On Losing My Darling Natalie - Doris Fuller

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fullersI 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. 

And then….

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.

And then….

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. 

youngnatalieEventually, 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

Comments

  1. Diane's avatar
    Diane
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    Dear Doris I'm so sorry for your loss. My sister called me and told me to look up this artical on your beautiful daughter. It broke my heart and frightened me at the same time. You see I was reading a story of my son. He is exactly going through this at the moment. It also started in his senior year of college 12 years ago. He is 37 years old and not on medicine. At one point he was on meds for about three weeks than took himself off. He is determined he is not sick and we are all lying to him. He believes his wife is a double and his kids are not his, yet he loves them and is good to them. His wife has divorced him and he lives with us. In the beginning he loved and trusted only me but now he you can say doesn't trust me and doesn't love me. The things he says are frightening. He lost his job as a teacher. Got another job lost that in a month. Now he's looking for another job which I know if he gets it it won't last long. He has no insurance can't pay child support. I've called the courts the hospitals and they tell me nothing can be done unless he himself admits himself. They told me only if he endangers himself or others can they do anything!!! My husband feels we made a mistake having him live with us. I love him and remember how intelligent he was and caring talented in many ways very gifted person. He was always a good man and was so much fun raising. I don't know who he is now I feel he is possessed. I can't believe this disease is the worst. I was told it will get worst. He has done a good job covering it up. I can see the pain in his face everyday I can't believe he doesn't realize how sick he is. I feel so alone and I can't help him. I don't want to loose him!!! Can you help in any way?
  2. Marie Doherty's avatar
    Marie Doherty
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    Dear Doris
    I came upon your article today and I cried. I cried for the loss of your daughter and I cried for the mirror image situation that my daughter has in common with yours. My 21 year old beautiful college senior had the same exact diagnosis . Happy, deans list in her last semester of college. A psychotic break out of nowhere with paranoia and delusions on Christmas break. Upon withdrawing from school it took denial, an almost arrest, 3 months of mania and two psychiatric hospitals to finally give in to medication. She shut me out for 3 months, and it was everyone else who had the problem. "She was not bipolar 1." After 2 months of lithium the old Ali is back. Constant fatigue and a less enthusiastic Ali has become the new Ali. That aside, lithium is a miracle drug. It chased away a stranger possessed by bipolar and constant mania. I tread lightly as I know this is just the beginning of a world we have never known. My thoughts are with you and your family. This is an issue that so few understand, myself included until January 8 2015.
  3. birdfeeder734's avatar
    birdfeeder734
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    Dear Doris,
    I am so very sorry for the loss of your beautiful daughter, Natalie. I can see the bravery in her smile and eyes and in the poem you shared. I have always felt that people who deal with mental and physical illness are very brave and courageous.
  4. Dennis Embry's avatar
    Dennis Embry
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    Dear Doris,

    I retired from clinical practice to devote my full energies to the prevention of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders at a public health level—exactly because of the epidemic of suicide and other morbidities that strike increasing percentages of young people in America. This epidemic is ten times worse than the polio epidemic, the point of my TED talk and my keynote here at the 28th Annual mental health conference in Tampa. You, your family and your daughter have been a part of this tragic epidemic—working hard to find strategies that might reduce it, and your daughter's voice and courage nurture my commitment to rapidly reduce these terrible losses of talent and grace.
  5. Pamela's avatar
    Pamela
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    Doris: I am sadden by your daughter's death, however, I will celebrate with you her Life because many lives will be saved because of her...
  6. Gayle Grass's avatar
    Gayle Grass
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    I believe we can prevent many suicides but it would take a huge commitment not only from family and friends but the whole community and our mental health system.
  7. George Patrin's avatar
    George Patrin
    | Permalink
    Doris,
    After all you've been through, and what you know now - do you feel suicide is preventable? What would have helped your daughter? We must listen to the survivors!
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