Ann Omohundro needs little introduction, as I speak so often of her on Beyond Blue. If you want a refresher on who she is, check out my video, “Meet Guardian Angel, Ann!” I wanted to share more of her life story with you. So I have interviewed her for today’s segment of “How Do You Move Beyond Blue?”
1. Can you tell me a little about your father’s suicide and how that affected the relationship between you and your son?
Until I was nearing the age of my father, 38, when he died, and our son was the same age I was when my father committed suicide, life was not really unusual to me. I remember when Paul was not more than four, and I was crying in my bed, where I stayed for days when depressed. This was all delayed mourning for my father, or so I thought. My precious son said, “Don’t cry Mommy, you have a Daddy who loves you, a boy who loves you and two kitties and that’s all.” The “that’s all” brought on more tears.
I needed extensive therapy to work through that part of my childhood, and found a surrogate family with whom to act out my grief. They thought I was great fun, added life to the family, were neighbors and all through the many years of friendship, I felt worried that the husband, my friend, would commit suicide and that his wife was mean to him. He was a worrier, anxiety ridden and I in my regression felt I was helping him by making him laugh, adding joy to a difficult time in his life, and doing for him what I couldn’t have done to save my father. In the end, after shared vacations and deciding I wasn’t really seven years old, I realized I had to see friends who treated me as a contemporary.
Our perceptive son at one point said, “Mommy, I don’t see why you think of Mr. so-and-so as a father figure. He isn’t even a very good father.” When I was diagnosed as bi-polar this couple was appalled and thought it not true. They had majored in psychology in the fifties and considered themselves authorities on the subject. I finally ended the friendship by standing up for myself and not wanting to partake in an unhealthy situation, although I will forever be grateful to them for trying to understand me and listening. I resented the fact that they preferred my ups and downs and unpredictability to my being an honest to goodness adult with renewed responsibility for my wonderful, understanding and loyal husband and son. I had strong opinions which I held back so that I would not be abandoned or criticized. My self-esteem started to rebound.
One night when I put Paul to bed, he said, “Mommy how did your father die?” He had observed my long period of grief. I told him that he had committed suicide. Paul put his arms around me and began to cry. He said, “I’m sorry Mommy. I’m sorry Mommy. I’m so sorry.” I told this to Dr. Arnold Kerzner, the best child psychiatrist one could know. As our son’s advocate and trusted friend he said, “The reason Paul responded as he did is because all adopted children on some level feel abandoned, and he learned then that you also were abandoned. It has created a beautiful bond between the two of you.”
2. When did you first know something was wrong with your moods?
It was in the fall of 1978 when my dearest friend, Phyllis, whom I had met in my freshman year of college, was having tea with me one afternoon. I had been very inconsistent which she recognized, especially since her older sister had been hospitalized not long before because of mania. Phyllis’ mother suggested to her daughter that perhaps I might want to read the book “Moodswing” by Ronald Fieve. Though this wasn’t mentioned at the time, Phyllis said to me upon leaving our house, “Ann, if you don’t call a psychiatrist and make an appointment I won’t be your friend anymore!” This was a huge jolt. The friendship was and still is, of great importance to me. She left the house and I called her sister’s doctor immediately.
Not long before her ultimatum I had been with her, and went from great laughter about who knows what, and then burst into tears of grief and despair. We were friends who had gone through college together, knew each other’s families, and had some extraordinary common bonds. Most important was that our fathers committed suicide, and each of us was the mother of an adopted son just six months apart in age. I’ll add that we are both dyslexic, but that has provided great amounts of humor and laughter as we compare some of our mistakes. That would be another story. We love to laugh together about many shared incidents in the past which are remembered by our families and friends.
When I went to my first appointment, told my family history to the doctor, expressed how I was feeling, and gave him the chance to ask significant questions about my past, he was convinced I was a candidate for lithium, which would even out my fluctuating moods. Dick, my husband, was ready to celebrate when I got my first prescription. He bought two books about the brain, and took me to The Ritz Carlton for lunch with champagne and toasts to our new lease on life. To top it all, we have the good fortune of living in Belmont, Massachusetts, where Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital is located. McLean Hospital keeps us in awe of the research and developments in the field of psychiatry.
I felt enormous relief after our celebration, since our son had been diagnosed with learning disabilities, and we planned to have him see a child psychiatrist. This would determine if he had emotional problems. I felt relieved because I could tell the doctor that I was bi-polar and could have caused problems. I was grateful that his doctor would not have to point that out to my husband and me. It turned out that Paul was extremely sensitive, verbal, and loving and won the heart of the psychiatrist. He now had an advocate who would help him with self-esteem issues surrounding his learning problems, his bi-polar mother and his Type A father.
3. You’ve said to me on countless occasions that you have acted throughout much of your life, to conceal your emotions.
I believe that people, who suffer from mental illness, are among the finest actors in the world. When Dick and I have attended functions, been on business trips, or spending time with family or friends, I often turn to Dick when we are finally alone, and say, “The envelope, please.” My academy award winning performance was magnificent. I could not possibly count the times I have heard, “I can’t believe you have ever been depressed!” “You never seem depressed.” “You are always happy, good humored and I can’t visualize you depressed.” I wonder, “Do I need a wheel chair, a white cane or a cast to prove my disease exists, or would I be wise to call friends to stop by when I look as though my face has been run over by a truck?” We see Hallmark cards about coping, getting well, and hospital stays. Are there any for depression specifically? Where are the notes saying, “I am thinking of you during this difficult period?” Because of this flaw in our society, I spend time with people who are dying. I truly understand their loneliness, isolation, hopelessness and pain. Pain comes in many forms. My mental illness has given me compassion, empathy and discernment for those literally neglected during times when human contact is of utmost importance.
4. How often do you see your psychiatrist?
I now see my psychiatrist approximately four times a year to review my medications, and give her a chance to observe my behavior. When I come in with a high pitched voice and talk more than usual it is a sign of possible mania. I may be depressed or simply not able to cope with certain obligations and limitations. I might feel overwhelmed and anxious. On the other hand, I usually arrive eager to see my understanding doctor who is concerned about coming events, my planning ahead, not over-extending myself which can lead to either mania or depression. A psychiatrist asks the questions which give the answers needed to know a patient’s needs in terms of medications and remaining balanced in behavior. Medications are much like soup, in my mind. A little too much salt or pepper can completely ruin the flavor of a soup. Medications are the same. A little less of one medication, a little more of one, or cutting something out altogether makes all of the difference to my sensitive brain.
Like diabetes, bi-polar disorder remains a part of our genetic make-up, although proper treatment allows us to have fulfilling and happy lives. That does not mean that we don’t need tune-ups with our psychiatrists or the benefit of psychotherapy on a regular basis.
5. Tell me why Kahlil Gibran’s quote—”The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain”—is so meaningful to you?
I am a better person after all I have been through over my lifetime. Even as a child and young girl, life was harder for me in ways, but I compensated. I was energetic and active, and was happy to see that in my high school yearbook, the chosen quote to describe me is, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” I didn’t realize that there would be exceedingly rough times ahead. My wide range of emotions have an advantage in terms of understanding others and being able to empathize with hurting people and their families. I have great enthusiasm for the incredible help derived from the field of psychiatry.
6. What would be your advice to others who are struggling with mood disorders?
Family and friends are important but don’t expect them to understand what is happening to you. Very few families are well-informed and they can be critical, afraid, in denial and hurtful. You need only a few loyal family members, if you have any capable of understanding bi-polar disorder, and a few close friends to validate you. Once you get through the roughest periods, your happiness, and well-being are proof to those who belittled your problems when you were fighting for survival. One day you will have the respect we all crave. Sadly, one receives flowers, occasional meals, cards and visits when recovering from surgery, breaking a leg or losing a loved one, but a depressed person can be isolated, in great pain, suicidal, in need of friends, and no one seems to notice, or understand the agony of depression’s grip. When we resurface, most assume we have been on a glorious trip, have been busy with exciting activities or enjoying our lives in other ways. I try to impress upon my friends that if I am not seen or heard from for two weeks, give me a call. I do benefit from human contact. My husband and I often carry the burden alone.
7. Have you some particular thoughts you want to share with people who are bi-polar or have other physical illneses?
Being bi-polar is not my fault, nor is it the fault of anyone with the illness. I inherited a genetic disposition for bi-polar disorder that shows itself in many of my family members and took my father’s life. When you understand your illness, seek proper help, and are monitored by a psychiatrist who prescribes the necessary medications, you can have a balanced and meaningful life.
My mental illness cannot be managed by diet, exercise and meditation alone, although a healthy lifestyle is helpful to my well-being. My doctors have told me that as with diabetes, insulin is life saving for many. This is true with manic-depressive illness since suicide is often a desperate decision to fight the torture of depression and the fear of being a burden on those you love. One takes his or her life as pneumonia kills when penicillin is not prescribed. Even if I have extended periods of feeling “normal”, I never stop taking my prescribed meds. If I were to stop the medications that keep my brain chemically balanced, I would be asking for trouble. When medications are changed for any number of reasons, my doctor has me gradually cut back, which protects me from entering a manic stage or a state of severe depression. In my experience, holistic medicine alone cannot help someone with manic-depressive illness.
Some correct me when I say manic-depressive rather than the more recent term bi-polar illness. I find it is far easier for my friends and family to understand the terms, mania and depression. I am committed to stopping stigma, sharing my story and reaching out to those I discern are suffering from mental illness. I look forward to the day when one can discuss mental illness as easily as one discusses allergies. The brain is an organ, just like the heart and pancreas. A dysfunctional brain creates behavioral problems. This should come as no surprise or be feared. I urge people to treat mental illness as they would any other illness, and to feel grateful that we live in an exciting time of new and better treatments, medications and peace of mind. My father was unable to find such help in 1949, when shock treatment was feared, new and used in excess. Now ECT is helping those who do not respond to medications, and is used successfully. Whether one has ECT or medications today, these methods are two of many that help the mentally ill. We can all work to Stop Stigma by being authentic and well informed.
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