At age 27, my son’s life changed forever. He was transformed into a different person. He became psychotic, completely out-of-control. He drove his car at high rates of speed with no regard for the safety of others. He was obsessed with neurotic religious beliefs, wired, required little to no sleep. He believed he was in the witness protection program. Federal agents were trying to assassinate him because he was in possession of top secret information that would take down important people in the government if he went public. He developed an unhealthy fixation with the president and made many attempts to get into the White House, for what he thought were scheduled meetings with President Clinton. There were days he actually believed he was the president, living in the White House.
He was in complete denial that anything was wrong with him. It took the assault of a police officer to get him committed. He spent his 27th birthday in a padded cell in the psychiatric ward at a Virginia hospital. The doctors diagnosed him as having bipolar disorder and transferred him to a mental hospital for treatment. He believed the hospital was a CIA training facility and the doctors and nurses were FBI and Secret Service agents. His room was bugged…all his conversations were monitored.
My family feared he might never recover. But recover he did after a month of treatment. Initial progress was slow, but after the first 10 days of treatment with forced medications, we began to see encouraging signs that he was returning to us.
No one in my family understood the magnitude of bipolar disorder in the beginning. The doctors told us after that first frightening episode that my son would be okay as long as he took his medication. We wanted to believe that. It restored our comfort level. None of us foresaw the nightmare that lay ahead.
Despite the stigma associated with mental illness that he had to deal with on a daily basis, he moved on with his life and did a wonderful job of managing his illness and the misfortune he had been dealt. He was medication compliant. He saw his psychiatrist regularly. He enjoyed a very active social life and was climbing the ladder of success in his professional life. I was so proud of him.
Unfortunately, some six years later, disaster struck again. He suffered his second psychotic break. For reasons known only to him, he had stopped taking his meds. During this 81-day manic episode, my son was hospitalized five times in three difference states before recovering.
He went on to have three additional major, prolonged bipolar manic episodes, each episode preceded by his decision to stop taking his medication…each episode more severe than the previous and of a longer duration. That longer duration was because of judges at commitment hearings who took the easy way out, releasing my son time and time again, ruling he was not an imminent danger to himself or others – many times, against the recommendation of the treating psychiatrist.
On release, he would eventually resurface in another city, another state as he traveled the East Coast trying to escape federal agents who, he feared, were trying to assassinate him. He would again be arrested, at which time the commitment process started all over again. He was committed 14 times to hospitals in five different states.
State laws vary, but all states set strict controls regarding involuntary hospitalization with forced treatment, limiting it to circumstances when a person is an imminent danger to self or others, or likely to become so. My son became extremely accomplished at beating the system…outsmarting doctors, lawyers, judges, crisis control units, and the police…convincing them he was not a threat to himself or others.
Bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness with recurring episodes. There is currently no cure…but the good news is…bipolar is treatable. When my son stopped taking his meds, both he and his family suffered the consequences. During a manic episode, he lost touch with reality and lacked the ability to recognize he was ill. Families are – or can be – the early warning system. They see those Code Red alerts, but there is nothing concerned families can do until their loved one reaches the crisis stage.
Each time my son was allowed to go untreated for long periods of time, he sustained further brain damage. Pre-bipolar disorder…a very successful entrepreneur…owned his own company with six employees – now, an unemployable person.
This illness left him trapped in a body ravaged by irreversible damage from untreated bipolar disorder. It robbed him of all his self-confidence and self-esteem. It destroyed his thought process and short term memory. Toward the end, he could not remember what he had done the day before. It took its toll on two marriages, neither of which survived. It destroyed his career, and ultimately his life. His third attempt at suicide was successful. He was 40 years old.
What happened to my son and sadly, continues to happen to others like him just should not happen in this country. “Homicidal” or “suicidal” should not be the only legal standard for treatment intervention. Mental illness is not going away. We must find more compassionate and workable laws that both protect the rights of mentally ill people and allow families to get loved ones timely and humane treatment.
Dottie Pacharis, Author
Mind on the Run – A Bipolar Chronicle