Staying the Course Prescribed for Major Depressive and Bipolar Disorders: A Family’s Journey Thus Far

Living_Brain_Disorder2.jpgI don’t believe there is any road of human experience wrought with more winding, blind-curve, uphill challenge, where chronic illness is concerned, than in traveling the path forced by that of mental health issues relating to a close family member. Perhaps debatable, but certainly not by me — it’s the hardest road. There. I said it.

I am the mother of 24 year old son. A son, who was diagnosed at age 14 with major depressive disorder. And, to add to the ragged, mysterious 10 year tour; the looming, possible diagnosis of bipolar disorder. A diagnosis suspected by a host of mental health care professionals through his subsequent, abnormally turbulent, (understatement) teen years; from in and outpatient addiction counselors, to attending psychologists and psychiatrists. The doctors were hesitant to diagnose him with bipolar unequivocally, due to his young-adult age. But, given his behavioral symptomatology and genetic family history, I think bipolar disorder has likely been a decided, pre-mapped route we are destined to travel as a family.

What does this all mean to a patient, a mother, a family, after ten years of worry and treatment, and more worry and more treatment? Well, we only know for sure what we don’t know. Which is: We don’t know if there will EVER be a “cure”. This known “unknown” is especially prevalent within the parameters of chronic depressive illness. And, for a mother, that’s a particularly bitter pill to swallow. And, is reason in part, for my contention that dealing with this particular mental illness is, in so many ways, more difficult and heart-wrenching than dealing with other chronic illnesses presenting with predominantly physiological symptoms.

As a family that struggles with the resource drain of the “off” briefly, then unpredictably back “on” with a vengeance aftermath of major depressive disorder; we have, out of necessity, come to expect less and less in terms of the support and compassion from some of those in our sphere of influence. This is due to the misguided perspectives pertaining to the behavioral symptomatology that our son’s illness presents. But I report, to a positive effect, we have come to realize a more centered focus of strength and connection within our immediate family as a result of “huddling” together through the years.

Given the vast, varied scope of expansive anatomy concerning neural pathways relating to brain chemistry, biological inheritance factors, brain injury related exigence, synapses wiring, etc., etc., etc; I think it’s not terribly unlike searching the infinite heavens for a pinpoint cluster of stars or galaxy suspected, but undiscovered. The search for the answers as they relate to serving the goal of restored mental health is a, decidedly, daunting journey at times. Yet, the collective neuroscientific community, in many cases under funded with regard to research, AND scores of devoted, often underinsured families, forge on tirelessly. All compelled by primal instinct: That of compassion and concern for another soul. A search for answers driven by the desire that all people deserve to be “who” they were meant to be, unfettered by would be personality “disrupters” altering the very core of what we, as humans, innately recognize as: “who one is”.

Related to that subject, and because I feel especially entitled in this forum with regard to my particular experiences as a mom in support of a son; I will unceasingly continue to bellow this fact: “Depressive disorders can contain symptomatology or “episodes” of absent “life management drive” as well as, seriously “self-destructive” behavioral choices, by the patient. That combined, in some patients, with the propensity to exhibit self-medicating, addictive tendencies — even more so, with lack of the help provided by consistent professional treatment. These repercussions are symptoms of the chronic depressive illness present. Depressive illness symptoms are typically behavioral — BUT ARE NOT CHARACTER ISSUES! There. I said that too.

And so… “What” in the absence of physiological cure to date? As in any other chronic illness where family support is concerned, that’s easily stated: “Love… Love… Love”, of the “unconditional” variety. And, consistent support born of the, “get yourself educated in the facts relating to the “chronic depressive illness” variety”, should you desire to effectively help a family affected. Both varieties, crucial components needed to bridge the sometimes, seemingly black, chasm-like gap that can emotionally, and physically, separate patients with mental illness from family members and other loved ones; as well as, create social disconnect regarding affected families from extended family members, friends and others.

I can manage the misunderstood response to my son’s illness by some family members and friends in a logical frame; easier now for me than it was several years ago. That helps me cope and live in better peace. Still sometimes, but to a lesser degree, that disconnect has been especially painful. Peoples’ ambivalence, and then to the opposite intensity, their rush to character judgment is, quite literally, emotional “assault” rubbed into an already serious wound. I’m convinced the response offered by some friends and family members would be much different if the chronic illness my son suffers were to be say, cancer or multiple sclerosis.

I will continue to do my homework in staying informed on scientific and cognitive therapeutic advances regarding treating chronic depressive illness on behalf of my son’s life, and my family’s health. As a result, I’ve come to understand so much more about the nature of this chronic illness. As far as others are concerned, it’s pretty simple. When people are uneducated with regard to the behavioral symptoms presented by major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder, they tend to “shrink back” in awkward attempt to protect themselves from the discomfort of not knowing what to do in support of the effected patient and family. The behavioral symptomatology result can be, after all, quite unsettling. I get that. But unfortunately, as a family, we continue to experience the disconnect to a larger degree than, I believe, should exist.

So where are we on the map now? Well… constantly moving in the direction of encouraging others in the understanding of the realities of this chronic illness. In this case that happens to be my son’s constant, courageous battle with major depressive disorder.

Until the final destination of “cure” is arrived at, restoring the “hay wiring” effects of the illness, I will look to the advances available that assist with healthy, peaceful travel along the way: Effective medical treatments, in combination with constructive, compassionate, non-judgmental support. This “vehicle” provides, from time to time, a reflective stop along the way that reaffirms the journey’s purpose. We’ve come such a long, long way in support of our son and our family. Are we there yet? We’re as close as we can be…

Patti Herndon

Patti Herndon's son was diagnosed with major depressive disorder at age 14. She is an addictions and mental health advocate. She is a counseling student trained in a therapeutic approach known as Motivational Interviewing (Miller, Ph.d and Rollnick, Ph.d). Her studies focus is; the processes of positive behavioral change as it relates to evidence based addiction recovery. She has served as a parents advisory board member for a large non-profit organization with the goal of helping parents intervene, successfully, in their teen's substance use. Website:
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