I was diagnosed with mental illness when I was 34. I’m here to share with you the story of my recovery, a journey that’s led me to wonderful people and organizations. I became a Community Advocate through Advocacy Unlimited in Connecticut and recently a Peer Support Specialist here in Maine. As a new member of Voices of Recovery I am here today for my first talk. Thank you Karen Evans.
I grew up in Connecticut with two brothers in a typical middle class family. I was 24 when I married my husband and we chose to live off the grid in a rustic cabin. He carved wooden spoons for a living. A local reporter wrote about our daily life, and the story, with pictures, was picked up by the Associated Press and appeared in newspapers across the country.
My father, having worked in a shipyard his entire life, died of asbestosis at age 52. My mother remarried three months later, and I had no one with whom to share my grief.
My brothers weren’t there for me. Barry was into drugs and took his own life a year later. I didn’t know how to deal with my losses. I was a young newlywed simply wanting to live out my dreams. We wanted to live off the land. After reading Helen Nearing’s book The Good Life, I mailed her a copy of the newspaper article.
Helen’s book had spearheaded the back-to-the land movement of the late 60s. She wrote back inviting us to housesit her home in Harborside, Maine which she and her husband Scott had built from stone. Once we were settled in for the winter, other disciples and neighbors of theirs welcomed us fully, and we were given a lifetime lease to homestead on two acres. That’s where we built our dream life from the ground up, literally.
We cleared land and built a cabin, using only a chainsaw and lots of muscle. We cooked on a cast iron stove, hauled water and washed clothes in a 5-gallon bucket with a plunger. In the winter, I’d beat ice off diapers with a broom handle to dry them quicker. Yes, we had three small children, each of whom had enjoyed a home birth. We baked bread, one loaf at a time that we would barter for eggs, produce and farm-raised poultry.
I had my first psychotic break after my husband told me he was Lucifer Incarnate. OMG that would make me Lucifer’s wife! We argued and he stomped off into the woods, alone, misunderstood. Feeling that our survival was at stake, I had no choice but to search for him. With no car, no phone, no neighbors near enough to help, my children and I plunged down a dirt road into the woods. Following my instincts, we found him sitting beside a deserted hut. I was worried he would kill himself or abandon us. We walked back home as a family for the last time.
I felt a great fear growing inside me. Something was very wrong. I was rising early to cut wood, heat the cabin, grind grain, cook and nurse my youngest child. But I wasn’t eating or sleeping well. After a week of this, I entered a euphoric state – mania.
Borrowing a neighbor’s car, I brought my three children and a dog to visit a friend so I could share my enthusiasm with the one person who knew me best. But as we spoke, I could tell by her perplexed expression that she sensed there was something wrong with me. When I arrived back at the cabin, I was greeted by a policeman with handcuffs and an ambulance with flashing lights. My friend had called for emergency help—thank goodness.
Strapped in the back of the ambulance, I rode two hours to Bangor State Hospital. I was told I would be there for two weeks. But because I refused medication, weeks turned into months. I found the other patients frightening and suspected some might be possessed by the devil. Was I really Lucifer’s wife?
Awakening in a warm, quiet room, I gradually realized that today I didn’t need to start a fire, wash the sheets, tend to the children or grow, harvest and cook my dinner. I felt liberated and more like myself than I had in years. All this time I’d been fighting for survival, hardly daring to breathe. And now a great pool of fear began bubbling up. The process was waiting to happen.
I took up crocheting as a form of therapy, and as I watched my work grow I felt my defenses fall away, row by row. Oh, the grief! I’d lost my father—my brother—my husband—my children. I’d lost my dream, and worst of all, I was losing my mind. How does one process all of that?
I tried talking with the other inmates, but my former identities as mother, wife, daughter, sister, aunt, niece, cousin, friend or neighbor had vanished. I was now an unwanted nobody.
Being a vegan and great believer in all things natural, I asked for fish oil, B vitamins, natural supplements, fresh fruit, and fresh vegetables. And I was told they required a doctor’s order. I finally understood that unless I agreed to being medicated, I’d never be released from the hospital. I agreed and was soon discharged back to my family. Cured? No—just medicated.
The week of my return, our dear friend and landlord killed himself. The neighbors buried him under an apple tree in his beloved yard. His brother, who inherited the land our cabin was on, didn’t care for the homesteading agreement. Wanting someone to own that piece of property outright, he told us to purchase or sell.
So we sold our home and moved to the nearest town, where my husband started a bakery and I moved into subsidized housing with the children. Only one former neighbor came to visit, and he became like a brother to me. Occasionally the children and I would visit him in his tree house. Then one beautiful summer’s day, he fell from that tree house and died instantly.
Come January or February each year, I’d suffer another bout of mania and be taken to a mental hospital. Always I’d resist drugs and requested vitamins, fish oil, fresh air, exercise and grief therapy. Always to no avail.
Wanting to provide a stable home for my children during these annual psychotic episodes, I agreed to my mother’s request that we move to Connecticut and live with her. Her husband was terminally ill and died a few months after we moved in. We lived in an in-law apartment she had built onto her house.
My oldest son was entering middle school, and a new charter school had opened in the next town. The first day of school I woke him to drive him to his new school, but he refused to go, saying he wanted to take the bus to public school with his friends. My mother came in, sided with my son and made up her mind to thwart me. She called her sister as reinforcement, and then called an ambulance.
I was admitted to a hospital, not because I was experiencing any symptoms but because my mother had decided to usurp my role as a parent. A lawyer explained that as long as I lived in my mother’s house, I’d have no rights of my own.
My mother filed Probate proceedings to terminate my custody of the children on the grounds of mental illness. At hearings she claimed I was an unfit parent but was unable to support her contention. Defeated, she told the court: “My daughter was and always has been a wonderful mother.” Stunned, the judge threw the case out of court.
I applied for a Section 8 voucher so my children and I could move into a four-bedroom house near the Charter School, where my son made the honor role. But I was running on empty.
Anemic and exhausted, I sublet a spare room to a family friend who helped me with shopping and heavy lifting. The landlord initially agreed to this arrangement but later reported me to Section 8 for a breach of contract, and I lost my voucher. I was left homeless and alone, my three children now living with their father.
Not wishing to return to my mother’s house, I tented in the woods or stayed with friends, but males expected sex in return. I couldn’t believe what I had been reduced to. Feeling like a prodigal daughter, I moved back into my mother’s house, but no fattened calf was slain. Instead, I was treated like a prisoner with a bolt on the door to lock me in every night. I was not to open windows or doors despite the fact my mother smoked 4 packs a day. Each morning she would come into my apartment uninvited to check up on me. I wasn’t to use her phone, her car or the stove.
Desperate and believing that only as an inpatient could I be assigned a caseworker, I went to a public place, took off my clothes and was arrested for public exposure—a symptom of my current diagnosis. When I told the police I had a history of mental illness, I was taken from jail to a mental hospital. There I was enrolled with the homeless outreach team. With their invaluable help, my section 8 voucher was returned and I moved into a new apartment. Working with a psychiatrist, I was able to go off all medications and develop alternative strategies...
A nurse on the HOPE team gave me a book called complimentary medicine that catapulted me into a search for real answers to the illness that plagued me every year. In my search, I discovered that living in Maine, with its longer winter seasons, had increased my need for serotonin. The psychiatric drugs attempted to boost low levels, but what worked best for me were foods and supplements that naturally increased serotonin that is manufactured in the gut. I loved eating better and discovering natural remedies to boost my body’s innate intelligence. And isn’t that the key to overall health?
Being both peril-menopausal and vegetarian had brought on my severe anemia. Natural iron supplements worked like a miracle drug, restoring my energy almost overnight. I developed strategies for coping with grief and learned to recognize my own emotional limitations. Today I’m a far healthier person, physically and emotionally—able to enjoy my grandchildren and pursue new dreams
All three of my children are leading healthy adult lives. My oldest lives in the in-law apartment which allows my mother to remain in her house. My mother quit smoking after 63 years and is no longer the tyrant she once was. My daughter lives next door to me with her twin sons and is the best mother I know. My youngest son is attending college in Portland, Oregon hoping to become a psychologist. My ex-husband runs a popular Portland bakery and employs my son-in-law. My new dream is that one day our twin grandsons will manage it. Over the years I have educated myself in childbearing and am now preparing a birthing support service for addicted women.
My message to you today is there are safe alternatives and life style changes that can benefit many people with good science behind it. Nutrition, either good or bad, set people up for health or illness. That is coming to be more commonly recognized.
What about how nutrition affects the brain? Any medications can pose dangers. I have handouts here for anyone who would like one, illustrating what may be the real cause to the school shootings.
My dad used to say: “If you have your health, you have everything.” And I feel blessed to have been given a chance to gain in every dream I put my mind to.”
Thank you for listening to my story and inviting me here today.
Compulsive Hoarding Syndrome is it equal to the sin of sloth? My friend has this problem as does his brother and sister, The Mayo Clinic considers it a genetic illness. My friend and his brother do
not see hoarding as a problem, although they recognize they have problems, this is considered a symptom, too.
My friend is healthy as an ox phsyically (so to speak), how does anyone who loves him get him to become aware there even is a problem that is treatable? what is a non intrusive thing to do or say? Getting angry doesn't make a difference. Cleaning up doesn't last.
In training to be a "peer navigator" how do I help him? the idea is I know he can have a better life, but his initiative. This is a symptom, instead of a character flaw, he is not lazy, he is compulsive, which is the illness. One wonders whether an uncontrollable illness begins with mental choice. For instance: I am angry and want to retaliate, and do...(then I become as criminal, too)
A spiritual higher standard is: "get angry but do not sin" - or my personal favorite I use is, "Revenge is mine says the Lord" - that tells me I don't have the responsibility to vindicate. Regardless of where this adage comes from, it is a suggestion to use constraint or a caution to not take matters into ones own hands. Holding to a higher standard is not mandatory, but when adhered to, builds character, better ourselves and to grow. Kind of a win-win situation.
I feel much like Ignac Semmelweis Kathryn Bourque
The almost preposterous arrogance THEY couldn't be culpable in any way, like the other midwives or lesser docs is simply incredulous. Other hospitals refused to wash their hands for many years even after germs were discovered and proven to conferillness.
The idea that if I were at a conference of pediatricians and raised the question: does autism begin with pain medications at birth?" How many would embrace me? or challenge me for the betterment of their profession? None most likely because they are not there to learn, but to congregate, slap each other on the back, rub elbows and enjoy their peers. It is an outing, or social gathering, that is the intent. Looking for the truth of diseases arising out of childbirth gets in the way of their relaxing. the same with this new NAMI type group - it is really exists for, well....crony-ism (under the guise of family support).
WHHHAAATT? no mention of antidepressants crossing the placenta, did this PhD not know it has been uncovered that antidepressants do cause intestinal and brain malformations? . National Television. I am still flabbergasted. Where is the real information this mother was searching for?
Mental Health and Childbirth, Lactation, Bonding, Imprinting
By Kathryn Bourque
The illness of bi-polar arrived in my mid 30’s, two and ½ years after my third and final child was born. At the same time or because of it, my marriage of 12 years was dismantling. The next decade would be tumultuous. I could not have imagined what this middle class woman in a good marriage with three beautiful children would be put through. It was incongruous with who I knew I was, who my natal family knew I was, who my neighbors and friends believed I was….it broke the mold as to my part in society when my life crashed under my feet.
Without anyone else of my family having a been given a mental diagnosis, it was a puzzle as to why I had developed it. My brother had committed suicide a year before while he attempted to get clean and sober on his own without supports. My father died a year later at the age of 53. Both of these events were tragic, I had little insight as to how grief would plunge me into grave despair.
When I regained my full health, I was determined to live a vital life as a normal person. I started to pursue my goals that had been halted in mid stream. I continued fighting and seeking until I knew I had found the truth of its inception. Simple solutions helped enormously. If the nature of bi polar was ill arranged or misfiring brain waves, I read about brain waves and found many interesting but little know facts about modern life. Did you know that light has a frequency and the lights that we have in our homes and offices vibrate at a rate that irritates the human brain? I started turning off the lights in my house. Did you know that glass in windows and windshields, even glasses, because a barrier to ultraviolet rays from the sun our bones need to stay strong? Going outside for long walks in the sunshine became a staple to regain health. Also, vitamin D from the sun should reach most of our skin, not just our faces, arms and legs. I remember reading that Benjamin Franklin, would sunbathe in the nude for an hour a day. Surely, he was a man way ahead of his time. How is it that we having the science today that proves these solutions, does not reach into medicine?
Having lived a simple life without electricity for years preceding my meltdown, I realized my brain had slowed down to prehistoric caveman and woman time. During this time my husband and I and my children were living off the grid in a rural community in coastal Maine. Bi polar caught up with me here. I wanted to know why now?
Commitments to state mental hospitals ensued. Psychiatric medications masked the real problem and caused unwelcome and unnecessary new ones. Years of counseling and management followed. Real answers were available by those who provided my care only in small amounts. Somehow I knew the answers to be found were in my reach and in my own hands. I worked in tandem with my treatment team and eventually triturated off of all medications. It took many years with patience with vigilance paid off.
A strength that I relied on when doubts were as thick as fog, understood the nature of birth. The natural births of my three children at home prepared me to “go deep” inside my own resources to tackle survival. There is a 20 minute space of time during childbirth called “transition” where one is convinced she cannot go on any longer. Midwives understand that the birth is imminent. The “trick” is to reach deep for all inner resources to make it though the final moments. The outcome is worth every ounce of effort! I have indeed found my way to the other side of that dark time.
One step on my journey was to fulfill goals for education. They were achievable and affordable. An investment in me made an unspoken statement that I was valuable. I saved every nickel to take a course to become a doula, which is a mother’s helper. The class was so rewarding I knew I had found my niche. I took out a loan to take another course in lactation, to become a certified lactation counselor (CLC). that led to my real dream of becoming a teacher in childbirth. In my advanced age of over 50, my colleagues were mostly young women in their 20s or 30s. I wanted to shine and be my best. I read extra books that were not required for the course that had a broader perspective. And as before with the research about light vibrations, I found little known information mothers need to be the best mothers they can be. My passion for birth was jumpstarted at the time my daughter gave birth to twins in the hospital.
The situation in the hospital was near a battlefield as we fought to have a “homebirth in the hospital”, a birth experience as simple and natural as possible. I will save the hysterics about this event for another paper, but here is where I found my greatest benign force. I was able to catch both of my grandsons; even though the second was born breech and my daughter had the natural birth she desired. It came though educating ourselves beforehand and advocating for our rights in the hospital. My daughter’s words and critique of the situation are succinct:” Had I given in to a c-section, (the staff wanted me to have) I would not have been able to live with myself” (having come from a mother who had given natural birth to her). That legacy of natural birth lives on in our family because of her will and determination. My daughter was and is a source of great pride for me in her own strength as the best mother I have known. It was hard won. Every goal desires to be achieved. And I will say it again: the outcome was worth every effort. My grandsons are happy and a source of great joy.
Over 90 percent of all births take place in the hospital, I was a rarity in choosing a different way to birth my children and I broke the mold of medicated birth for generations to come. It is good to be different! And especially unique! Each one of us is an Original, not to be duplicated, unless you are an identical twin, like my grandsons.
What I discovered in my study to become a childbirth educator is this: over 90 percent of women giving birth receive drugs for labor pain. These drugs are little tested for long term effects on infants (and mothers), what science does know and admits to is that drugs do in fact cross the placenta. How does this affect the infant long term. Studies have not been done because these studies are funded by the Chemical Industry. My guess is that it is not in their best interest to find out. What is observable is the lack of initial bonding in the first days, weeks after birth.
If a mother does not bond with her newborn within the crucial first hour after birth, mammals show us a mother of ALL other species will reject her offspring and the infant will not survive. If humans have a conscience we can and do develop strategies that continue life, on the outside, to hold the pair together physically, but without the fire of maternal passion, intuition and wisdom intact, “mothering” is lackluster at best, and can be downright debilitating to a developing child.
A baby who is born too sleepy by drugs to feed, may suffer other problems as well, such as jaundice, which puts the health of the newborn in jeopardy, that, in turn, leads to even more medical or hospital treatments. It is an uphill cascade that causes stress in families at a time when new parents are embarking on the greatest work on earth.
Bonding is a close cousin to “imprinting” which I believe may be the root of my own mental disability. My mother smoked 4 packs of cigarettes a day. Her moods peaked with each smoke and crashed before she reached for another. Imprinting implies offspring follow their mothers everywhere and imitate everything they do. The universal reason for it is to pass down the knowledge of survival. My growing, forming intellect and attention were focused my mother’s peaks and valleys. No wonder when I became a mother at 29, I crashed and burned soon after. Being given a diagnosis of a mood disorder, I surmise, the nicotine formed my brainwaves in uteri. That was the inception. Through imprinting, the shifts in mood became “normal” early on in my life. I would be destined to still have a mood disorder, except that I stopped conditioning that formed me.
Firstly, I didn’t smoke. Secondly, I gave birth without the use of any drugs, thirdly, I breastfed all my children. That made MY bonding and imprinting ability much different and BETTER than what I received. .
Something was broken in both my mother and myself that has never healed and I cannot regain and neither can she. Some things in life one just has to accept as wrong, but so.
If I chose to give birth with drugs as my mother did, I have no doubt that mental illness would still be my whole life’s work. That I chose my own authentic path became my greatest ally in the end, as well as my daughter’s. My story is one of victory for two generations and possibly much longer, if present scientific research now is done, comes to bear fruit.