Perfect Chaos: A Daughter's Journey to Survive Bipolar, a Mother's Struggle to Save Her

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9780312581824: Perfect Chaos: A Daughter's Journey to Survive Bipolar, a Mother's Struggle to Save Her

The Johnsons were a close and loving family living in the Seattle area - two parents, two incomes, two bright and accomplished daughters. They led busy lives filled with music lessons, college preparation, career demands, and laughter around the dinner table. Then the younger daughter, Linea, started experiencing crippling bouts of suicidal depression. Multiple trips to the psych ward resulted in a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and it took many trial runs of drugs and ultimately electroshock therapy to bring Linea back. But her family never gave up on her. And Linea never stopped trying to find her way back to them.

Perfect Chaos is the story of a mother and daughter's journey through mental illness towards hope. From initial worrying symptoms to long sleepless nights to cross-country flights and the slow understanding and rebuilding of trust, Perfect Chaos tells Linea and Cinda's harrowing and inspiring story, of an illness that they conquer together every day. It is the story of a daughter's courage, a mother's faith, and the love that carried them through the darkest times.

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About the Author:

Linea Johnson is a recent graduate from Seattle University, with a major in English and Creative Writing. Prior to transferring to SU, she completed three years at Columbia University, Chicago, in a musical performance program. Linea recently worked as an intern at the World Health Organization in the Mental Health department. She is a national speaker and writer, advocating for understanding and support for people with mental illness and the elimination of stigma.

Cinda Johnson, Ed.D., is a professor and director of the special education graduate program at Seattle University. She is also the principal investigator and director of the Center for Change in Transition Services (www.seattleu.edu/ccts). She is a national leader in the area of transition from high school to post-high school settings for young people with disabilities. She has written articles and book chapters in the area of secondary special education and transition services including youth with emotional and behavioral disorders and mental illnesses.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Cinda:

Finally in August we all flew to Chicago and moved Linea into the nation’s largest student residence, home to over seventeen hundred students—a mammoth building on South State and Congress just blocks from Michigan Avenue. We moved her things from the rental car to the queue for the elevators that would take us to her "suite" on the seventeenth floor with a view of the Sears Tower. I couldn’t believe that our little girl, who lived her first ten years in an unincorporated village of fewer than three thousand people, would live in the South Loop of a city of more than three million.

That night, I prayed that this was the right decision for her and that she would be happy. She had struggled so long and hard, questioning and worrying about what she should do after high school. I wanted so much for her to settle into the music program, the city, and her dorm; to develop deep and lasting friendships; and, mostly, to enjoy the small things that she would experience every day and not to worry so much about her future.

I was excited for her, but of course I cried as we flew back to Seattle, leaving her in her new home. I felt overwhelmed and exhausted by the effort that it took to get her there and yet I was also very proud of her and hopeful that this was the right decision. She was so happy and independent while she packed and planned for her move, and she was equally happy and outgoing as she moved into her dorm, making friends with her suite mates, figuring out where her classes were, and settling into her neighborhood. So many feelings were churning inside of me as we headed home: excitement for her new life and for ours, fatigue from the physical and mental exhaustion of the move, and, of course, worry about any number of things that could go wrong. She could be hit by a car as she continued to cross streets against the lights, she could get mugged, her depression could return. Yet these emotions were all mixed together with the most potent feeling of all: hope.

We returned to Seattle and settled into our empty nest. I missed Linea terribly, of course, but there was also a sense of . . . not exactly relief but the lessening of taking care of someone. Other mothers in newly emptied nests confess a similar feeling. I had felt this initially when Jordan left for college, but it was stronger now that there were no children at home. Once your children have moved out and away, the day-to-day parenting decreases. We don’t wonder if they got home on time or even if they got home at all. We don’t wake up at one A.M. and check if the car is in the driveway and if they are asleep in bed. While Jordan was in college, she and I talked often and we stayed close, but I no longer knew where she was every day or when she would return from an evening out, and I didn’t really think about it. I expected the same with Linea and I looked forward to her independence.

Back at home, Curt and I talked about how you feel you have been a successful parent when the child to whom you have given so much love, energy, and worry becomes independent and yet still chooses to be in your life. Linea had always been very close to us, close enough that we worried about how we would cut all those apron strings. But she was also very self-sufficient and had always made good decisions. Even though she talked to both of us about many of her feelings and worries, and we had helped her through her decisions about college and friendships, she had demonstrated the ability to take care of herself. She was responsible, she man- aged her schedule and her many activities while achieving high grades, and she had developed deep friendships during high school. I thought she had been honest with both her dad and me, and I believe that to the best of her ability, she was. Yes, there had been tears and anxiousness and a difficult diagnosis of depression, but I still had a strong belief that she would do very well in Chicago. She was so smart and articulate, she was a talented musician and very prepared for her field of study, and in so many ways she was mature beyond her age.

We felt so much joy for her that she was on her own. The process of growing up doesn’t happen overnight, but she was moving into adulthood. She was confident and happy when we left her in Chicago, and so were we. I had been through this transition with Jordan and watched her progress from a new freshman in college, sometimes stumbling but mostly moving steadily forward, to independence. I expected the same for Linea.

In the first month of school, we talked every other day or so while she filled me in on her classes, activities, and new friends. As she got busier, I talked to her less and less. But one day in October, she didn’t sound quite right to me. She sounded anxious and unhappy, complaining about feeling behind in her schoolwork and practice sessions. I tried to understand what was going on with her. Was this another depression? Her dad talked to her and we would ask each other, "Do you think she’s okay?" I continued to worry as she was either anxious or sounded flat when she talked with us on the phone. Curt and I were concerned, but we didn’t want to intervene in her life more than necessary.

We remembered how Jordan wasn’t always happy and upbeat her first year in college, and we convinced each other that Linea was just working through the newness of her fresh- man year living so far away from home. Jordan had called many times her freshman year, crying and even wanting to come home at one point, complaining about difficulties with roommates and feeling very stressed because of the lack of privacy and her inability to find any time for herself. I remembered nights that Jordan called and I would be awake much of the night worrying about her and wondering if I needed to see her in person. The next morning I would call her and she would barely remember what had been so difficult the night before. She needed her mom as a place to vent, and then she moved on even if I was still a little behind worrying about her. Jordan made it through her college years with a broken rib, a severe ankle sprain, various colds and flu, and upheavals with friends and roommates, but she also acquired a degree, good friends, and a great boyfriend (Cliff!), and she remained emotionally intact.

At this point there wasn’t much more we could do except check in with Linea and, of course, worry (which wasn’t very effective!). But by early December, a feeling of trepidation was beginning to follow me around. Linea was never far from my thoughts. I never knew what to expect when I talked to her. She was either having a great and wonderful adventure or she was feeling anxious and down. I became less confident each time we spoke. Her happiness and excitement about her classes would last for only a short time before she moved into a darker place. She would call, full of enthusiasm and anticipation of upcoming events, telling me about an audition that went well, a paper she aced, and a new friend she had made while attending some amazing cultural event. The next call would be full of anxiety about too much work or even anxiousness about her anxiety. "I am so anxious I don’t know what’s wrong with me," she would tell me. But just when I was ready to head to Chicago, she would seem so much calmer and convince me she was doing okay. Yet I continued to worry.

Linea:

I am in Chicago. Finally. A city so big you could fit almost four Seattles into it, suburbs included. Everything is big here, big and flat. I miss the trees and the mountains, but I’m here. And I’m here on my own. Alone. Now my mom can’t call me if I’m out at night and she hears an ambulance. Now I can be out late with boys without my dad knowing. Now I can drink and not feel paranoid all the time. I’m free and I can do what I want. It’s my life. My own life. Away from them. My parents. My friends. People who know me. People who think I’m good and perfect and innocent. I can do whatever the fuck I want. I can swear. I can drink. I can stay over with boys. Hell, I can even do drugs.

Cinda:

Linea came home for the holiday break, and we were excited and happy to spend time with her. I wanted to see her and assure myself that she was okay. During her visit, she seemed happy with college life and Chicago, but she worried about her studies and all the music pieces she needed to learn. Yet she didn’t practice or appear to do any work on assignments while she was home. She was certainly in a better mood than Jordan had been during her first holiday break. Jordan had come home with a bad cold and exhausted from her social life and schoolwork. She was not always easy to get along with as we all readjusted to a having a college freshman in the house. With Linea, I convinced myself it would take a few days for us all to get back into a family routine, and then things would settle down.

Linea was tired but overall in a good mood, and I was reassured that she was "okay." How do you know the difference between typical behaviors of a college freshman and a young adult in the onset of a mental illness? I know now that you can only stay calm, pay attention, and wait.

Linea:

January—I’m home for college break and I feel as if I am drunk. I have a permanent smile on my face and I can’t help but dance naked in my room while I brush my wet hair. I apply my makeup with a new ease and look at my clothes as if it will never again matter what I wear.

I know this is the year. I have a feeling of complete hope and optimism that I had lost these past four years of high school depression. Suddenly, I’m over it. I break my new makeup, and in- stead of being completely devastated, as I would have been a day earlier, I simply pick it up and throw away the broken pieces. I continue dancing and joyously await the impending New Year. Only five hours until I get to celebrate with my favorite friends at a concert with my favorite band. I ...

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