The Middle Distance 7.5.13: The Contract of Your Birth
For the past few years, I have been part of a monthly lunch group of women who write, read and love books. When we get together, we begin talking about our work, but the conversation quickly shifts to family concerns: How are the kids? The elderly parents? Who’s having a baby? Getting married? Who’s got a new job?
Throughout this time, one of our group has been working on a book with her son who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder while he was a college student at Grinnell College in 1999. Kathy Brandt and Max Maddox’s collaboration is now published, following several years of writing, editing and rewriting, preceded by years of psychiatric crises that strained and stretched and ultimately fortified the bond between this remarkable mother and son.
Their story, Walks on the Margins: A Story of Bipolar Illness, told with brutal honesty, great skill and sweeping passages of lyric beauty, is nothing short of a landmark in the literature of mental illness.
Brandt, a longtime resident of the Springs area, had written and published before, a series of mysteries set in blue Caribbean waters with a scuba-diving private investigator protagonist. Maddox, a painter and art instructor in Denver, hadn’t written before except for academic term papers, but took to it with a true artist’s eye and ear. They settled on a structure that alternates voices from chapter to chapter, revealing the impact of Max’s bipolar illness on mother and son from their unique points of view.
The book succeeds on several levels, not the least of which is the alternating rhythm of those voices, Kathy’s steady and under-stated, Max’s lush with imagery. The book begins with Max’s first psychotic break: “It was just before sunrise at the electric blue hour I had come to appreciate in the week since I had given up sleeping,” he says. His behavior had grown increasingly erratic until he was finally picked up by the police, sent to a Des Moines hospital and evaluated by a medical team: “I told them who I was (everyone) and where I was from (everywhere), crying into my hands as the lady in white scribbled out a few notes, enough syndromes for a diagnosis.”
Kathy and her husband drive Max home to Colorado with a bag full of medication and get “a thorough introduction to the throes of mania and a crash course on parenting a son with manic depression.”
Unfamiliar as yet with the course of bipolar illness, Brandt indulges in a moment of magical thinking. “At home,” she says, “my plans were simple. I’d roast chicken and heap mashed potatoes onto his plate. I’d dish up huge bowls of strawberry ice cream, brew herb teas, and heat warm milk and Max would sleep. When he woke, he would be my son again.”
The chapters that follow chronicle Max’s cycles through episodes of mania and depression, vividly and urgently recalled, and Kathy’s growing understanding of the pitfalls of a mental health care system plagued by chronic underfunding and lack of coordination. Max is manhandled and abused in the course of one emergency hospitalization, and told that he doesn’t meet the criteria for admission in the midst of another crisis. His mother, meanwhile, seeks knowledge and understanding, mobilizing her efforts to become an expert caregiver, despite frustrations and setbacks.
Brandt is clear-eyed about the disease and its implications, but determined not to fall into the trap of assuming incurable means hopeless. She becomes deeply involved in classes for families through her local NAMI chapter (National Alliance on Mental Illness), imparting the message that, with adequate support, “ … people with mental illness can and do succeed. They live fulfilled lives, working and developing significant relationships. They engage in the process of recovery, knowing that recovery doesn’t mean cure.”
Max, too, is realistic about both the struggle and the invaluable gift of family support. In a late chapter, his mother arrives at his apartment during a depressive episode when he has battled suicidal thoughts.
“And yet,” he says, “my mom was there with me still, sitting on the bed next to me in my basement cave, when I opened my acceptance letter to graduate school, the application for which she did a wonderful job.
‘Thank God,’ she and I said in the same breath. She had ushered me back into life once again. What can I say without resorting to cliché? I can’t. Really though, you don’t have to bring everyone down with you. But, of course, this means not going down at all. And so there is the contract of your birth.”
Walks on the Margins: A Story of Biploar Illness by Kathy Brandt and Max Maddox (Monkshood Press, 2013). Available in print and Kindle editions.
Please join the authors for a book release and signing party, July 14, 3-5 p.m. Poor Richard’s patio, 324 ½ North Tejon Street, Colorado Springs.</strong>
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.