Finding Meaning in My Mother's Madness

By Riess, Marc | The Humanist, January 2001 | Go to article overview

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 moms and their disorders. In this way we were both giving meaning to our mothers' "madness" and to our own lives. I imagine many others--professionals, family members, and patients alike--find and create meaning, significance, and value in similar ways. I personally experience this meaning deeply. It helps me to feel closer to my mother and to come to grips with her mental illness. It also helps me to answer existential questions about life and about myself. In fact, part of the motivation for this article derives from the desire to add purpose and meaning to my mom's suffering and the suffering of others. This search for meaning and desire to create purpose helps assuage my gnawing feelings that the mentally ill suffer in vain.

Liz was another woman at the annual meeting. Her sister has schizophrenia. One way that Liz added meaning and purpose to her sister's suffering was by serving as the first executive director of AMI-VT.

In the case of Liz's sister, traditional treatments for schizophrenia--such as anti-psychotic medications--weren't particularly effective. This, unfortunately, is all too often the case with severe and persistent mental illnesses. However, homeopathic remedies appeared to have helped and, as Liz and her family believe, even cured the woman for awhile. As a result of what she perceives as the miracle of homeopathy for her sister, Liz began to study it seriously, took courses and workshops on it, and developed her own practice in homeopathic treatment. …

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