treating mental illness

My Life as a Full-time Therapist and Part-time Patient

Margo* is your typical “SoCal” woman—she runs half-marathons, loves swimming in the ocean, enjoys visiting breweries and has beach-blonde hair she secretly gets highlighted (we won’t tell). But as she manages her job as a behavioral health therapist at a crisis center, she must navigate her own mental illness and her family’s history with her place of work. This is Margo’s account as told to Brooke Knisley.

Turning Point is the first mental health crisis house in San Diego. It opened in 1980 and my father went there when I was two and my sister was four, so 1993. Turning Point told my mom at the time, “He’s really ill.” No young mother wants to hear that and mental health wasn’t often talked about back then. It’s a voluntary facility, so my mom went and pulled him out after a couple days.  

Since then, he’s gotten a couple of diagnoses: Schizo-effective bipolar type, but for the way he’s able to function, it’s more bipolar with psychotic features, bipolar I.

It wasn’t until after I interviewed for a position at Turning Point that my dad told me he was admitted there. I had never wanted to work in mental health because of my dad; I figured I was going to be living that life already. But to get licensed for Social Work, you have to have hours as a therapist, and this was a good opportunity to acquire them. That’s why I went into mental health after trying so long to avoid it.

My father was in his late-20s when he had this first manic episode, went home, and asked his neighbor if he should kill himself. One day when we were driving to the symphony, he casually described how he had thought the world was ending. From what my half-sisters have told me, he slit his own throat and the paramedics found him in a headstand, “trying to let the demons out.”

Currently, he’s not on any medication. And he doesn’t really acknowledge a lot of what’s happened. It’s obviously a sore subject for him. On some level, he knows that his mental health has negatively impacted his children, but I think for him to consciously acknowledge that would cause a breakdown.

My brothers and I still have him as a part of our lives. It helps him feel stable, productive, needed, and wanted. We let him be our handyman and buy us groceries so he can be around us. It allows us to make sure he’s eating food or not making big purchases. His last one was an ice cream machine. We just like to be able to keep an eye on him because his last severe episode happened in 2013 when he was fasting. We think that triggered it.

Part of keeping an eye on him is explaining things to him. My dad grew up in a time where the United States didn’t talk about mental health at all. It was really stigmatized. And the medications? Those old ones are awful with terrible side effects. When I talk to him about mental illness, I try to introduce psycho-education for him in a really gentle way. Like, “Oh, yeah, that’s psychosis. That’s a sign your mental health wasn’t where it needs to be.” I just try to make him feel like it’s a safe place to share. But I’m not going to be condescending and say, “That’s you being manic.”

All in all, I think our relationship is less strained now because I understand that psychosis is awful. It really increases your empathy understanding that when someone’s manic, they’re not trying to be mean to you. I do find it frustrating that my dad won’t take the improved medications. Medication would give me more peace of mind for when he gets older. I actually did a whole project in my Master’s program to see how unmedicated mental illness progresses with age—not well.

According to research, my dad should actually be doing worse than he is. Family support is a big reason for that. Unfortunately, mental illness often breaks apart families and that isn’t always an option. For me, it doesn’t remove the trauma; it still hurts, but I at least understand it now.

Then, there’s my own mental illness. I take a mood stabilizer, and I think it’s been helpful for me to show my dad I’m on a medication that really helps me. He used to tell me I needed to pray more and that would make my suicidal thoughts go away. When he saw that medication could help me, I think that increased his understanding. So we’ve helped each other.

At the crisis center, I don’t feel the need to share my mental illness. I have a mood disorder. It can be difficult and I don’t want to share that with my coworkers. There’s still a stigma: we call clients “crazy” or say, “Oh, god they’re manic and being too much right now.”

Some clinicians love to share their story and use it as a platform. The only time I share it is with clients to show them what’s possible. Mental illness is only one piece of a person and doesn’t mean they can’t have a life.

“Look, you can do it. You can,” I say. “I may not have gone through the same you went through, but I have a chemical imbalance too. It’s possible to still have a full, productive, happy life.”

*Name changed because of the stigmas surrounding mental illness.

Featured image by Joel Mwakasege
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