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Breast Cancer Helped Me Understand My Bipolar Son

A mother writes that her own illness opened a window into his successes


It’s 2 a.m. on a Sunday. The phone shocks me awake and I scramble out of our warm bed and across the chilly bedroom to answer it. It’s Daniel, our 27-year-old son’s best friend.

“Jackson’s been arrested,” he says. “He’s in the city jail. They say you can bail him out. I’m really sorry, Ann.”

Standing in the dark, shocked by this news, the sadness makes me feel I’m made of marble. My good-hearted son arrested? How could this be?

That night, it seems that Jackson, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 16, was floridly manic. His friends had tried to keep him out of trouble, but he’d insisted on riding the subway and on walking between moving cars, which is prohibited.

The transit police were actually about to let him go with a warning and were ushering him towards the station exit when Jackson flamboyantly hopped the turnstile. That infuriated the police and they arrested him.

A Shift in Thinking

Although my husband and I had already been through an awful lot with Jackson, his arrest that night shifted my view of his situation. That night, I felt immense disappointment — not in him, but for him.

Even though I know that bipolar disorder can rob a person of his reason, it is still hard to fully grasp that someone as smart as Jackson could act in a fashion so opposed to his own best interests, to grasp his loss of self control.

The development that helped me understand better what it meant to face a profound loss of control came years later, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

The diagnosis finally helped me grasp how frightening a life-changing illness can be, how different life can feel and how illness can shift your view of yourself in the world. Breast cancer showed me what it meant to feel fundamentally compromised in my own body and to feel a loss of control at a primal level.

I had to accept that even though I eat right, exercise and socialize a lot, and sleep well, my body is largely beyond my control. Forces inside of me equip my body to do my bidding miraculously well when I am healthy, but they can also spin off in dangerous directions.

Still, the loss of control that was affecting me didn’t rob me of my reason. Even if cancer killed me, I would know what was happening and why.

Struggling to Understand Bipolar Disorder

Jackson’s situation seems so much harder. When mania grips him, he loses self-awareness quickly. He can become intensely delusional in days, to the point where he thinks he can shoot lasers at the moon.

For years after Jackson’s bipolar diagnosis, I studied this condition. I read about the illness, spoke often with two close friends who also have bipolar illness and consulted a psychiatrist friend.

These efforts yielded lots of information about the disease, but failed to advance my heart’s understanding of Jackson’s situation. They did nothing to help me appreciate how well he was doing at building a satisfying, meaningful life even though it did not look like the conventionally successful life that had once seemed likely to be his.

The arrest forced us to finally see that achievements we had once envisioned for Jackson were probably unlikely. While it seemed that not long ago, Jackson was a child snuggling next to me as we read Dr. Seuss, now we were hiring a criminal attorney for him. In the end, the judge only required him to do community service. He does not have a criminal record.

And there had been other painful challenges.

Emergency Hospitalizations

We’ve had to have Jackson hospitalized against his will repeatedly. No surprise, our free-spirited young man hates being locked up in what he calls “the loony bin.”

The first time, he was 17, a straight-A student and a lettered track star. He’d spiraled into severe mania and had stopped reliably eating, sleeping or making sense. When we hid his car keys for fear he’d cause a crash, he started running everywhere, despite the crushing August heat.

Afraid he’d have heat stroke, we obtained a court order for his forced hospitalization. We tricked him into staying home at a specific time by having his favorite pizza delivered, so the police could come collect him. We watched them handcuff Jackson and lead him, head hanging, into a police car.

The sight of my gentle son being handcuffed and led away flooded my heart with confusion, shock and an overwhelming sense of failure, although I knew intellectually that his illness was nobody’s fault.

The second forced hospitalization came when we realized that Jackson was trying to suppress mania by taking extra lithium, which becomes highly toxic when overused. By the time he reached the hospital that time, his condition was critical.

A Cancer Scare

After years of worrying about Jackson nearly constantly, it was strange for me when that life-changing cancer diagnosis came last November. After the doctor’s call, it took weeks to determine the cancer’s extent. During that time, I faced the possibility of mastectomy and chemo. I felt scared and sad, and bad about feeling scared and sad. I thought I should be able to handle it better.

Thinking about losing my breast, it hit me that I was feeling incredibly burdened by the loss of a body part that, really, I could manage without. It wasn’t a leg or an eye. Ultimately, I was lucky. My tumor was small and surgery and radiation sufficed. No mastectomy, no chemo. Piece of cake, as cancers go.

Meanwhile, Jackson wakes up every morning, unsure about the condition of his one and only brain, facing the possibility that it will fail him and may land him, again, in any number of dangerous, even deadly situations.

He knows that three years ago, only blocks from his apartment, a young man a lot like him — slight, dark-skinned, with biopolar disorder — was shot dead by the police for acting crazy even though that young man clearly posed no real danger to anyone. The man had been knocking on neighbors’ doors and shouting. When a resident called the police, they came and promptly shot him dead even though he was completely naked, and could not possibly have had any weapon.

Jackson never knows when his brain may betray him, yet he never expresses self-pity over this. He just focuses on things he values, such as music, dancing, reading, dogs and manageable work, like food delivery. He’s a skillful freelance deejay, too. He exercises regularly and has wonderful friends, most of whom are professionals, teachers and the like. He has also had a series of bright, well-educated girlfriends.

The Magnitude of His Triumphs

Thinking about our two different health challenges, I realized that my cancer has done me a great service because it has helped me think in a new, clearer way about Jackson. It has put me squarely in the grip of an illness that arrived, took up residency in my body and will never really go away as a matter of grave concern. I’ll be having mammograms every six months now for a long time, and will go through those tests with much sharper worry than I did before the cancer diagnosis.

Similarly, and on a much more intense level, Jackson too can never put aside the fact that he must be monitoring his moods, not every six months but every single day. Having cancer has helped me to fully appreciate how hard it is to live like that, always needing to be vigilant.

Living with a life changing illness has also forced me to see how hard it is to work in the way one would like to work in the face of fatigue, distress and the burden of caring for oneself. This has helped me think about Jackson’s accomplishments differently, and to more fully understand how the mental health challenges make working regularly and advancing so hard.

I’ve come to recognize how remarkable Jackson is, not because his brilliant mind has led him to brilliant achievements, but rather because he has found a way to enjoy life on his own terms, not society’s, and to be at peace about that.

Jackson did do work suitable for a person of his intellect after graduating from college. He held a good communications job at a nonprofit, but lost it when mania landed him in the hospital. When he recovered, he found another job with a social media company, writing about motorcycles. It was a 24/7, high-stress position, though. Stress can trigger bipolar episodes, and in this case, it did, ending that job.

Eventually, Jackson started taking modest jobs — at a cinema, a restaurant, a car wash. At present, my highly gifted son is delivering restaurant orders. He values the flexible work because to maintain an even keel mentally, Jackson needs lots of sleep, not only at night. His mind needs more tender loving care than seems possible with a professional job in today’s pressure-cooker work world. He wants to work, but recognizes the priority of caring for himself and staying stable.

Taking Care of Business

I’m not confident I would do as well as Jackson has if my brain sometimes spun out of control. It might be much harder for me to maintain my own sense of intrinsic worth, optimism and simple pleasure in living with a freewheeling brain.

I derive major pride in myself from my work as a dietician. This leaves me marveling at and rejoicing in Jackson’s ability to be happy living a life that he can manage, without much of a career.

Jackson and I seldom discuss his illness or his management of it. He insists that my husband and I recognize his adulthood and leave him alone to manage his condition. We know that he is doing his best.

It’s been a protracted process for me to fully accept that fact.

I wish I had never had cancer, but still I will give cancer credit that it deserves. I couldn’t love Jackson more than I do, but like nothing else, cancer has been the wake-up call that finally helped me really understand, appreciate and respect my son.

By Ann Weaver
Ann Weaver is a pseudonym for a writer based in the Southeast.

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