The mental health maze – like climbing down a ladder to hell
The Johnson family had a life in the suburbs that might be similar to yours.
“I went to Sammamish High School in Bellevue. I was involved in all the sports, all the clubs, every music thing I could get into,” says Linea. “Very much an over-achiever. I was doing everything.”
“I was busy chasing her around and working,” says Cinda, her mom. “We moved over here from Chelan so she moved from this tiny little town to this big school district and she just jumped right into it.”
Cinda is a professor and director of the special education graduate program at Seattle University. Her husband a professional at the University of Washington Medical School.
Linea was a “typical teenager” until her sophomore year when she started to become more emotional. Still, her depression and mood swings seemed manageable.
“We always thought it was something outside coming in. If I didn’t do as many sports, if I didn’t do as many clubs then I thought I would get better. I was just overwhelmed and stressed and always thought we could ‘fix’ that feeling,” says Linea.
When she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it was more difficult for Cinda to tell her daughter – and convince herself – that everything would be okay. Still, she put on a happy, suburban smile and kept going.
“I was always looking for a way to make her life easier, but I think I gave her the message that if we worked hard enough, we could get rid of this,” Cinda says. “I should have been giving her the message that this is brain based. You’re not going to get rid of diabetes or cancer by just changing your life around. You need medical treatment.”
The bipolar disorder and suicidal thoughts got worse for Linea when she went away to college in Chicago.
Linea did not like the psychiatrist or how the medication made her feel, so she flushed the pills down the toilet without her mother’s knowledge and medicated herself with her own drugs.
She wasn’t slipping into hell, it was more like slowly climbing down an aluminum ladder into hell feeling her hands and feet burn with every step, yet continuing to step lower.
After a series of suicide attempts, hospitalizations, and even begging her parents to “just let me go,” Linea was taken to Harborview, Five West – the psych ward – for six rounds of electroconvulsive therapy.
Did you realize they still do shock therapy on people? It helped Linea.
Cinda was dealing a different kind of shock.
“We were such a good family. I was such a good mom. Our kids went to college and yes she has a mental illness, but we’re going to get through it,” Cinda says. “There was a part of me that didn’t want anybody to know this, because it might reflect on me. Then the whole thing hit me and I realized my attitude was part of the illness’s stigma.”
Cinda and Linea Johnson found their way through the mental health maze, but it wasn’t easy for them and they already had more going for them than most people do. Mom a professor, Dad a medical professional, both with more knowledge of medical and health insurance systems than most, and with more financial resources than many of us.
Even so, they struggled.
Cinda has suggestions for what might make the mental health system more manageable
“We need a 911 number that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to have the police show up, but rather that it’s going to connect you to mental health care,” says Cinda. “If you don’t want to walk into the ER at Harborview, if you don’t know where to go, there would be a number to call and find out.”
The Johnsons have also written the book Perfect Chaos to help others as they describe a daughter’s journey to survive bipolar and a mother’s struggle to save her.
“Our schools should teach about the symptoms and help kids talk about it, so they would know as much about mental illness as we do about sports injuries now. They report if an athlete gets bumped in the head, they watch them and take care of them and their family members are then talked to about what a concussion is,” Cinda says. “I want the same thing for mental illness.”
By LINDA THOMAS
Read more about mental health in Washington:
State legislature looks to prevent mentally ill defendants from being released