I lost my darling daughter Natalie to terminal mental illness last weekend. She killed herself one month short of her 29th birthday by stepping in front of a train in Baltimore.
Natalie and I wrote a book together when she was 16: Promise You Won’t Freak Out: A Teenager Tells Her Mother the Truth About: Boys, Booze, Body Piercing, and Other Touchy Topics (and Mom Responds). The idea of a teenager telling the truth about her secrets was such a startling concept that we were feature-page headliners in about two dozen newspapers nationwide, went on TV coast to coast including one of the morning shows, got paid to give speeches. The Oprah Show called.
In the book, we used a device to signal whenever a wild turn was about to take place in the teen/parenting life: And then…. In the introduction, I defined an And then …. moment as “one of those critical junctures when my cheerful sense that all was right in the world collided with inescapable proof that it wasn’t.”
The book was published the week before Natalie finished high school to great reviews. Amazon named it the best parenting book of 2004. It was nominated for a national prize. It was translated into Lithuanian and Chinese.
At 22, starting the second half of her senior year of college, Natalie had a psychotic break nobody saw coming. She went in the span of weeks from being a dazzling young adult with the world at her feet to a psych ward patient with an arrest record.
She rebounded quickly from that first episode and moved back home for the summer. She taught me how to like grilled tofu and make egg scrambles. She made the best salads of my life. She filled my house with her original art, her friends, her irrepressible spirit. Mental illness was not a theme. She returned to college in the fall. I saw her off with an emptier stomach but oh so much optimism.
Her second break was worse, the psychosis and hospitalization longer, the recovery harder to achieve, the medications more complicated, the resulting future not as bright. She rebounded again, even if more slowly, and eventually finished her bachelor of fine arts degree. Her state hospital psychiatrist and several hospitals drove 75 miles to come to her senior art show. It was a triumph for us all.
But, like far too many individuals and families and professionals who live with or around untreated severe mental illness, the And then’s continued. Although Natalie always responded to meds, she went off them repeatedly, each time falling into a longer free fall, hitting the ground harder, recovering slower.
Eventually, she came to believe she was treatment-resistant. Last November, she announced that if she was going to have psychotic symptoms whether she took meds or not, why take them? She stopped, and her mind began its final, fatal unwinding.
Natalie believed in treatment and recovery. She talks about it in our latest video – debuting at a New York City film festival March 19, where she was traveling to answer audience questions – which we produced to educate judges. She dreamed of being a peer counselor. She wanted to help others as she had been helped – until she became convinced she was beyond help.
In the days since Natalie’s death, I have been overwhelmed by the compassion and comfort of friends and strangers alike. Emails from the police officer in San Marcos, California, the former wife of a TV celebrity, public officials I’ve never met, parents I talk to regularly and parents whose names I’ve never seen, people from every corner of the mental health world, including the ones where the Treatment Advocacy Center is not popular. Their words make me so keenly aware that the pain I am feeling is but a drop in the ocean of pain that severe mental illness can produce.
Natalie was the bravest person I ever knew, and her suicide doesn’t change that. The work to save other lives goes on. She wouldn’t have wanted it to be any other way.
Reprinted with permission from Doris Fuller, Executive Director, Treatment Advocacy Center