(May be Triggering)
On the outside, Andrea seemed like a devoted, involved stay-at-home mom. But inside, she was battling a mental disorder that disrupted her thoughts and, she says, led her to do the unthinkable.
Andrea and her husband of 16 years already had a 13-year-old daughter when they decided to have a second child, a little boy they named Garrett. “He was precious,” Andrea says. “He was so smart. He was already reading in kindergarten. He would entertain the class. He was so outgoing.”
As Garrett grew older, Andrea was active in his school and volunteered for the PTA. But underneath the surface, she says she was troubled with dark, painful thoughts. “I struggled,” she says. “Something didn’t seem exactly right. I had bad feelings about myself that I was worthless, that I wasn’t a good mom, that I wasn’t a good person.”
On April 14, 2005, the negative thoughts took over Andrea tried to commit suicide. “I went home and ran a tub of water and got in it, and I had gotten a knife from the kitchen, and I proceeded to slit my wrists,” she says. “The phone rang, and I was in the process of. I was cutting it at the time that called, and I stopped.”
After bandaging up her wrists, Andrea told her husband what she had done. “He tried to convince me, ‘Andrea, you’re not a bad mom.’ And I listened to him, and I tried to take all that in, and I thought, ‘I can, I need to turn my thoughts around,'” she says. “But they kept racing in my mind, and it was so negative. I just felt the weight of the world was on me.”
That same night, Andrea stayed up late working on a costume for Garrett to wear to school the next day but she just couldn’t finish it. Instead, she kept Garrett home from school, saying they didn’t feel well. “I just couldn’t get it together, and the voices started coming that he would be better off,” she says. “And I just thought his life, things were going to be so bad, and the voices just kept getting louder and louder.”
Then, she says, the voices took over completely. According to Andrea, she placed 6-year-old Garrett in a bathtub filled with waterand began choking him. “He said, ‘You’re choking me.’ He said that a couple times, but then he didn’t say anything else,” she says. “It was just so unbelievable that I did that. I would never hurt him. I would never, never hurt him. He was so loved. He was so wanted. But I don’t know why I did it. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Garrett was rushed to a hospital, where he died four days later. Andrea pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, and she is currently serving a sentence of 42 years at a maximum-security prison.
Andrea says the person who killed her son “wasn’t me. It wasn’t the real me. It was a very sick me, because I would never hurt him. Never,” she says.
Although Andrea says she had sought help in the past, she claims the medication her family doctor gave her didn’t work for her symptoms. “The antidepressants he gave me they either made me sleep more or be on the manic stage, be up all the time. I would clean the house for days. I would not sleep,” she says. “It’s like you can’t see how bad things really are. If I had any idea what I would have done, I would have gotten help.”
Once Andrea arrived in prison, she says the doctor there immediately diagnosed her problem as bipolar disorder. Within 10 days of starting the medications he prescribed, Andrea says she noticed results. “What a difference it has made in my life. It made me feel like maybe there was a reason that I took Garrett, you know? Maybe there was an answer,” she says.
“It was almost like relief that I wasn’t just this horrible person that killed my child one day, you know, that there was something that caused me to have this happen, because I miss him so much. I miss being his mom. I miss saying prayers at night. I miss taking him to Sunday school,” she says. “My life, per se, is over in a lot of ways because the guilt is so heavy, because, you know, he’s gone and I did it.”
Two of Andrea’s friends, Daphen and Kathy, say they continue to support Andrea through everything. Daphen who has known Andrea since middle school says that most of the signs were hidden, but she did notice some peculiar behavior. “She missed a lot of school. She wore her clothes inside out the night before like a sweatshirt so she could just flip it the next morning,” she says. “Because she’s my best friend, I would just say, ‘She’s just eccentric, you know, beats a different drum.’ I could always say that.”
When Andrea was feeling down as an adult, Daphen and Kathy say they would often try to help her realize that she was a good mom. ” could never live up to what she thought society expected or what society says is a good mother,” Kathy says.
Daphen says both she and Kathy knew that Andrea had tried to kill herself once before not long after Garrett’s birth but they attributed it to postpartum depression.
Just weeks before Garrett’s death, Daphen says she noticed a change in Andrea’s behavior. She says Andrea became very anxious over what would normally be simple decisions and that Andrea admitted to hearing voices. “When you look back on the hindsight, like, ‘Well didn’t you think that was crazy or something?’ Well I justified it,” Daphen says.
Daphen whose own child has been diagnosed with early onset bipolar disorder says if you notice symptoms in a loved one, it is important to do the research and speak with doctors who specialize in the illness. “It’s not just about medication,” Daphen says. “You need to also get therapy because therapy comes with the medication.”
Andrea’s husband declined to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and her daughter, now 21 years old, also turned down the invitation.
Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison is one of the country’s foremost experts on bipolar disorder. She is a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and wrote the best-selling memoir An Unquiet Mind about her personal experience suffering from the disease.
Dr. Jamison explains that the symptoms of bipolar disorder also known as manic depression are different for everyone. “It’s a disorder of the brain that’s characterized by real swings in mood from irritability, depression, to euphoric highs,” Dr. Jamison says. “It can be as in Andrea’s case hearing voices, psychosis, seeing things that aren’t there but usually, more commonly, it’s just real extremes in energy.”
According to Dr. Jamison, people in the manic phase probably don’t need much sleep, talk very fast, and can be very intrusive and in your face. “When people are down and depressed, obviously everything else is the opposite. People very often go to the doctor because they’re so tired. They aren’t able to sleep or they sleep too much. They have no energy. And that’s actually almost as striking as the down mood and irritable mood,” she says.
Although the word bipolar seems to mean that you feel one of two extremes in emotion at either end of the spectrum, Dr. Jamison says that’s not true. Someone who is bipolar can actually be in a very depressed mood and still have a manic energy level. “That’s one of the reasons why it’s kind of a misleading word, because there are actually states where you combine mania and depression where people are very agitated, have a very depressed mood but have a manic energy level,” Dr. Jamison says. “And those are very dangerous states from a suicide and violence point of view.”
In 2004, actor Maurice Benard, who plays Sonny Corinthos on the ABC soap opera General Hospital, appeared on The Oprah Show. In the interview he spoke openly about his debilitating battle and a period in his life when he stopped taking his medication. When off his meds, Maurice says he plunged into a dark mania, rapidly started losing control and couldn’t distinguish what was real from what was on TV. He began talking to his wife, Paula, with his character’s lines. “It was probably about a week’s time that I saw the transformation,” said Paula. “It wasn’t just, like, one moment or one day that it happened. But, literally you see someone becoming a totally different person.”
Then, one frightening night while Paula’s nieces were sleeping over, Maurice drank half a bottle of wine. “And I started feeling very violent. And I remember crying,” he said. “And she wouldn’t stop. So I started yelling. And I told her if she didn’t stop, that I was going to kill her in my mind I didn’t believe I would.”
Since that very candid interview, Maurice says he has received a lot of positive feedback. “Pretty much everywhere I go people come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for helping me,'” he says. “It’s great to educate people on what this disease does and what it is.” Maurice says he hasn’t come off his medication since then, but he has had some setbacks. “I got on an airplane and had an anxiety attack, so I had to get off,” he says. “That was pretty scary.”
Another difficult time came when Maurice agreed to let General Hospital write a story line where his character has a breakdown and goes on lithium. “I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s do it,'” Maurice says. “So I did it, and said, ‘Any time you want to stop, we stop the story.'”
“After two months of it, I knew that I wasn’t . But that’s a problem with this disease. You always deny. ‘I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.’ Until you get to that point. And unfortunately, at the end of the story, I got to that point. I had another anxiety attack.”
Maurice’s wife, Paula, says it has taken an enormous amount of patience and support to help her husband stay healthy. “There’s a lot of ups and downs,” Paula says. “And I just look at it like any other disease that, you know, you have to deal with. And that’s the only way it helps me to get through it.”
Maurice says he has been taking medication for 15 years and will continue to do so. “I flirt with not taking it but I’m not stupid, because every time I’ve gone off the medication, I’ve had a breakdown,” Maurice says.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, at least 5 million people have been diagnosed with some degree of bipolar disorder. Many times, those diagnosed are familiar faces.
Actress Jenifer Lewis, who appeared in Tyler Perry’s film Madea’s Family Reunion, recently revealed that she is bipolar and says she is finally ready to talk about it. “After years of therapy and after years of medication, I feel experienced enough now to come out and say bipolar disorder is treatable and you can get help and you don’t have to live such a tortured existence,” she says.
Jenifer says she knew for years that something was wrong, but she didn’t know what it was. To cope, she used her one-woman shows to hide her manic tendencies. “On stage I could be big and loud and everybody said, ‘Well, she’s fabulous,'” she says.
But after the curtain went down, Jenifer says she lived in a dark place. “I would cry and I didn’t know why I was crying,” she says. “You can wake up and the sky is blue. But for , it’s black. It’s dark. It’s a dark place to go.”
Jenifer says she would sometimes lose control during manic episodes, including once in a nail salon. “I felt a racist act had been committed there and it enraged me. You don’t get angry. You become enraged,” she says. “And I just cleared whole shelf of the nail polish. And I went, ‘Oh.’ I ran out of there. After I did it, I called my therapist. I said, ‘I’m out of control.'”
Jenifer also says her manic behavior led to things like road rage. One morning, she says she left her house feeling calm until the driver behind her bumped her car while trying to pass. “In that second I went right into a rage and I chased him going 60 miles per hour in a 35 speed limit zone,” she says. “The rage in that moment is saying, ‘Get him. Get that person who hit my car!’ That’s all that’s going through your mind. There’s no rational thinking. Bipolar can destroy the bases of rational thinking.”
Finally, Jenifer decided to take back her life and live in the light. “I wanted a good life,” she says. “I didn’t want to stay in that dark place, that manic place.”
Diagnosed in 1990, Jenifer says it took four years for her therapist to convince her to take medication. “My whole thing was, ‘Oh, honey, I need my edge. I’m Jenifer Lewis. I need my edge. You can’t take that away,'” she says. “But I got tired. Being bipolar is exhausting.”
It took some time and patience to find the right dosage, Jenifer says, but it hasn’t destroyed her edge. “Sometimes the personality, which I have a big one, can break through the medication,” she says. “You can be even. You can function in whatever way you want to on medication.”
Jenifer says she’s sometimes tempted to stop taking her meds, but she received a strong reminder of how important it is in 2005. She happened to be in Rome when Pope John Paul II died. Because there were so many people flying in and out of the city, she had trouble getting a flight back and was without her medication for four days. “I took it when I got home. But I didn’t know I was in a manic state and I went out and bought a $2.3 million mansion on a whim. I didn’t think anything about it,” she says.
A passion for acting also helped Jenifer cope with bipolar disorder. “I had a dream and nothing, not even my disorder, was going to kill that,” she says. “And I say to kids, ‘You get a passion. You find a passion because no matter what happens, you’ll go back to that.'”
Jenifer has even written a show called Bipolar, Bath and Beyond. “It’s through my one-woman shows that I do my part through humor, laughter being the greatest healer,” she says. “My technique has always been to make ’em laugh and then stick ’em with that knowledge.”
With three movies coming out, Jenifer’s professional life is booming. But it’s the personal milestones that mean the most she’s adopted a little girl! “You can live a good life with this disorder,” she says. “But you have to do the work therapy plus medication.”
Sometimes people who are suffering from bipolar disorder do not even realize that they have an illness. If you think that you or someone you love might be suffering from the condition, Dr. Jamison says to keep an eye out for these symptoms:
* Mood swings
* Rage attacks
* Changes in energy
* Sleeping too much
* Sleeping too little
* Alcohol and drug use
If you or a loved one is diagnosed, Dr. Jamison says it’s important to “do the work” to get the best treatment possible. “The work is getting a good doctor. Getting diagnosed. Accepting your diagnosis. Getting good therapy. Getting the right medication,” Dr. Jamison says. “And read, read, read. Badger your doctor. Question everything. Don’t take anything for granted. No matter how good your doctor is, always go in there with a list of questions.”
- Read “Bipolar Diaries” in the October 2007 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
- Dr. Kay Jamison’s book is An Unquiet Mind.
- Read BP Magazine’s interview with Maurice Benard that will be featured in their Fall 2007 issue on newsstands October 2. For more information visit www.bphope.com
- Visit the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance’s website at www.dbsalliance.org.
- For information about the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Program, visit www.hopkinsmedicine.org/moods.