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Perfect Chaos: Helping My Daughter Survive Bipolar Disorder

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In a memory from the not so faraway past, I am standing in the hallway outside the locked entry to psychiatric Unit C, removing the strings from my daughter's sweatpants. There is another woman waiting at the door who looks just like me. She could be a nurse, a doctor, a teacher, a professor. I remember this woman. I have seen her in the hospital hallways before; we are on a similar journey. Her daughter is the same height as mine, approaching six feet tall. Her daughter cannot walk more than twenty steps without a walker or wheelchair. Her daughter weighs a mere 105 pounds. I am pulling the strings from my daughter's sweatpants because she is on a suicide watch. The woman waiting at the door is praying that her daughter will not die of starvation in the most well-fed country in the world. I am praying that medicine, therapy, faith, and love can save my daughter from herself.

How did I get here? What signs did I miss over the last few years? Could I have saved my daughter from this pain? Could I have prevented my family this agony? Are these questions every family asks when a child or sister or mother or friend is hospitalized, in the vortex of a suicidal depression or another mental illness?

Since that day in the hospital, I have learned that love alone will not save someone from depression. You cannot simply love someone back to the safe ground of wellness (oh, that we could!). But you can love someone enough to seek, advocate, and fight for medical treatment. In fact, without that love -- a love that drives you to fight for the life of your loved one -- people like my daughter and the daughter of the mother in the hallway are surely lost.

I cannot read an article or story about a mother losing her son or daughter without crying, without feeling the cutting pain of fear and love that I remember so well. I came so close to losing our child. Those days and months and years, it felt as if I were hanging on to her as she dangled over the side of a cliff, as if I were holding on to her by only a piece of clothing, a very slim piece. I hoped it wouldn't tear, that she wouldn't fall from my grip. Her dad was hanging on, too, and our family and friends behind us. With all of us hanging on for her dear life, we didn't let go. She fought as well, trying her hardest to climb back up. Sometimes she was able to fight, sometimes she fought us to let go of her, and sometimes she merely dangled while we held her weight. We would not give up.

In our book, "Perfect Chaos: A Daughter's Journey To Survive Bipolar, A Mother's Struggle To Save Her," my daughter Linea and I tell a painful story that is only a part of the journey we took, and are still taking. It is all true. When I read Linea's words for the first time, I was filled with agony -- but also with pride. She had written in journals since grade school and continued to write even during her darkest days. She is amazingly honest in her writing and in her life, and she chose to share her deepest thoughts. Hers is a voice of a young person struggling with the painful and difficult life we all share, but one that she has inhabited more deeply, more painfully, perhaps more honestly than most of us. Her words are horrific and sad and even strangely funny at times. Her honesty and willingness to share her writings and her thoughts with me moved us to a place of deeper truth with each other. It opened the door to a closer relationship that, while often painful, developed into trust and honesty that have moved beyond our family and into the world around us. This honesty changed me. I found strength I didn't know I had. I faced fears that had lurked in the back of my mind for years and, when brought into the light, healed some very old wounds. It was with the guidance of exceptional doctors and nurses, support of family, friends, and occasional angels on earth, and, mostly, the courage of my daughter that we moved from that place of horror to where we are now.

We are privileged in having the resources that allowed Linea to receive the care that she did. In our day-to-day and often minute-by-minute fight for her life, it was very clear to me that we have advantages and therefore a responsibility to add to the understanding about mental illnesses and to advocate for treatment and support for those who aren't nearly as lucky as we are. Ours is a journey through illness, but it is not only that. It is a journey steeped in love, a love that would not give up on our daughter's life. The energy and time it takes to find good treatment, continued support, and understanding for the person with a mental illness as well as his or her family are often overwhelming, but they are also often the difference between recovery and devastation.

Excerpted from "Perfect Chaos: A Daughter's Journey to Survive Bipolar, a Mother's Struggle to Save Her," by Linea Johnson and Cinda Johnson. Published by St. Martin's Press.

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