RECOVERY... AT AGE 91
Her name is Grace, this mother of mine, and she was born the last of 5 children, on a farm in north western New Jersey, on December 23, 1911. 16 years later, on New Year's Eve, she had her first "nervous breakdown" as she calls it. In her life history, written in 1979, she has this to say about the experience: "Had nervous attack on New Year's Eve. I shook so. Dr. said it was nervous grippe - but no, just a real good set-back. I cried and cried and cried. I stayed out of school for half a year and then took the first year over. I was still nervous and many times I'd make Bill [her brother] late when he had to take me home." During her time out of school she spent many hours resting or napping in the hay mow of the barn. But...despite dealing with continuing symptoms, she finished high school, graduated from Trenton State Teacher's College and taught school. In 1942, she married my father, gave birth to and raised 3 daughters, all the while staying very involved with Church and community activities, and occasionally substitute teaching, or teaching home bound students. Eventually, when we girls were all grown, she went back to teaching full time for a few years before retiring.
A year after my family and I moved to Marion, North Carolina, my mother moved into a mobile home on our property. This was 1996 and the medications my mother was on enabled her to have more relief from the psychiatric symptoms that she still continued to experience. But a gradual change began in the early spring of 1997, a change neither she, I, nor the Dr. recognized as what it really was - the medicines were becoming ineffective. By mid June she was experiencing a major increase in her symptoms. The doctor did not know what was going on. Increasing her meds did not help. Finally, I found a hospital that had a day program - called partial hospitalization, and here she was accurately diagnosed and treatments begun. Other medications were tried but nothing helped for very long. ECT was a last resort but her symptoms were continuing to escalate and we had a very sick person on our hands. In late October she was hospitalized and received her first several ECT's. She was 84 at the time and it was so very hard for her and for us to see her have to go through this. She continued to receive treatments at gradually longer and longer intervals until August of the following year when medications were tried again. This time they contiued working so no more ECT's needed to be done. Yeah!!
I was just beginning to understand about mental illnesses and become involved in NAMI activities. Eventually I was diagnosed with psychiatric illnesses and turned more and more to consumer programs. In the fall of 2002, our affiliate was able to have an In Our Own Voice: Living With Mental Illness training. My mother, at age 90, attended this training along with me, and is now my co-presenter. Whenever I get a chance at other mental health activities, I introduce her, tell her age and how long she has been experiencing psychiatric symptoms to give others the message of HOPE. I did this at a NAMI North Carolina conference last year and recently had some one tell me that seeing my Mom gave her the hope that she too could recover.
During the six years she has now been in recovery from her most recent episode, she has traveled to Arizona to see my sister, to Hawaii on a cruise, to Idaho to attend my daughter's graduation, to Alaska on a cruise, to the beach several times and traveled back and forth from North Carolina to New Jersey and to Kentucky numerous times. She has performed on stage, accompanying me on the piano for the Silver Arts portion of the Senior Games. Until we moved last year to Otto, NC, she attended Bible study and lunch at the Senior Center once a week. Now at 91, almost 92, she helps with the household chores, attends Church and Sunday School each week, goes to band concerts/competitions, attends a number of activities in our little community, corresponds with family and friends, takes rides in the golf cart around the neighborhood and through our woods.
During those first months of recovery, watching the birds from her front porch and holding our cats and talking to our dogs was very healing for her. Since she loved the outside birds so much, my sister gave her two parakeets. My mother calls them Holly and Molly and they are her faithful companions, chirping cheerfully every day. She still loves watching the outside birds come to the feeders. My mother is also very much a people person and every one who meets her just loves her. She is so cute with every one, thanking those who help in any way. And despite the fact that she can no longer help others in the ways she once could, she does touch the lives of others simply through her spirit of meekness and love, that shines through her entire being.
Some days are better than others and age is taking it's toll. But despite continuing symptoms, my mother is staying active and involved in life and doesn't let the rough times get her down for long. And I thank God every day for the valiant example of this, my mother, Grace.
Mary Ann, Grace's daughter and author of this piece, is an In Our Own Voice: Living With Mental Illness Coordinator.