bipolar disorder, we question why my son had quick mood changes and visual hallucinations where he saw shadow people and monsters in our home. Is it possible that the first mood stabilizer he took, Trileptal, caused this? (He quit Trileptal successfully a few months back). Or as a respected pediatric specialist has suggested to me:
“As for mood cycling and shadows these are all reported by patients with bipolar disorder, but also may just represent a general neurodevelopment issue, which your son probably has since he has been diagnosed with autism as well. It is my belief that lithium for some kids at the right time in brain development can really support healthy development… but then at some point would hopefully be tapered off.”
Throughout the years I have read wonderful things about Lithium and how it can actually heal the brain, it is my hope, as the doctor suggested above, that our son’s Lithium use, given at the right time in development may have changed the course of his brain, helped heal it, thus allowing us to taper it off.

I am praying that this is the right time.

We are in our first week of reducing Lithium. So far, so good. Thankfully our son recently has taken up a serious interest in exercising. He says it helps his depression. Last night he ran 5 miles on the treadmill, he said he ran until it made his depression feel better. Hopefully it will be enough to keep the depression under control. In addition, he will continue to take Wellbutrin, we hope that this medication alone will manage his anxiety and depression.

In the meantime, we wait and watch carefully.

I am hoping that some of you can share your experience if you have been able to successfully remove your child from stabilizing medications once they got older. Or if you have learned valuable lessons when it didn’t go well. Also, please share if your child was diagnosed with bipolar disorder to later have that diagnosis removed. I could use the encouragement and wisdom!

* * *

(As always, this post was written with the permission of my son.)

This Weekend!
13th Annual Stanford University Mood Disorders Education Day
Saturday August 19th 2017
8:00 a.m–2:50 p.m.

Sign Up Here!

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Fight Never Ends

Today is the first break I’ve had in months from my work. I should be tackling the pile of things that need to be done, but as I sit here, I feel the need to write.

I have been homeschooling my oldest for just over two months. I think we are finally finding our groove. Not only is he less stressed and seems more relaxed overall, he is much more successful on the easier GE track. On top of that, he has impressed me with his dedication to getting his work done. In fact, I find he often likes to work ahead! The downside however is that the isolation isn’t helping his loneliness. But we have to focus on one step at a time.

Right now our biggest battle is getting services for my oldest son who was diagnosed with Autism in July. We are trying to get an IEP with our charter school, which means my poor son has to endure hours of more testing. In addition, we are trying to get services through a regional center that provides support and services to kids with autism. I foolishly thought that this was going to be a slam dunk, turn in the diagnosis from our hospital and go through a few intake meetings. But to my surprise, the fact that my son also has a mood disorder complicates things.

As the agency explained, having my son’s middle school deny an IEP a few years back, contradicts the hospital’s autism diagnosis and the parent’s report. He thinks that maybe his struggle is just depression this past year that led to social challenges. So now he wants me to provide proof from outside sources (not myself or husband) to help prove that my son has struggled socially through school starting in Elementary school.

I am dumbfounded as to why the years of having a 504 plan aren’t enough. I also tried to explain that our district is known for denying IEPs and that their reports don’t fairly represent our child’s actual performance and behavior in the classroom. (As evident in our youngest son who was denied an IEP originally and was reported to be doing great socially, only to later receive an IEP with proof that he rarely interacted with other students and had significant social struggles.)

I also can’t believe that a district that has an interest in denying IEP support, because they don’t have the resources to provide it, should hold more weight than a diagnosis from an Autism clinic through our hospital that specializes in assessing kids for autism.

Of course, it all comes down to money, if we can deny you services, we can save money.

This week in my attempt to contact parents I haven’t spoken to in years in order to get a non-biased account of my oldest son’s social challenges. I heard from one parent that went into a rant as she shared with me how not only did she see my oldest son struggle at recess during his elementary years, but just last year she witnessed my youngest son walking endless circles around a tree instead of attending his science class. She said that she saw this every week the entire school year.

I had no idea my youngest son was missing so much class time, yet when I requested an aid to help him with the challenges I was aware of, the school denied it saying that he wasn’t severe enough to warrant it. Yet, my son wasn’t even in the classroom! How much more of a problem do we need, he wasn’t learning and it was their job to teach him.

It makes me not only furious to hear about this, but I am sad too. To know my son walked around that tree endlessly, being ignored by the school because at least he wasn’t having an outburst makes me sick.

Then, I hear back from my oldest son’s middle school teacher that she has a clear memory of his social challenges and awkward social behavior. It was clear to her that he wanted to have friends, but didn’t know how to make them. Yet, she can’t provide a letter to the regional center to back this up because the district won’t let her.

And as for the high school, they won’t even return my calls. They had first hand knowledge of him being alone everyday on campus for months. This would really help establish with the agency that our son has severe problems in this area.

In fact, recently when my son was considering getting his first job after he turns 16 this year, he saw that the application job requirements listed “Use telephone”. This was enough to stop my son in his tracks, he said, “I’ll never be able to get a job, I can’t make phone calls.” (This is due to social communication issues.) I also don’t know how he’ll be able to successfully interview without support and training through ABA.

It’s ridiculous that the solution to these challenges are within reach, but we have to fight for them!

Yesterday I was given a message of hope. The school psychologist of our new charter school told me that our son will qualify for an IEP this year, which they will make official at our IEP meeting next week. It wasn’t just his Bipolar and Autism diagnosis, but they found he has an actual learning disability. Before she ended the call she said, “I can’t believe your son didn’t have an IEP before!”

I couldn’t be more disappointed in our school district, and I feel the same about the regional center that should be providing support to parents without a battle.

It feels like every step of this journey has been one fight after another. It never ends...

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Upcoming 12th Annual Mood Disorders Education Day

Stanford University Medical Center will host the 12th Annual Mood Disorders Education Day for patients and their families, caregivers, friends, and all community members interested in mood disorders.

The Education Day program will include discussions of recent treatment advances, the neuroscience of mood disorders in adults, adolescents, and children, and the influences of genetics and environment on mood disorders. Education Day also includes opportunities for Q&A and panel discussions.

The program runs from 8:45am to 2:30pm, with registration starting at 8:00am. The event includes a light breakfast and lunch. Pre-registration is free but is required to attend the event.

I’ve gone to this event multiple times and highly recommend it to families who want to learn more about the latest research and have the opportunity to speak one-one-one with those who are at the forefront of this research. I also find the Q&A sessions to be invaluable.

Hurry and register now if you are interested in participating!

Click here to register and get more info:

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Sliding into Summer Break with Big Changes

Phew! We made it to summer break! Honestly, I didn’t know if we would make it all in one piece. There’s been a ton of changes over the last few months and a lot of stress to say the least. It feels like we’re sliding into summer a little bruised and weary, but we made it!

Just to get you up to speed, we moved. This was a long dreaded decision, but after our job loss and thankfully new employment, my husband and I both agreed that we can no longer afford our home. I wish I can say that I handled this change with grace, but it was really tough on me. I cried a lot when the kids were asleep, mourning the loss of a home where I raised my babies.

During that time, my oldest son went into some serious depression after his long-term girlfriend broke up and his circle of friends told him that he could no longer hang out with them after the break up. That, along with moving, caused him a lot of stress, he shared that it felt like his world ended.

Before we knew it, he was failing a lot of his classes, he simply stopped taking notes and doing homework. Of course he failed most of his tests. He spent the last 2 1/2 months of school alone everyday. At lunch he would sit by himself and he started to lose all interest in life. His love of programming no longer filled the void left behind after the break up and he wanted to drop out of school all together. Some days he wanted to end his life.

Leading up to these months we made a big med change that we may soon reverse. We stopped his Tenex medication thinking he had been so stable for so long and may not need it with his maturity. At first we saw a positive shift, he seemed happier and more engaged. Even he commented on how much easier it was to step out of his comfort zone socially. However, I saw another change that was unsettling. He would crack up laughing for no reason. Like “throw your head back” kind of laugh that you can’t stop. I would ask him what was so funny, but he would responded confused, “I have no idea.”

Then we had an unexpected rage. It was scary and terribly unsettling. I have never been so scared in my life. There was a moment during the rage where I wasn’t sure if my son was even present in his mind. It felt like a stranger was holding me hostage. Even for my son, who thought the rages were a thing from the past, was very disappointed that it happened again. A rage in a teenager takes on a whole new meaning, it was a game changer to say the least.

Our first response was to test his Lithium levels and get him back into therapy. We were happy to see that the levels had dropped below therapeutic range, “happy” is a strange word in this instance, but still appropriate since it meant that we had a positive step to take (increasing the lithium) and an explanation for the rage. 

Then in an interesting twist, that many of you might not be surprised if you have followed my oldest son’s story through the years, is that his new therapist thought he might also have Aspergers (like his younger brother). It makes sense when you take into account his severe need to have routine and his anxiety that occurs over the slightest change, his sensory issues, his black and white thinking, his preferred all encompassing interest in computer programming and his social challenges. He admits that he doesn’t know how to make friends and doesn’t have the social skills to pursue it, which explains why he has spent the last 2 1/2 months alone at school, even though it was hurting him. (and breaking my heart as well.)

So next month he goes under evaluation for Autism Spectrum Disorder. A part of me believes that he doesn’t have enough features to qualify for a diagnosis, yet another part of me is praying that he gets it. After seeing the support and therapies offered to my youngest after his Autism diagnosis, I am convinced that it would definitely help my oldest.

As school came to an end, we tried to get an IEP, and once again, they denied it. With only a few weeks left of school and a lot of work to make up from his period of depression, their solution was weekly check-ins. As you can imagine, this was a joke. Now that my son was off Tenex, we discovered that he couldn’t organize his workload let alone his thoughts. He lost all ability to focus in class, take notes and study. Since the school offered limited help, I jumped in full board, working with him daily to help him get caught up while preparing for all of his finals. It was an ugly, painful process and made harder by the fact that my son now lost all interest in life. He could care less about school, graduating, getting the programming job he once desired, even respecting his parents. He just wanted to drop out and end it all.

How do you make someone care about their own life?

School came to an end and now we anxiously wait to see if he passed his freshman year. I feel encouraged that he may have. But now we face a big decision. Do we enroll him back into our local high school next year, or do we try something completely different? We are thinking about pulling him out to home school through a certified organization. I swore I would never home school him since he’s so resistant to me hovering over his homework, but what we’re doing now is not working. 

Our current high school is lacking the supports that he needs and the assignments are hard to get access to and track, so he can easily fall behind again. My hope is that by homeschooling he can sleep in longer, allowing his brain to be more alert for learning and give him some control and ownership over his education. We also hope by going with this organization, he will have support through one teacher that can support his needs and help organize his workflow (along with my daily check-ins), helping to reduce all the variables that his current school has. We also hope that by removing the social challenges, he can study with less stress and have a better chance of getting his high school diploma. 

As for his social development, we’ll have to look outside of school for that. As of now, being in high school isn’t helping him grow socially, since being alone in a crowd tends to make you feel more lonely.

I obviously don’t have it all figured out yet, but maybe you can help. I would greatly appreciate feedback from any parents or teens themselves who have stepped away from the traditional high school to study at home. Please share your stories!

In the meantime, I’m happy to share that summer is starting off pretty nicely. Our new house is feeling like home much faster than I ever imagined and the boys are enjoying a break from school. I wish you all a great summer, I know that for many of us, this is a stressful time as many kids struggle with the changes and being around their siblings all day can be treacherous. Remember to take it one day at a time—and never forget... you’re not alone.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

No Letting Go—A Movie to Watch!

Today I’m excited to share with you a must-see movie about childhood mental illness that my family and I had the opportunity to view together.

No Letting Go is a powerful film that gives voice to families all over the world who are silently suffering as they cope with childhood bipolar disorder. Based on a true story, this film takes you through the initial symptoms of anxiety in childhood, to the social withdrawal, the dark depression, the manic energy and even the rages that occur in the teen years. Through the symptoms and challenges, the family tries different approaches to help their son, demonstrating how difficult treatment is and how the decisions are even tougher.

One of my favorite things about this movie was the way the film demonstrated how the illness affects each family member in a unique way. As the child suffers, so does the rest of the family. There was a powerful scene where the son was going into a violent rage upstairs with his parents trying to calm him down and the scene stayed focused on the younger sibling who sat scared and alone downstairs. I couldn’t help but cry as I remembered all the times my own children experienced the exact scenario. My middle son shared how this scene spoke to him since he had experienced the same moment hundreds of times as his older brother raged. He shared how he remembered shrinking down, feeling scared and useless being too small to help.

Another scene that struck a little too close to home was the rage scene where the mother had to hold her son down—my husband even walked out of the room for a moment since it brought back a lot of bad memories. As difficult as it was to watch, I appreciated the movie going there, in fact I would argue that the scene was a little too sanitized, but regardless, I was glad the movie showed this violent, scary side of this illness since it can leave deep scars in everyone involved. I truly believe that in order to bring awareness, you have to share the illness in its entirety.

From the uncomfortable birthday parties and social engagements, to the school challenges and judgments from others, to the meds and difficult treatment options, this film did a great job of addressing so many aspects of this illness and how a family works to understand and cope.

If you are currently isolated and in need for support as you walk through your own journey of childhood mental illness, I strongly recommend you watching this film. You will experience first-hand that you are NOT alone and that there is hope in your child getting better.

Also, I highly recommend that you share this film with your family and friends. The only way to bring understanding and receive the support you need is to share with others what you are going through. I think this film does an excellent job of bringing awareness without adding to the stigma that already exists.

As a family, we found this movie to be a good launch pad for open conversation about our own experience and let us speak honestly about the past and the things we have overcome.

Watch it, share it and let me know what you think!

* * *

Watch the Film:
No Letting Go
A Jonathan Bucari film

Get The Facts About Childhood Mental Illness:

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Guilt that Follows Suicide

It’s been about 3 months since my best friend took her life. I’m still trying to accept that she’s no longer here.

Sometimes I imagine having one last conversation between us to talk about everything that has happened. I imagine asking her endless questions, pausing occasionally to look at one another, both acknowledging how absurd the whole thing is. I see us both shaking our heads in disbelief.

The morning after her death I went to her home. There was no one there at the time, so I sat in her driveway and started to talk to her through my tears. The first thing I told her was, “I’m sorry.”

Unfortunately our friendship had changed over the course of her illness. Her illness became all encompassing and my attempts to save her failed to make her better, but instead started to come at a cost to myself and my own family. Based on the advice of several therapists, I had to create healthy boundaries.

This was incredibly difficult to do and I knew that it would be devastating to her. But I also knew that if I didn’t, she was going to pull me down with her. As the therapist explained to me, “She has a hole in her heart that you will never be able to fill, no matter how much you pour in. She doesn’t want your help, she wants you to join her by sitting in her pain.”

I sat in her pain to the point that I was now drained empty.

I think a part of me believed that if I could save her, I could save my son from such a fate. I wasn’t going to abandon this responsibility. But in the end, I had to come to terms that people can’t be saved, they have to learn to save themselves.

In the days that followed her death I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. I felt responsible for her death. I believed that had I stayed by her side just a little longer, she would still be here today.

Soon after, I could feel the tug of depression weighing down on me. I would burst into tears at random times, sometimes sob out loud in the shower where no one would hear me. I would see her by my side at the gym, walking out of the room at my place of work. It wasn’t a ghost I was seeing, but her absence in every part of my life. She was always there and now she was gone. It was like my brain was trying to fill in what was now missing.

I spent hours reading through several years of texts. Our last text conversation remained incomplete. Scattered throughout my house I find gifts she has given me over the years, hand-me-downs fill my drawers. The sunscreen she gave me at her final good-bye still sits unused in my medicine cabinet.

I could barely breathe as I sat through her funeral. Seeing her once vibrant body now reduced to dust in an urn was too much to bear.

For the first time, I made an appointment to see a therapist. I knew I was in over my head.

* * *

Flash forward to this evening when out of nowhere I am flooded with old memories of my friend. I find this happens randomly by small things. Today it was a headache. I remember both of us trying to figure out the source of our headaches during this season. We both suffered them and would share our latest attempt to cure them. As my head throbbed, I couldn’t help but think if hers would too.

Some days I feel angry that she left her husband and kids to pick up so many broken pieces, other days I feel the nagging guilt. Thanks to my time with a therapist I understand that my “healthy boundaries” were not the cause of her death and that I’m not responsible, yet there’s a difference between cognitive understanding and heart understanding. My brain knows the truth, yet my heart forgets often.

Then there are days when I remember the good times. I remember trips we went on together and nights where we stayed up all night talking. I remember her adventurous nature where she would drag me to new restaurants to “try something new” and how we laughed all through our untouched dinner after being served the worst orange chicken ever.

And finally, there are days when I feel deep sadness. I’m so sad that her disease made her forget all the things that she loved in life. That she suffered so much and that I added to her suffering. I’m heartbroken that she is no longer here and that she will never know how much she was loved.

* * *

No matter what problems you are dealing with, we want to help you find a reason to keep living. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Suicide Warning Signs I Missed in My Best Friend’s Death.

(WARNING: The following post may be a trigger for those
who are sensitive to content about suicide.)

This post is a follow up to my previous post: My Best Friend Committed Suicide

* * *

After losing my friend to suicide, I found myself searching for answers. I spent hours thinking through moments together, reading old texts and recalling previous conversations. I can’t help but ask myself, “Were there early warning signs to my friend’s suicide?”

My friend’s illness was not a secret to those who were close to her. For years she was fighting her illness fiercely. Trying different meds, seeing different doctors. She was always searching for the magic combo that would take her illness away. But as many of you know, the illness itself lies to you, it tells you that the meds will never work and that the doctors are doing everything wrong. It makes it almost impossible to accept the diagnosis and thus the treatment.

Over this past year, I saw her quit her job and give her dogs away. She gave her reasons, but looking back it’s hard not to see that as a sign. She claimed that time away from her job would allow her more time in therapy and that giving the dogs away were a good step to simplifying her life and removing responsibilities that caused her too much stress.

These events happened months apart, so at the time they didn’t appear connected. Yet they both seemed impulsive.

As her illness progressed, I witnessed more and more erratic behavior and extreme mood swings. It was hard to tell what the driving force behind it was. Was it mania? Was it depression? Was it a by product of her past trauma?

For months I watched her waste away, losing a lot of weight. Friends started to call, asking me if she was suffering from anorexia. When I expressed my concern to her about this, she dismissed it, claiming that she had only lost five pounds. Trying to get past her denial only led to arguments and hurt feelings.

She continued to pull away from society, isolating herself, afraid that people could see her depression. She was always so good at hiding her mental illness, only revealing it to those she trusted, but as her disease progressed, it became harder to hide, which made her isolate even more.

There was a day about 7 months prior to her death that I visited her and I could feel the weight of her depression in my bones and noticed that her expressions were completely flat. It was a disturbing experience, and made me feel uncomfortable in my own skin.

I had a terrible feeling then that she might try to take her life.

That afternoon I went to her home and asked her to go on a walk with me. As we walked around her neighborhood, I told her how concerned I was because she appeared to be dying. I told her that whatever she was doing to treat her illness was not working. At the time, her once bright eyes were dark and her speech was slowed down. Her depression made her appear drugged-up and zombie-like as she slowly shuffled by my side. I tried to encourage her to go back to the hospital, but she was resistant after her recent admission. I asked her if she had thoughts of hurting herself and she admitted to it, but she reassured me that she had no plans of it. That night she agreed to go back to her doctor and request a medication change.

Soon after she was on a new medication and she started to look better, even telling me that she had her first good day in 5 months. She even started to put on a little much needed weight.

But the illness is so deceitful. As the light was returning to her eyes and her energy was returning, she couldn’t accept it. Instead of recognizing the improvements, she was worried about the possible side effects, especially the weight gain.

Overtime she convinced herself that the side effects were worse than the illness.

Weeks prior to her death, she shared with me that she had quit all her meds and was now taking a supplement that she had researched online.

At this point, I was no longer able to encourage her to stay on her medications. I already had a heart-to-heart talk with her about not being med compliant and not telling her doctors everything so that they could appropriately treat her; in addition to sharing my concerns about her unhealthy weight loss. It pained me to be so blunt with her, but I couldn’t stand by and watch her continue down this path of destruction. Unfortunately, this conversation only added insult to injury and damaged our friendship.

What followed next was a deep dive into depression over a two-week period of time. Eventually she could no longer feel anything and she lost the desire to do the things she once loved. She was deteriorating before our eyes.

During this time her family was monitoring her closely and working with her doctors to keep her safe. She was surrounded by a network of family, friends and church members who were present or continuously stopping by to offer her support and care.

From the outside, it may seem obvious that she would try to take her life, but after years of seeing her through her ups and downs with her illness, and the fact that she never attempted suicide in the past, I don’t think any of us really thought she would do it. We had seen her like this before and she always bounced back.

The best way to describe what I saw towards the end was comparable to watching a person with a terminal cancer or better yet, Alzheimers. As the depression progressed, she was slowly overtaken by the disease. Eventually, she was no longer recognizable.

The last time I saw her she brought me a small, travel size tube of sunscreen.

“I thought you could use this for your boys since I won’t need it.”

It seemed odd to be giving me sunscreen when it was raining outside, but in context, it wasn’t unusual for her to bring me gifts or pass things on to my boys that she no longer needed. She was always so generous. But looking back, I think it was her final good bye. She knew then what she was planning to do and she knew it would be the last time we saw each other.

As I said goodbye to her that day, I didn’t realize then that it would be the final goodbye. But the memory of her facial expression said it all.

A few days later, she was gone.

* * *

Below is a list of the suicide warning signs I can now recognize after her death. Having previously seen these warning signs below through online resources, I thought I would be able to recognize them in the moment, but I have learned that it is much more complicated and subtle. These signs can appear over a long stretch of time. Some of these signs can also be witnessed in those who are suffering depression and have no plans of hurting themselves, so it can easily be dismissed. I know my friend saw a psychiatrist the day before her suicide and he didn’t pick up on this possibility either.

I have to add that in some cases, there are no cries for help. My friend didn’t mention her plans of suicide or thoughts of death to anyone that I am aware of and she was surrounded by a lot of people who were invested in her care. She kept this plan a secret and lied in order to make sure her plan would be completed in the small window of time she was alone.

It’s important to note that a person can be an advocate for suicide prevention and have strong feelings against suicide, but as their disease progresses, their perspective may change, making them vulnerable to something you didn’t think was ever possible.

Warning signs witnessed over the past year:
• Feeling hopeless. She talked about this a lot.
• Rapid weight loss.
• Feeling like a burden to others.
• Acting anxious or agitated.
• Withdrawing, isolating.
• Loss of interest in things she once enjoyed.
• Giving things away.
• Extreme mood swings.
• Issues with sleep.
• Not taking care of herself as she use to, grooming etc.
• Researching suicide methods online (found after her death)

If you have a seed of suicide in your mind, please do not allow this thought to grow, please call for help right now, this very minute!

I believe in my heart that if my friend could reverse time and undo her final act, she would.

No matter what problems you are dealing with, we want to help you find a reason to keep living. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area,anytime 24/7.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

My Best Friend Committed Suicide

WARNING: The following post may be a trigger for those
who are sensitive to content about suicide.

* * *

I got the dreaded call after midnight, on the eve of Thanksgiving.

My best friend killed herself.

My response was one of shock. It felt like I was kicked in the stomach. I started to panic as I rushed to wake up my husband who was asleep on the couch next to me. “She did it, she really did it!”

I was in disbelief because I couldn’t imagine a person I love, one I spent countless hours, even years, trying to help actually ending her life. Even today it’s hard for me to believe that she’s gone. Yet I think a part of me understood since I saw up close the relentless suffering she endured due to her childhood trauma and complicated mental illness. For her, it was finally over.

Before the call ended I was told that she planned her death ahead of time, a detail that still haunts me today.

There are moments now when all I can think about are her thoughts as she made these plans. Was she scared? Was she tormented over her decision or did she feel a sense of peace and relief knowing she had a plan in place? Did she feel anything at all?

What was she thinking as she looked at me, as she looked at her husband and kids, days leading up to her suicide? Did she want to tell us about her plans? Did she leave hints? Was she hoping we would stop her?

That night when I finally went to bed, I was unable to sleep. I cried mostly and I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing her face. It wasn’t the happy face that so many people remembered, the beautiful smile and bright eyes, but it was the final look she gave me when I saw her last. She looked hurt and defeated.

The ironic thing about suicide is that it doesn’t end the pain. It multiplies it and spreads it to those who are left behind. Like a bomb that explodes in a crowd, there are now wounded people everywhere, myself included.

My best friend was a mother, a wife, a sister and a friend to many.

She was one of us. A mother of a child with mental illness and an advocate for mental health. She was a follower on this very blog.

Through our years together, we talked endless hours about how to help our kids. How to get around the school system, how to get that IEP and pick the best therapist. We passed phone numbers of our favorite doctors the way other moms shared babysitters.

During this time, I also supported her through her own illness with calls, texts and hours of conversations. When she was feeling well, we had fun shopping, traveling or going out for frozen yogurt. We always laughed at our inside joke that I was teaching her to be more “girly” after taking her to see a chick flick movie for the first time. Being that we both loved working out, we exercised side-by-side throughout the week, using our time together as a mini support group. We were two moms, sharing our lives as we encouraged one another along the way.

Considering our circumstances, it shouldn’t be a surprise that suicide was a conversation topic more than once. We both shared our fear of it and our desire to protect our children from this very fate. Just months before her death, she volunteered and participated in a suicide prevention fundraiser in our community. She was truly dedicated to this cause.

That’s why her suicide is so hard for me to accept. I knew her better than most, I knew how much she cherished life and how much she wanted to overcome her own mental illness. I knew first-hand that suicide was never an option. Until her final act changed that.

* * *

I’ve been at a loss as to whether or not to share this recent tragedy with you. But after much consideration, I’ve decided to open up with hopes that in some way, her story can help others. From our one-on-one conversations, I know she wanted to share with you her own personal story on this blog. I just never imagined it would happen in this way. In my next post I will reflect on what led up to her suicide and the possible warning signs we missed.

No matter what problems you are dealing with, we want to help you find a reason to keep living. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Memory Jar

Last year we started a new family tradition I thought may be worth sharing for those of you who could use some encouragement in the new year.

At the start of every new year I set out an empty jar with a note pad and pen nearby. Then throughout the year, as a family, we individually write down happy moments on paper then tuck the paper into the jar. At the end of the year, on New Years Eve, we gather around the jar and read the happy moments aloud. Often we find ourselves laughing as there’s always a few funny jokes added, thanks to the amusement of our middle son, but overall we are left with a feeling of gratitude for all the great moments that have happened throughout the year.

I think it’s easy when you’re facing significant struggles to reflect back on the year and only remember the bad stuff, but when you take the time to write down all the good moments, they quickly add up, you soon realize that you are blessed even through the trials.

This year has been especially difficult, but I’m happy to share that the jar is stuffed full, awaiting our discovery on New Years Eve.

Inside the jar you’ll find:
A first kiss...
Dancing in the kitchen after the party was over...
Making Leadership team at school...
A first girlfriend...
A new job...
Family scary movie nights...
and so much more...

We are thankful, so very thankful.

I wish you and yours a wonderful year ahead, even if the blessings are small, may your cup runneth over.