Not Her Family Secret
A mother’s resolve to help her son overcome mental illness
Alicia Maule-Lewis did everything right when raising her son, providing not only emotional support, but the best education possible.
At age 23 her son, Miguel Joseph, was pursuing a degree in electronic engineering and seemingly in control of his life. She never imagined her high-achieving son would wind up handcuffed, dirty, and sleeping on the floor of a grimy psychiatric hospital.
“My nightmare started about three and a half years ago,” said Alicia. “It was at this time that things with my son started going downhill. Since then I have been trying to help him understand that the voices he hears, the thought that people are reading his mind, trying to control his thoughts, or plotting to harm him, are not real,” she said.
Miguel was your average guy; funny, athletic, highly intelligent and on the fast track to making a name for himself in this world. However, he was under a tremendous amount of stress in his personal life and at work. Then one day, the anxiety, panic and frustrations he felt got to him and he slipped into a manic depressive state known as bipolar disorder.
According to WebMD Bipolar Disorder is a mental illness that brings severe high and low moods and changes in sleep, energy, thinking, and behaviour. People who have bipolar disorder can have periods in which they feel overly happy and energized and other periods of feeling very sad, hopeless, and sluggish.
For Miguel, the illness ravaged his mind and caused unusual and severe shifts in his mood, energy, activity levels, and his ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.
“It’s at his job that people realised that something was really wrong with him. So they recommended that he go see a psychiatrist and that is when we realised something was mentally wrong with him but at that point he had just lost his zeal for life,” Alicia recalled.
Following his diagnosis, Miguel was been committed to St Anns Psychiatric Hospital on two occasions. The first time was voluntary, but the second time he had to be restrained and forcefully admitted. After only a few days however, he broke the lock and escaped from what he says was an “inhumane facility.”
“Nobody should ever to have to go there, sleeping on the floor, everybody bathing together, it’s not right that is why I broke out,” he said.
Miguel used to work as a videographer for a local television station and spent many hours behind the camera creating “masterpieces”. Today, however, he says he is unemployed and feels useless.
“I tried committing suicide a couple of times, I tried. I wanted to drink a bottle of lye, but I didn’t. I heard the devil talk in my head telling me I don’t deserve to live, every morning, for the first three months,” he said.
Alicia recalled his loss of appetite, his irregular sleep patterns, and his desire to stay in bed “wasting away”.
“We tried a lot of medication because as the doctors explained to me when the body is sick it’s easy to treat but when the mind is sick it’s hard, because the brain is a self-sufficient part of the body so to treat it, it’s not as if you can pin point exactly what it is,” she said.
Dr Varma Deyalsingh, Secretary of the Association of Psychiatrists of Trinidad and Tobago (APTT), noted that while an estimated 20 percent of the population suffers from some form of mental illness, only one percent is diagnosed with more severe forms such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, which could require some form of hospitalisation or short-term confinement if they are threatening to hurt themselves or others.
“We have those patients who, if you’re not able to handle them on the outside they need to come into the hospital at least to somehow stabilise, get on the correct medication and then sent back out,” he said.
Much like Miguel many do not like being confined and seek to break out insisting they are not sick. According to Deyalsingh, this is common behaviour for people diagnosed with bipolar. Sufferers, he said, typically endure long periods of clinical depression, followed by short spells of mania, which can be experienced as euphoria or irritability. However, with the right combination of mood stabilisers, antidepressants and anti-psychotic medications, the symptoms can lessen, allowing bipolar sufferers to lead relatively normal lives.
The stigma of mental health illness persists however and Deyalsingh observed that “A lot of the times the patient themselves are very hesitant to tell colleagues because we are still at the level where people in Trinidad and Tobago stigmatise mental health and stigmatise patients who are mentally ill.”
Luckily for Miguel, Alicia refuses to allow this to be a secret and admits that since her son’s diagnosis, she’s learnt more than she ever wanted to know about mental illness, specifically bipolar, and has developed a lot of respect for the people who suffer with it.
“With this bipolar I see it as just another phase in my life,” she said. She acknowledged how hard it can be and said that “When I cry I don’t cry out of sorrow, I cry for the loss of my first son and I have to learn to love him just as my first son Miguel.”
“We have those moments where the love is there because I can sit down and talk with him even in his manic state because I don’t ‘cotton candy’ anything,” she continued.
“Sometimes I ask myself if I’m being harsh but I don’t think so because I don’t know it any other way. And it kind of keeps him stabilised,” she said.