Post 3 of 5
Staying Power of the Family
Sophia, Bailey, and Anya
When I was eight years old, my grandmother disappeared. We lived next door to her, and I would follow the path over to Grandma and Papa’s house each day, several times a day. I remember the Saturday morning that I walked over, and my daddy and my papa were having a serious conversation.
Ultimately, Grandma was no where to be found. Daddy always told me that if something was happening with Grandma that I was to tell him immediately and leave quickly even if it were dark outside. I knew that morning that he wouldn’t want me listening to their conversation. However, I couldn’t tear myself away because Grandma was MISSING. A piece of my heart was lost. I felt frozen in that moment and in that kitchen. I felt the need to stay, to pray, to find my beautiful Grandma.
Just then the rotary, wall mounted phone rang, and I ran over and picked it up.
“Hello?” I said as my voice grew louder and louder with each greeting.
At that moment, Papa made it over to the living room phone, and Daddy snatched the receiver from my hands. “Carolyn! Carolyn! Tell me where you are.”
“Carolyn, where are you? Let me come get you.” Papa cried.
“Mama, we love you. Please talk to us.” Daddy finally spoke.
Suddenly, they hung up. I saw two grown men cry for the first time in my young life. She had not spoken to us. She had not spoken to even me–her first born grandchild. I learned later that Papa hired people to find her, and it took several months before they got a lead that she was staying at a battered women’s shelter in Macon, Georgia, sixty miles away from home.
The shelter released her to a psych unit in Macon after they were threatened to be sued for keeping a delusional, mentally ill woman who had no treatment for months. After a brief hospitalization, Grandma returned home to us.
We all rallied around her and celebrated her return as if she had simply been on vacation. No one’s behavior hinted at the fact she had run away from us. I am not sure that anyone in our small, unincorporated community knew that she ran away. I don’t remember even mentioning it again amongst family members.
I continued to ride the bus to Chester Elementary, Papa returned to making his bus route, and Daddy toiled the earth without much profit. Grandmother’s siblings visited and loved her. Dealing with mental illness in our family is simply apart of our normal functioning as a family.
Should you spend much time contemplating and speaking of such traumatic occurrences? Should we? Returning to normalcy while anticipating that another issue may arise was a hard truth my grandfather lived each year of his fifty two year marriage. No wonder he struggled with anxiety, especially as he fought to raise his boys and keep Grandma as safe and as healthy as possible. Fortunately for him and our extended family, the medical field improved it’s practices and it’s treatments for a woman with Type 1 Bipolar Disorder who suffered such prolonged and severe depression that she was either running away or sitting in a catatonic state.
By the 1990s, Grandma was the healthiest of her life both physically and mentally. For the remainder of my childhood, we only went to visit her once more during a short term hospitalization. Ironically, I spent more time in hospitals, praying for Papa to survive two heart attacks instead of wondering why my grandmother wasn’t at home for long periods of time. The quality time and the quality of her life improved. There were several situations that created the bubble necessary for successful treatment of Grandma’s condition:
1) Having and living with a strong loving supportive family
2) Growing and praying in the unconditional love within her spiritual walk with her Savior
3) Improving the medication and the treatment in the psychiatric medical community
4) Believing in herself and her purpose on this planet
Sometimes, I truly thought her sheer determination of will gave her the opportunity for healing. A year after Anya was born, I weaned her and suffered severe postpartum depression. I feared the suicidal thoughts that plagued me, so I took Anya to my mama.
I checked myself into Greenleaf for three days. On my way to Greenleaf in Valdosta, Georgia, I called my grandmother to get her sage advice for my current situation. I knew in that moment that no one would know more about how I felt than her. After my daddy was born, she suffered severe depression, catatonic episodes, and hospitalizations for the first two years of his life.
She picked up on the second ring, she took a deep breath, and she said, “Hello.” I cried with the seriousness of my depression. I confessed that I was leaving three incomplete finals at school (twenty page papers in my graduate school program). I explained how broken I felt after my divorce. I wept with the realization that I had a troubled mind and a broken soul. Then, I listened for her response.
“Love, you do whatever it takes to get well. Go to therapy. Put your make up on every morning. Thank God you are still alive. Be sweet to the people who are there because they are suffering too. Talk with your doctor and take your medicine. Ask for a Bible and focus on your talent. Write until you have no more to say. Then, you come home to that baby and finish your papers.” Grandma’s response was so matter of fact that you would have thought I called her about attending cheerleading camp as a child. The last thing she said before she hung up was this: “Love, He heals the willing. He comforts the weak. Now, be smart, Love. Do your best.”
I merely replied, “Yes, ma’am.” I got out of the car and walked into the building under my own volition with a goal of getting well and staying healthy for my child and for my future. I remember sitting in the psychiatrist’s office for the first time while we discussed post partum depression and possible medications.
I slept for the first time in two years because Anya hadn’t slept at night since she was born. I began taking a mood stabilizer and an antidepressant. Thirty minutes after taking that medication I felt peaceful and clear minded for the first time possibly ever. My situation didn’t resolve itself instantaneously, but I had a plan, two medications, and a wonderful support group at VSU and at home.
I strolled Anya to therapy with me three days a week at the Counseling Center at VSU. Surprisingly, she loved going and sat still and listened to our voices for each session. I completed my finals and registered for the new semester. Little by little, my mental health improved, and I learned to cope with it as best as I could. I realized my decision making process had strengthened even though I was young and obviously still so immature.
By the time Sophia was born, I expected to have depression. I prepared my support group and my treatment plan ahead of time, yet no depression came. However, as I strove to raise two daughters under the age of four as a single parent, I noticed my issue had changed, not disappeared.
Anxiety found its way into my body and my mind. Panic and fear became my new normal. I treated my anxiety with continued therapy, but I chose in 2015 to seek medicinal help. An antidepressant and Buspar gave me peace and comfort from constant anxiety.
I still continued to lean on my support group and attend therapy, but I only stopped my anxiety medications during my pregnancy with Liam in 2016 and while I nursed my son for a year. So I spent two years without medication for anxiety. It was a struggle, but my support system was in place.
My coping skills kicked in for me. I enjoyed my life and my baby. I didn’t suffer depression after weaning Liam. What a blessing! Just as I felt more confident in my own victory over my mental health, my daughters began to fight a new fight of their own. God always knows what we can handle, and His timing is always perfect. Just as I found footing and security with my own mental health, Anya and Sophia began their own personal journey with depression and anxiety.
Now, I find my family at the end of 2020 dealing with such changes and troubles that I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams could have occurred just a year earlier. In May 2020, the shutdown due to the pandemic kept the kids and me at home. Our daily routine looked more like an episode of Homestead Rescue than anything else.
I grew complacent in the calm and peace of home, but Sophia’s Impulse Control Disorder (ICD) raged inside her head. The research I found showed me how the decision making centers in the frontal lobe of the brain are underdeveloped or less active in the brains of people with ICDs. Children’s brains are not developed fully until 25, so Sophia’s 15 year old brain on May 10, 2020 was more underdeveloped or more dysfunctional than most of her peers.
Prefrontal cortex dysfunction varies based on types of ICDs; therefore, different subset of prefrontal cortex impulse control regions will have differing dysfunction based on the types of ICDs. One of my greatest hopes lies in the fact that upon maturity of the frontal lobe’s prefrontal cortex, Sophia and other children with ICDs will have improvement simply based on complete brain development.
However, until that time, behavioral therapy seems to be the only way to cope with training the brain to make more logical, controlled decisions. At the height of shutdown in May 2020, Sophia was receiving psychiatric treatment, but the mental health facility that treated her shut its doors to patients in March 2020 and has yet to open them.
The lack of therapy in conjunction with her addiction to the internet and the access to her phone created the perfect storm. Unbeknownst to us, on May 9, 2020, Sophia dropped a pin on Snapchat for a 15 year old boy from Hawkinsville to find our house. She began sending him messages earlier that day, and she made plans for him to drive to our home at 2 am, May 10, 2020. At 2 am, Sophia walked to the end of our driveway and got in the vehicle with two strangers.
Her intentions were to “hook up” with the 15 year old, yet she with her impulsivity could not process that he and his 22 year old brother picked her up for another purpose entirely. They intended to rob us. Some of the details of that night, I only learned in the courtroom on September 1, 2020.
The assistant district attorney and the opposing counsel grilled Sophia since she was the only one who agreed to testify. We never heard his side of the story because he refused to incriminate himself. The older brother used his younger brother as a pawn to lure Sophia into meeting, and he was the one who threatened her that night. He even refused to say his name. He demanded cash and guns, and he would not let her go or leave until he had it. Ultimately, Sophia’s sexual impulse had such grave repercussions for my entire family. Even as I write this, so many possible outcomes swim inside my head:
What if they had rapped her?
What if they had killed her?
What if they had driven her away and sold her into sex slavery?
What is they had broken in our home in the middle of the night?
Would we all have survived?
How could my other four precious children survived armed robbery?
I have no clue if Sophia even thought of these questions or any dangerous possibilities. I tell myself that if she actually could have pondered danger that she wouldn’t have made the decision to let him know where we lived. I have spent time grieving for the possible outcomes of that day and for the actual outcome of that day. I am not sure that I will ever experience Mother’s Day as a joyful occasion again, but I like to hope that soon I can find peace with the disastrous events.
As I cope with the implications of helping Sophia through her ICDs and repercussions of her skewed decision making, I return to a May day in 1999 when I spent time in family group therapy at Charter Lake Hospital while my daddy was hospitalized. The day after my wedding May 22, 1999, Mama and my brothers dealt with his suicidal ideations and his plans for his own demise.
While I was flying to my honeymoon destination, Daddy was being admitted for an extended stay. When I returned from my trip, I participated in family group therapy for my benefit as well as my mother’s. I needed to know exactly what was wrong with him. For two years, he would not work, he suffered from delusions, and he was horribly depressed.
He was so far removed from reality that he couldn’t even remember how to drive from Hawkinsville to our house everyday to get to work. His family physician tried to help by prescribing my father with Type 2 Bipolar disorder only an antidepressant. I am sure that the physician believed Daddy was suffering from depression and anxiety, which he was.
Yet, the cause of the anxiety and depression was misdiagnosed. His doctor created a medicine induced mania because he had no mood stabilizer. I remember the therapist addressing us in group that day in 1999. She asked us: what is worse a depressed bipolar person or a manic bipolar person? I blinked because I had no clue the answer to this trivia question.
She responded, “A manic bipolar person has enough energy to carry out the suicidal thoughts that the depression has caused. Therefore, a manic bipolar person is worse.” My poor daddy just sat there in his seat, clutching a legal pad. He had been scribbling notes off the dry erase board as the therapists were educating us about his condition. He sniffled quite often due to his crying.
He was heartbroken and dejected. He looked to his left at me and said, “Baby, I am bipolar after all. Did you know?” Well I lived with him just like my mama and my brothers, we had a good inclination to that fact. Living with him often times was like living with a maniac. He had what we called the “Jimmy Greene face.” When you saw that face, you knew he was in a rage.
EXIT STAGE LEFT immediately. Other times, he would sleep for hours or days at a time, and when he was awake, he was afraid and panicked by whatever things that he kept to himself. Then, there were days when he was so loving and so fun to be around that you couldn’t imagine that a bad cycle was just a few days away.
I simply answered, “Yes, Daddy.” He cried. When he cried, Mama got up and left the room. I couldn’t imagine how dealing with a spouse with mental illness feels to a person who cannot imagine what it is like to have any chemical imbalances at all. I lived with my own mental monsters, so this situation was easy for me to understand. “I’m a sex addict.” he blurted out.
“Daddy, you don’t have to tell me this. It’s okay.”
“I do. I have to tell you. There have been so many I don’t know all their names. I’ve done so many horrible things no one can stand to love me.” Stillness clutched my heart. It actually felt like I couldn’t breathe. He sobbed. He held a teddy bear my mama gave him after he was admitted. He rocked back and forth while I felt myself disassociate from the realities of that moment. He had been hiding and fighting demons that none of us ever knew. Obviously, the levels of double mindedness affected him for years.
He asked to go lie down. “I love you, Daddy.” I called after him. He turned and waved. The doctors talked to us after therapy. Daddy had a psychotic break due to the severity of his depression and mania. His speech pattern was abnormal. His grasp of reality was gone. He was always in a delusional state of confusion, and he had lost time. His therapy and treatment would be lengthy. We were told most people don’t recover to their right mind again.
There was a chance he would be like that forever–a broken man. Now that I am older and wiser, I can look back in hindsight to see the Impulse Control issues in his personality. The sexual impulses. The impulses to drive fast and dangerously. The impulses to fight. The impulses to act out his anger. The impulses to burn things. They never mentioned ICD to us that day.
They lumped sex addiction into the bipolar disorder, which was customary until after 2000. As Mama and I drove home from Macon to Roddy, Georgia, that day in May 1999, our lives were changed. The gravity of the seriousness of my daddy’s condition and the ramifications of that reality on my parent’s marriage broke all of our hearts. There were both positive and negative repercussions from that day forward.
Positively, Daddy responded very well to therapy and treatment. By 2000, he was talking normally without confusion. It was like the light turned on and from that day forward Jimmy Greene returned to his funny yet moody self. His illness was extremely hard on my grandparents.
They refused to believe he had ever been sick. As a mother of children who fight this battle, I know how desperate you feel to repress the fact that your child is suffering. My parent’s marriage had unraveled by the end of 2000 although they remained together while divorced for two more years. When Mama moved out in 2002, Daddy had to learn to live independently for the first time in his life.
He left his mother’s house at the age of 18 to live in my mother’s house for 36 more years. My brothers and I rallied around him. He had never washed his own clothes, cooked his own meals, or even made tea before. I watched him clean up the house for the first time in his entire life. His philandering was more socially acceptable while single. He told his friends that he had been out of work because of a stroke, which was obviously not true.
He grieved my mother after their divorce and my grandfather after his death in 2000. He always loved Mama. Even while sick with cancer in 2016, he would say, “Baby, ya Mama always has my number 1 spot. Take care of ya Mama. Get along with her now.” Mama helped me take care of him while he battled cancer, and they made his financial life decisions together in 2016. My brothers, my mama, and Chris and I took care of him and treasured our last months together as a family.
There were these times where I was so afraid he would become depressed and stop fighting. He remained positive and determined until his body was too weak to carry him any further in this life. He made peace with his God and himself. He made peace with Mama. He spent time with me as well as with my brothers’ families.
One morning, he and I returned from one of his brain radiation appointments, and he held my hand as we drove home. He smiled at me and said, “Baby, ain’t we a pair. That’s me and you. Always together. It’s in Jesus’ hands now, Baby. You got to accept it.” I have clung to those words emotionally almost every day since he died in December 2016. Our special moment in my Ford Focus in October 2016 has helped me heal in so many ways.
The love I had for my daddy and my grandmother never faltered. They were victims of a genetic code that led to faulty brain function. Just as Diabetes runs in some people’s families, mental illness runs in ours–so does cancer and heart disease. The stigma that is attached to mental illness limits many families’ ability to heal and to remain healthy. Lack of research, medical care, and medicines for mentally ill people have contributed to homicidal rampages, increased suicide rates, and rampant homelessness.
We’ve got to be able to discuss the symptoms and the facts with our support systems and with medical professionals. The church, as well as other spiritual communities, need to extend support and assistance to mentally ill parishioners and family members of parishioners. The members of the medical community need to work together to better understand the brain and the genetic make up that causes it to malfunction.
I hope that one day biologic medications will target certain genes to turn them on or off according to the dysfunctional mechanisms that cause the problems. Therapy needs to be widely accessible, especially in rural areas like ours.
All in all, my family is beautiful. My grandmother was a genius with bipolar disorder so was her mother and her mother. My daddy was the smartest man I’ve ever known who battled ICD and bipolar disorder with anxiety. I am an intelligent, well educated Christian woman who happens to have depression and anxiety. My daughters are blessed and beautiful with depression, anxiety, ADHD or ICD.
We are God’s creation. We are God’s children. We deserve proper medical treatment with dignity and diligence of care. The spouses and children of mentally ill people also need care and support to learn to cope with the illness just as people are taught to take their blood pressure or check their blood sugar.
With proper treatment and support, we can be and are functioning members of our communities with jobs and families. We help others. We love our friends and family members. My story and my memories may be jumbled up and repeating in my mind, but Sophia’s story is just beginning.
Even while fighting my childhood sorrows, memories, and struggles, I commit myself to supporting her and advocating for her successful treatment and recovery. Mental illness isn’t an old hat she wears like it is for me. Her monster has hit us all hard and tries to destroy us from the inside out.
With my commitment to my daughter renewed and with the love and support of my family and my Savior, I shall persevere. Like Jimmy Greene always said, “Baby, you got to endure to persevere.” I wear that mantra tattooed on my heart.
My best advice to the one whose story sounds similar to mine: endure to persevere by praying up and finding the best doctor in your state or your country. Hold tight to faith, hope, and love.
The rest of what happened on May 10, 2020 along with the consequences for our family will continue in Post 4. God bless and keep us all.
Jennifer Greene-Sullivan 12.29.20
4 thoughts on “Living with a Monster: Mental Illness and Parenting Part 3”
O my! Half of this I did not know. My daily prayer is for you and your family. I love you. Kay
I love you, Kay!
Always keep the faith and turn it over to the great physician. He knows everything about us and he will provide for us. I love each of you. Your grandma Carolyn was a beautiful and wonderful lady. Dennis and I visited your grandma and grandpa when we were dating. I always enjoyed talking with them. Your daddy was a good man and even though it was hard for him at times he made it through it. No doubt how much he loved each of you. Remembering and raising your family in prayer. Love you
Ms. Janet, you have always been such a blessing to me and my kids. Thank you so much for being such a wonderful influence in my life. My grandparents and my daddy were very special people. Every time I see your smiling face, I know that I am loved. Happy New Year. Tell Heath and the kids I said hello. I hear they are visiting. Love you!! Jennifer