Eight years ago, when I was told that my mother had a serious mental illness, I felt as if she had died. While there was some comfort in finally knowing why she had begun exhibiting bizarre behavior, and while there was some satisfaction in discovering that she was tormented not by some unknown malady but by an illness with a name, there was also a deep sense of loss – the mother I had loved and adored during my childhood was gone forever.
Mom had always been everybody's Santa Claus. She was jolly and generous and the life of the party. She was also brilliant and creative and had tons of energy. At times, those who knew her had called her "Superwoman" because it seemed like she was constantly taking care of the needs of everyone who came across her path. Mom worked tirelessly on political campaigns, served as head of the PTA, volunteered and presided over numerous service clubs, was active in her church, threw tremendous parties, bridal and baby showers on behalf of people she barely knew, and could cook a circle around anyone. Mom didn't just seem like Superwoman – she was Superwoman.
Advertisement - story continues below
Mom was also my best friend. Throughout my childhood, I adored her and her infectious joy. She was loving and kind to everyone she met. Our home was a haven for our friends as well as people in need, and we could count on our cheery mother bringing much joy to the lives of everyone around her. Even after I left for college, Mom and I talked on the phone several times a week. She was my guiding light as I made my way into the world, always providing much-needed advice, but allowing me endless encouragement. She made me believe that if I worked hard enough, I could reach for the stars and actually touch them.
Later on, when I married and had children of my own, I often marveled at Mom's boundless energy. When the kids and I would visit, she moved so quickly from project to project that being with her was like being in the midst of a tornado. I always returned home exhausted with my head spinning, wondering how in the world I would ever be able to measure up – little did I know that her endless energy and boundless creative ideas were telltale signs of mania.
Rather than slowing down as the years went by, Mom's energy level surged. Her great ideas also increased in intensity to the point that some of them seemed, well, bizarre. Her unbridled optimism became more akin to the denial of reality. Mom had always looked at the world through rose-colored glasses – but somewhere along the way her lenses had changed from a pretty pink to ones made of prisms – her view of reality was colorful, but distorted.
She became grandiose in her ideas and in the way she spent and gave away money. Mom had a few episodes of tremendous sadness or agitation – we learned later on that these episodes were depression. And, as our family discovered after it was too late, Mom had also developed a secret plan for "raising money" which also happened to be illegal. To make a long story short, we discovered that our loving, generous, accomplished mother had developed a scam involving over a hundred people and millions of dollars – most of which she gave away. My parents lost everything – their home, their friends and their good names, because my mother had lost her mind. Our family was devastated.
Advertisement - story continues below
Like thousands of other people who suffer from serious mental illnesses and run afoul of the law in the process, Mom was not sent to a mental facility where she could receive treatment, but to prison where her imaginations and disturbed thinking patterns only grew worse. My hope had been that if Mom were to be hospitalized, she could re-enter society and work to repay her debts and make things right with those she had financially harmed. She never got the chance to do that, and many of her victims never recovered from their losses.
Oct. 6-12 is "Mental Illness Awareness Week." Each year in America, an estimated 20 percent of adults suffer from some sort of mental illness, with 5.4 percent having a Serious Mental Illness. Brain disorders, like other health disorders, are fully treatable. However, due to an archaic system of health insurance and an antiquated legal system, those who suffer frequently don't have access to the advances in medicine that now offer so much help to the afflicted.
The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill is working to change all of that so that the individuals, families and society as a whole can move into a new era of early detection and treatment. The diagnosis of an SMI doesn't have to be like a declaration of death, but a lot has to change in order to restore the lives of the hurting.