It’s my pleasure to introduce you to a fellow memoir author friend, Madeline Sharples, who wrote: Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide.
Madeline is on her virtual book tour, and I had the pleasure of becoming her friend and meeting her in person, at her home in Manhattan Beach, as well as at the Hollywood Book Fair. I wrote a review of her book on Amazon and Goodreads, and decided to ask her a few questions which intrigued me about her honest memoir. But first, a brief synopsis of her memoir.
Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide charts the near-destruction of one middle-class family whose oldest son committed suicide after a seven-year struggle with bipolar disorder. Author Madeline Sharples goes deep into her own well of grief to describe her anger, frustration and guilt. She also shares the story of how she, her husband and younger son weathered every family’s worst nightmare—including struggles with her own thoughts of suicide, and ultimately, her decision to live and take care of herself as a woman, wife, mother and writer.
- “A moving read of tragedy, trying to prevent it, and coping with life after.” Midwest Book Review
- “Poetically visceral, emotionally honest.” Irvin D. Godofsky, M.D.
- “Moving, intimate and very inspiring.” Mark Shelmerdine, CEO, Jeffers Press
My Questions and Madeline’s Answers:
1. What were the warning signs when your son first began to experience symptoms of bipolar disorder? (Anything at all happen during childhood that was different?)
Just before his first manic break in February 1993, he had traveled from New York where he was attending college at the New School to attend my mother’s 85th birthday celebration. I have a wonderful photo of him playing Happy Birthday on the piano with her sitting beside him. He was perfectly normal. He was calm, loving. He talked easily to everyone and readily smiled as he posed for a photo with his brother and cousins. For the two nights he was with us, he slept easily in his childhood bedroom, and kissed and hugged me when I said goodbye to him at the airport.
Two weeks later he was calling us up every few minutes, writing all over his apartment walls with a blue felt-tipped marker, and saying people were lurking in doorways out to get him and poisoning his food and cigarettes. His clothes were strewn all over the place, his dishes were stacked up—all behaviors so foreign to the orderly and neat guy he normally was. Most important, he was a jazz musician no longer able to sit still long enough at the piano to play a song through from the beginning to end.
In those two weeks after he returned to New York City, he played three successive gigs with some older musicians in Brooklyn, rather than with his own group, and had not slept for at least two nights in a row. He also drank heavily during these performances. So it is possible that this burgeoning jazzman lifestyle of little sleep, little food, and lots of booze sent Paul over the edge. He was also so affected by the news of the heroin-overdose death of one of his classmates he became unintelligible and had to be taken from his school to the hospital.
Paul was born with his third and fourth fingers connected on both hands. And because he was trying to separate them himself, we decided to have hand surgery performed just after he turned two. He had a scary time in the recovery room and had to wear casts that looked like boxing gloves for ten days afterward. As a result he had to quit sucking those fingers cold turkey. A few other events when he was two come to mind: we moved, his brother was born, and his beloved grandfather became very ill with cancer so he couldn’t play with him anymore. Later on in Paul’s teens he had an affair with a much older woman. I think the effect of that affair might have been a factor in how he related to women afterward.
2. How do you give support and comfort to a person who doesn’t want support or comfort?
We were in a hopeless situation. Because Paul was an adult child, we had no control. We couldn’t help him unless he let us. We felt like our hands were tied behind our backs—and by him. Paul was the driver—it was all up to him. We were out of touch and out of control at his choosing. All we could do was hope for the best, that somehow he would integrate what everyone had been telling him for so long—that his survival and recovery were up to him.
At the same time we concluded no matter what, he was our son and our responsibility. We would never turn him out into the streets. No matter how painful it was being with him, having him living with us, experiencing the effects of his illness on him and our family, we would take care of him for as long as he needed us to.
3. How did you maintain your sanity (during) and after your son’s suicide?
A long list of things helped: friends and family, getting back on my exercise program, pampering myself, writing in my journal and taking writing workshops, attending the Survivors After Suicide meetings at the Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services organization, finding a job outside my home, and being respectful of each other as a family. We stuck together as a family, we moved through our grief in our own way and in our own time, and we came out the other side as a family closer than ever before.
4. Did your marriage suffer as a result of your son’s bipolar disorder and suicide? So many couples end up divorcing, you didn’t how did you manage that strength between you?
At first we had a hard time just being together because our grieving methods and coping mechanisms were so different. My husband would keep saying that I needed therapy. To spite him, I wouldn’t go. That is the truth of it. He was afraid I was having a breakdown; I was afraid he was drowning his pain and anger in alcohol.
Yet, I think the main reason we survived Paul’s death at all was because of the strength of our marriage.
According to Bob, our marriage survived by a combination of my persistent drive to deal with the pain, suffering, and loss, and his willingness to wait until I got better. We realized early on that our grieving processes were different, so we were patient with each other about that. We also give each other a lot of space. We respect each other. We both are good at what we do professionally so there’s no competition or jealousy there. We have no reason to put each other down. We don’t get into arguments about the small stuff or let the small stuff get in our way. We’ve lived through too much big stuff to let that happen.
This love has also been the glue that has kept us together—a glue stronger than the trauma of Paul’s death. It was enough to help us in the most trying of times that a couple could ever go through. Plus neither of us has any other place to go. We’re together in it for the long haul—richer, poorer, sickness, health, and a son’s death.
5. What can a person do to help and comfort a family that has experienced a suicide or other tragedy? What is the best approach when you speak to a mom who has gone through what you went through?
I don’t know if this is the best approach, but here is what I would suggest. Of course offer condolences, and explain that even though we have both been through this experience, I would have no way of knowing how you feel. Everyone grieves in her own way and for however long it takes. Everyone has a different reaction to what comes her way. I would make sure the mother has permission to grieve – to cry, to laugh, to do what it takes to express her emotions. I would also suggest taking good care of herself – get some exercise, eat healthy, get pampered, buy a new dress, go to work, find a creative outlet. Looking good will help you to feel good. And even if you don’t feel good, pretend. Pretty soon you won’t have pretend.
Also, feel free to reject everything I’ve suggested. These are things that helped me, but that doesn’t mean they’ll work for you.
And, most important, I would tell her to not let anyone tell her how long or how to grieve. So many people told me it’s time to move on already. But what did they know? Grief is so personal it must be respected and allowed to run its true course.
6. How did your elder son’s illness and suicide affect your thoughts toward your younger son? Did Ben ever feel left out and not as loved?
It’s all about Ben now. He was my younger son. Now he’s my only son, the person I worry about the most. I think of all the disasters that could happen whenever he travels—by car, by plane, and even on foot. On days when I fear he is in danger, my heart and gut react more than ever. Now I try to hide my worries about him as best I can. After all, he is a grown up and has a wife to worry about him now. But still….
Some time ago I wrote that Ben is the reason I chose to live when I was most despondent after Paul died. That is still true. There is nothing I wouldn’t give him or do for him. Even before Paul died that was so. He and I spent so much time together as he was growing up. I was his first tennis teacher and warm-up partner, and I took him to all the tennis tournaments he competed in from the time he was seven until he graduated from high school. I worked with him on his tennis attitude such that he had a reputation for being the “Iceman” on the courts. I helped him through his losses, his nervousness before a match, his strategizing, and his triumphs.
Now I am the champion of his career. He comes to me for advice and I readily give it. He comes to me for editorial suggestions on the scripts he writes. And even though he doesn’t come to me for monetary help anymore, I would still readily give that to him too.
I don’t think Ben felt left out or not as loved during Paul’s illness or after his death. However, he had a hard time believing the behavior Paul displayed during his manic episodes were a result of his illness and not just his moodiness. So Ben stayed away a lot during those years. He just didn’t like being around his brother whom he loved very much after Paul got sick.
Sonia’s Extra Questions:
a) As a mom who has an 18-year-old son joining the Army and wanting to fight in a war, what advice do you have for us:
Not to fear the worst.
I think I can understand your fear. I have that fear about losing Ben even though there is no chance of his going into the military now because he’s too old. However, the thought of my child in danger of any kind brings out my worst fears. Of course, Ben thinks I’m silly, but I tell him I’m a mother, and that’s what mother’s do. Mothers worry.
b). What do you think is different for a mom who looses a child who is killed at war, than one who commits suicide?
Even though one could rationalize that one died while serving his country and the other died for naught, I think a mother will suffer from the death of her son no matter how it happened. Losing a child, not the way the child died, is the
Madeline Sharples is an author, poet, and web journalist who spent most of her professional life as a technical writer and editor, grant writer and proposal manager. Through the tragedy of her son’s mental illness and suicide, she has become a thought-provoking expert on the affects of mental illness and suicide on family members—and, more important, on how to keep the surviving members of your family together and move forward in the aftermath of tragedy.
Madeline Sharples studied journalism in high school and college and wrote for the high school newspaper, but only started to fulfill her dream to work as a creative writer and journalist late in life. Her memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide, was released in a hardback edition in 2011 and has just been released in paperback and eBook editions by Dream of Things. It tells the steps she took in living with the loss of her oldest son, first and foremost that she chose to live and take care of herself as a woman, wife, mother, and writer. She hopes that her story will inspire others to find ways to survive their own tragic experiences.
She also co-authored Blue-Collar Women: Trailblazing Women Take on Men-Only Jobs (New Horizon Press, 1994), co-edited the poetry anthology, The Great American Poetry Show, Volumes 1 and 2, and wrote the poems for two photography books, The Emerging Goddess and Intimacy (Paul Blieden, photographer). Her poems have also appeared online and in print magazines.
Madeline’s articles appear regularly in the Naturally Savvy, PsychAlive, Aging Bodies, and Open to Hope. She also posts at her blogs, Choices and at Red Room and is currently writing a novel. Madeline’s mission since the death of her son is to raise awareness, educate, and erase the stigma of mental illness and suicide in hopes of saving lives.
Madeline and her husband of forty plus years live in Manhattan Beach, California, a small beach community south of Los Angeles. Her younger son Ben lives in Santa Monica, California with his wife Marissa.
Take a look at Madeline’s moving book trailer.
Join Madeline on Facebook and Twitter:@madeline40
DECEMBER IS DIFFERENT.
Next Monday, December 10th, I shall be posting from Paris. I plan to share stories and photos, from Paris and London, where I am doing an event on December 13th.
I am collecting new “My Gutsy Story” submissions for 2013. NOW is the time to submit your own “My Gutsy Story” and get published in our Anthology. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
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