Finding Meaning in My Mother's Madness
Riess, Marc, The Humanist
My beloved mother, who died in a psychiatric hospital several years ago, struggled with manic-depressive psychosis most of her life. I have often asked myself existential questions such as, "Did my mom's mental illness have meaning or purpose? Can I find or create significance and value out of the disorder of her disorder? What good, if any, has emerged from Ma's suffering?"
I imagine others have asked similar questions about their loved ones', their own, or their patients' mental disorders. I want to share with you several stories about myself and some of my friends and colleagues which help provide me with answers to these questions. I hope these autobiographical anecdotes might help others to develop their own answers.
A few years ago I had the honor of serving on the board of directors of the Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Vermont (AMI-VT), an advocacy group in my home state. An issue high on our legislative agenda was parity in insurance coverage for mental disorders. We were--and still are--working toward ensuring that mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (the technical term for manic depression), and autism are not discriminated against in insurance by having higher copayments and lower caps on coverage than other illnesses like heart disease and cancer.
One year, for our annual statewide meeting, we invited as our keynote speaker a legislator who had introduced a parity bill in her state and nurtured it through her state house to become law. The evening before her keynote address, this legislator--Susan--met with the AMI-VT board to discuss the nuts and bolts of passing a parity bill. Following this work session, an impromptu party developed, and over a glass of wine (that turned into several), she and I got to talking about how we each became active in the mental-health movement. It turned out that both of our mothers were afflicted with severe, treatment-resistant cases of manic depression. As we exchanged "war stories" about our experiences as children and adolescents growing up in families deeply touched by mental illness, and then as adults attempting to care for and help our mentally ill mothers, we grew closer to each other in a way I think is unique to those who have endured similar difficult experiences.
For example, we both commented on positive ways in which our mothers had influenced our lives. Both of us had become active in mental-health issues and were arduously advocating on behalf of people with serious mental illnesses because of our experiences with our …
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Publication information: Article title: Finding Meaning in My Mother's Madness. Contributors: Riess, Marc - Author. Magazine title: The Humanist. Volume: 61. Issue: 1 Publication date: January 2001. Page number: 20. © 1999 American Humanist Association. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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