[Read the book review on NAMI.org]
A Mom and Son Tell Their Story - “Walks on the Margins: A Story of Bipolar Illness”
The day I realized my son, Max, had bipolar disorder, he’d called at 5 a.m. and told me to turn on the television. The truth was in the programming, he said. A new world was emerging. Holding out hope that the world really had shifted and not Max, I turned on the TV. But I knew the idyllic family I discovered on a Leave it to Beaver rerun didn’t reflect the new world of which Max had spoken. Max was diagnosed with Bipolar I that afternoon. He was twenty and a junior at a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Iowa.
Since that morning, I’ve spent hours on psychiatric units from Colorado to Philadelphia because I’ve never wanted Max to feel alone in his illness. I listened as words tumbled from my son’s manic being. I dug his ruined poems from the trash where he’d tossed them in disgust. For me, Max’s verse was a reminder of his promise and one of many souvenirs through the maze of bipolar disorder. I’ve sat with other patients too, whom I’ve come to treasure like characters in a novel—a patient who asked me to his senior prom and called me Ruthie; a tattoo-covered drug dealer who depended on the cinnamon gum he knew I always carried in my pocket.
And Max? He wandered the streets, always seeking something intangible and unknown. Of his illness he writes, “She was the promise, the one that could never be made good. But a promise so great that its very mirage crippled even the strongest of wills.” He returned to school the next semester, embarrassed by his failed prophesies and discomforted by the suspicious glance of friends. And of depression he writes: “Quick was the rant of suicidal ideation to snuff out any lingering hope for a normal life. The question of how to end it turned into minute-by-minute thinking. I awoke disgraced, morning, noon, or night, Monday or Friday, the same lingering taste at the tip of my dry tongue, like a name whose thought made my mind blank.”
In Walks on the Margins, A Story of Bipolar Illness, Max and I write about what it means to suffer from mental illness. Though reliving the years of confusion and fear was difficult, the writing helped us make sense of the chaos. We’ve tried to tell an honest though often painful story that ends with the understanding that mental illness is for life but that redemption and recovery are possible. We hope that others with mental illness and their families will find comfort in the book and will realize they aren’t as alone as they may think. We also hope that by putting a face on mental illness, we have succeeded in breaking down the barriers of stigma and made human and understandable an illness that so many fear.
Walks on the Margins isn’t just our story. It’s the story of thousands of others who have mental illness and of the families who love them.