LAKELAND — Today marks the final installment of an eight-part, 25-story series on the sad state of the mental illness treatment system in the nation, Florida and Polk County.
This project has its roots in something deeply personal for my family.
My Mom suffered from what I know now was a major mental illness and it robbed us of a lifetime of happiness together. But I never gave up trying to help her. I am sharing this story because one of the solutions to the mental health crisis in this country is to destigmatize having a mental illness, to encourage a conversation about it, and to help people obtain treatment for it.
Mom’s eventual diagnosis was major psychotic depression, defined by medicalnewstoday.com as when someone is deeply sad for a long period of time and it is accompanied by psychosis, a disconnection from reality that may include symptoms such as auditory or visual hallucinations or delusions.
When I shared that diagnosis with Kirk Fasshauer, director of crisis services for Peace River Center, he visibly cringed. He knew the suffering she had endured and the trauma I had faced as a child, when she would have breaks from reality during which she raged at the people who loved her the most.
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My dad had seen the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which depicted a lobotomy that left Jack Nicholson’s character catatonic. Dad refused to have Mom involuntarily committed for observation and evaluation, fearing that would be her fate, too.
Growing up in that environment and dealing with her unpredictable mood swings caused bouts of depression for me throughout my life. I learned to deal with it through diet, exercise, a prayer of thanksgiving, and, occasionally when I felt I needed it, counseling and medication. I learned to distance myself from her and to surround myself with positive friends, who make me laugh and cherish my company.
As I grew up, putting myself through college and creating a career, I carried the hope of better things to come for her and me. And I prayed. A lot. I prayed for her to be the kind of mom all my friends had, one who became best friends with their grown daughters. Eventually, those mothers filled part of the void in my life – which I know answered some of my prayers. And I prayed for patience for me.
I begged her for many years to get help, to no avail. When she was 79 years old, I secretly conspired with her primary care doctor to convince her to see a psychiatrist. Unbeknownst to her, I had written the psychiatrist a long letter before her first visit, describing her symptoms.
After her initial appointment, we went to lunch and, as we quietly ate and chatted, she said the closest thing I would ever get to an apology – “We didn’t make it easy for you, did we?”
The last five years of her life
For the last five years of her life, she took medications that made her, once again, calm and kind, more like the woman my dad had married in 1958.
At Thanksgiving Dinner, 2010, I realized I had finally gotten the mother I had always wanted. Each year, I ask everyone around the dinner table for what they’re thankful. Mom’s annual response was, “Nothing.” But that year, she looked up at me, my brother, and my dad and said, “All of you.”
I had realized several months before that dinner that she wasn’t talking as much as usual. And it was harder for her to walk. She had been in the hospital for falls – and more of those falls and hospital stays were to come. The doctor’s eventual diagnosis: Lewy Body Dementia.
In May 2011, close to their 53rd wedding anniversary, I watched my dad help her into bed and tuck her in. She looked up at him and said one word, “Juice.” He went into the kitchen, poured her a glass of orange juice and set it beside her bed. Then he gently pulled her up and took a seat behind her so this woman, who had been so cruel to him for so long, could lean on him while she drank. It remains one of the most simple, but beautiful, acts of kindness I’ve ever seen.
A month later, she went into the hospital and my brother and I placed her under hospice care in a nursing home. By that time, she didn’t talk very much and could barely take a few steps.
I spent my time in those months with this woman who had terrorized me as child, pushing her in her wheelchair throughout the facility, talking to her about whatever came to mind, washing and rubbing her feet, gently massaging her hands, brushing her hair, and wiping her face with a baby wipe.
In August 2011, when I arrived for a visit, I found mom in her wheelchair in the hallway. I kissed her on the cheek and said, “Hi, Mom, it’s Kimberly, your daughter.” Dementia and Alzheimer’s patients often forget who people are and it’s reassuring to them if you introduce yourself.
Her response surprised and moved me. “Oh, I’m so glad.”
That day, I sat down beside her and said something that, as a teenager, I could never imagine uttering. The truth about her diagnosis and the secret of my adoption as a newborn had been revealed to me during the last few years of her life, helping me to understand her.
“You know, Mom, I forgave you for everything a long, long time ago.” She understood what I said and held my hand.
Two months later, she slipped away peacefully in her sleep. My last words to her before I left her bedside…“I love you, Mom.”
I understood that she had done the best she could under the most difficult of circumstances. I realized that I had been better off with her and my dad than my biological mother. And I know that God had answered a lifetime of prayers, in God’s own way and in God’s own time. Even if that time came in the last few years of her life.
To get help
Polk County’s Peace River Center offers a 24-Hour Emotional Support and Crisis Line: 863-519-3744 or toll-free at 800-627-5906.
Ledger reporter Kimberly C. Moore can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7514. Follow her on Twitter at @KMooreTheLedger.