It's her story of living with her son's mental illness and surviving his suicide. It must have been tremendously difficult for her to write this book. But how fantastic is it that we have this valuable tool out there to help other caregivers in the same situation?
Madeline joins us today as one of her stops for her new blog tour. She's going to answer a couple of questions for us, then share an excerpt from her book. Please feel free to share your thoughts or ask her questions. She's so generous and enjoys reaching out.
Thanks for coming by again, Madeline. Good luck on the rest of your tour and please feel free to come back any time.
A Short Chat With Madeline Sharples
CHYNNA: I love the title of your book. Can you tell us the meaning behind it?
MADELINE: At first I believed—my magical thinking—that if I left the hall light on, if we didn’t move away from our house, if we didn’t change our telephone number, Paul would know how to make his way back. Paul would know we were still here waiting for him. For a long time I waited for that familiar sound of his Volvo coming into the garage, the sound of the door from the garage slamming as he entered the house and went down the hall to his room, the sound of him walking around the house at night, the sound of the door opening and closing as he went in and out of the house. In fact, for a while I thought I heard those sounds. I also left most of the things in his room and closet alone for fear of removing his presence there. For a long time I refused to give away his things in case he would need them when he came back.
Once those sounds in my imagination and my magical thinking fell away, my need to keep the hall light on became another one of the things that helped me get through my grief. We left the hall light on for him when he was home. I just couldn’t break that routine.
And while that was all going on my husband Bob and I had a push-me, pull-you interaction about it. Bob had a habit of turning off all the lights before he went to bed. Since he usually went to bed after me, I would wait until he got into bed. Then I’d get up and turn on the hall light again. Sometimes we’d go back and forth on this several times in one night. If he forgot his glass of water he’d get up and turn the light off again. If he needed a certain vitamin from the kitchen cabinet, he’d get up, go into the kitchen to get what he needed, and then go down and turn the light off again on his way back to bed. And, if I fell asleep before him, I’d wake in the middle of the night and go back down to turn the light on once more.
Once in a while I’d ask him to leave it on. If he asked why, I’d give him the lame excuse that I needed a light on to guide me through the house when I left to go to the gym in the dark of the early morning. Sometimes he’d buy that. Most of the time he’d forget and turn off the light.
Gradually though, say in the last two, three years, leaving the hall light on has become less and less important. That I can leave it off night after night means I am healing and that I am over the magical thinking stage of my grieving process.
CHYNNA: That is so beautiful. I'm wondering if you could share the warning signs of when your son first began to experience symptoms of bipolar disorder?
MADELINE: Just before his first manic break in February 1993, he had traveled from New York where he was attending college at the New School to attend my mother’s 85th birthday celebration. I have a wonderful photo of him playing Happy Birthday on the piano with her sitting beside him. He was perfectly normal. He was calm, loving. He talked easily to everyone and readily smiled as he posed for a photo with his brother and cousins. For the two nights he was with us, he slept easily in his childhood bedroom, and kissed and hugged me when I said goodbye to him at the airport.
Two weeks later he was calling us up every few minutes, writing all over his apartment walls with a blue felt-tipped marker, and saying people were lurking in doorways out to get him and poisoning his food and cigarettes. His clothes were strewn all over the place, his dishes were stacked up—all behaviors so foreign to the orderly and neat guy he normally was. Most important, he was a jazz musician no longer able to sit still long enough at the piano to play a song through from the beginning to end.
In those two weeks after he returned to New York City, he played three successive gigs with some older musicians in Brooklyn, rather than with his own group, and had not slept for at least two nights in a row. He also drank heavily during these performances. So it is possible that this burgeoning jazzman lifestyle of little sleep, little food, and lots of booze sent Paul over the edge. He was also so affected by the news of the heroin-overdose death of one of his classmates he became unintelligible and had to be taken from his school to the hospital.
CHYNNA: Wow, Madeline. How terrifying. I can't even imagine how that must have felt. Now, the worst part, I would imagine, is that he often pushed away your attempts to help him. How do you give support and comfort to a person who doesn’t want that support or comfort?
MADELINE: We were in a hopeless situation. Because Paul was an adult child, we had no control. We couldn’t help him unless he let us. We felt like our hands were tied behind our backs—and by him. Paul was the driver—it was all up to him. We were out of touch and out of control at his choosing. All we could do was hope for the best, that somehow he would integrate what everyone had been telling him for so long—that his survival and recovery were up to him.
At the same time we concluded no matter what, he was our son and our responsibility. We would never turn him out into the streets. No matter how painful it was being with him, having him living with us, experiencing the effects of his illness on him and our family, we would take care of him for as long as he needed us to.
CHYNNA: How truly heartbreaking. Did your marriage suffer as a result of your son’s bipolar disorder and suicide?
MADLINE: At first we had a hard time just being together because our grieving methods and coping mechanisms were so different. My husband would keep saying that I needed therapy. To spite him, I wouldn’t go. That is the truth of it. He was afraid I was having a breakdown; I was afraid he was drowning his pain and anger in alcohol.
Yet, I think the main reason we survived Paul’s death at all was because of the strength of our marriage.
According to Bob, our marriage survived by a combination of my persistent drive to deal with the pain, suffering, and loss, and his willingness to wait until I got better. We realized early on that our grieving processes were different, so we were patient with each other about that. We also give each other a lot of space. We respect each other. We both are good at what we do professionally so there’s no competition or jealousy there. We have no reason to put each other down. We don’t get into arguments about the small stuff or let the small stuff get in our way. We’ve lived through too much big stuff to let that happen.
This love has also been the glue that has kept us together—a glue stronger than the trauma of Paul’s death. It was enough to help us in the most trying of times that a couple could ever go through. Plus neither of us has any other place to go. We’re together in it for the long haul—richer, poorer, sickness, health, and a son’s death.
CHYNNA: That is fantastic and so inspirational. Some couples aren't strong enough to deal with such a situation and yet you used it as a platform to bring you closer together. Wonder;ful. One of the ways you dealt with your personal tragedy was by writing about it. How did that help you?
MADELINE: Writing has been part of my life since I was in grade school. However, when my son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and after his suicide I needed to write down my feelings daily. Writing in my journal became an obsession and a balm. It gave me a way to organize my fears, pain, and thoughts. I had used journaling during an earlier stressful period of my life to rant. So I felt that writing would help me again during what turned out to be the most stressful time of my life.
Early on during my son’s illness I read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1992), and her suggestion to write morning pages resonated with me. Because I was employed full-time then, my writing didn’t always take place in the morning, but I always finished my three pages before the end of the day.
Right after Paul died I received a gift of Anne Brener’s book, Mourning & Mitzvah —A Guided Journal for Walking the Mourner’s Path Through Grief to Healing (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1993). It was the only self-help book I even opened, and I was compelled to write an answer to every prompt in the book.
Writing was healing because it helped me put my pain on the page. Instead of carrying it with me every moment of the day and night, I found a place where I could have a little relief. There was so much I couldn’t say out loud to anyone. My husband worried I was having a breakdown even if I cried too much. And since there was so much anger and grief in me, I needed a place to put it. Writing in those days was like repeating a mantra. I just kept moving my pen across the page or my fingers moving on the keyboard. And I wouldn’t let anything get in my way.
CHYNNA: Writing is a healing/coping tool for me too, Madeline. I can so relate to that. One last question before you go: What advice do you have for families that have been affected by mental illness or suicide?
MADELINE: First, I recommend families find out as much about bipolar disorder as you can—the best doctors, hospitals, medications available, and how to get to them. Also know about suicide prevention. What I didn’t know when our son was diagnosed is that bipolar can be a killer disease—especially in young men. Then try to give your loved one with the disease the facts. That way he/she will feel less stigmatized and will be more likely to accept help.
It is important to know that bipolar disorder is a disease of the brain just like asthma is a disease of the lungs. It can be treated. A person with bipolar is not violent, is not a sociopath, is not weak, is not stupid. A person with bipolar is like everyone else except with a treatable chemical imbalance in the brain.
Second, I would want people affected by suicide to know that it is possible to survive and be productive after the death of a child. I would advise them to:
1. Take your time—don’t let anyone tell you that the time for grief should be over
2. Take good care of your health: workout, eat healthy, get enough rest, meditate, travel, and be open to new friends and new experiences
3. Pamper yourself: stay in shape physically, get massages, facials, and manicures and pedicures
4. Pretend you’re feeling better by putting on a smiley face and pretty soon you will feel better (I call it playacting).
5. Find an artistic outlet and other diversions to take your mind off of it.
Thank you again, Madeline, for taking the time to join us here again. I hope our readers will check out your book and your other work. You are such an inspiration and I wish you much success.
EXCERPT from Leaving the Hall Light On
I sit by the window at a corner table in a macrobiotic restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard. The room, filled with small wooden tables and straight-back chairs, is almost empty. A couple of people are eating at the counter at the far side. Plates of breads and muffins are on a ledge above the counter. A sign above the counter says no dairy and white flour are used in any of the bakery products. I smell the herbs and the heavy aroma of Indian spices in the soup pot heating behind the take-out counter.
I look toward the window and see Linda crossing the street. I check my watch: 11:50. I’ve only had to wait five minutes – not bad for her. I haven’t seen her in at least eight months – not since before Paul died.
I’m apprehensive. This is one of my first lunch dates in such a long time. It is still hard for me to venture far from home and socialize. I’m not even sure I can still carry on a decent conversation. Crowds really bother me, though the vibes here, the sound of quiet instrumental music are soothing. Maybe today will be okay. Maybe this healthy place will be good for me. And I’ve looked forward to seeing Linda for so long.
She enters the restaurant, spots me immediately, and rushes over to our table. I get up and we hug, giving each other an air kiss. "I’m sorry to keep you waiting," she says as she sits down across from me.
I fold the menu and set it down on the table in front of me. "That’s okay," I say. "It’s great to see you finally. I know how hard you’ve worked at getting us together."
"Yeah, you’re a hard one to pin down.” She puts on her reading glasses and picks up the menu. "Do you see anything here that you like?"
She’s right. I have been hard to pin down. I want to avoid these social things where I have to sit and talk and make an attempt to eat.
I pick up the menu again and pretend. I’m good at pretending. "Oh, yes. You chose a great place. I’m not a total vegetarian like you, but I love this kind of food." I look back down and study the menu a bit more. There are lots of salads and soups to choose from, but I'm drawn to the bowls. "I think I’ll have the brown rice and veggies with tahini sauce," I say. Maybe that will stick. I’ve had a very hard time keeping food in me – especial dairy products – I hope this food might work for me.
She looks up, takes off her glasses, and closes her menu. "That’s my favorite thing here. I’ll have that too."
I look out the window at a car swerving to get out of the way of a jaywalker.
"I used to go to Hi De Ho Comics across the street to buy my son Ben his Garbage Pail Kid cards,” I tell her, making every effort to keep the conversation light. After all, this is a girl’s lunch – with lots of chit-chat and gossip expected. “They were his passion when he was twelve, and like a good Mommy I would drive all the way up here to find him the ones he couldn’t find in the South Bay."
She looks at me like I’m talking in Chinese. "Garbage Pail Kids? Are those anything like the Pokémon cards that are so popular now?”
"How do you know about those?" One of Paul’s last social interactions was with a young boy who came over to visit us with his parents. Paul had never seen Pokemon cards before, and the boy gave him a couple. I found them in his wallet when I went through his things after he died.
"The kid next door collects them. He showed me his album and gave me one of his extras."
"Well, the Garbage Pail cards were really sick. Definitely not my type of humor. Cartoons of chubby kids sitting in garbage cans dressed in all kinds of regalia. Now there are boxes of them on a shelf in his old room at home. I can’t imagine they’ll ever be worth anything. And I can’t imagine why I spent so much money on them. Twelve dollars for one card. I must have been nuts.”
The waiter arrives. We order the same thing with a mixed salad to share.
"I’ll have chai," she says.
"Just water for me – without ice." Ice-cold liquids going through my system gives me headaches.
The waiter takes our menus, turns, and leaves.
The small room is beginning to fill up with the lunch crowd. All the counter seats are full. I'm glad I arrived early and snagged this table in its little corner alcove away from the flow of traffic. Two waiters are hurrying back and forth across the wood floor.
I can feel Linda looking me over. I wonder how much I’ve changed in the last eight months. I wonder how much damage eight months of grief can do to a person. I look out the window again, gaze at the comic-book store, and yearn for the days when Ben was little and Paul was free from his manic-depressive illness, still alive, just the pain-in-the-neck teenager who used to drive me up the wall.
Linda’s question brings me back. "Are you working?" Good, more chit-chat. I’m still safe.
I put my elbows on the table and hold my chin in my hands, looking straight at her.
"Yes, I still write grant proposals for the homeless shelter downtown. I went back to work almost immediately. I have to keep busy or I’ll go nuts. The problem is working at home alone. It's so hard to concentrate sometimes. Too many memories of Paul's death there.”
She nods and takes off her sweater, sweeping her thick red hair up off her neck as she moves the sweater across her shoulders. The sun pours through the window, laying a bright light on our table. "I know what you mean," she says. "Luckily for me I have a lot of client meetings that take me away from my office. I miss the face-to-face people interactions when I work at home alone.”
I sit up straight, push back my chair, and cross my legs at the knees. "Are you still trying to help retirees transition into their next lives?" I ask, still trying to avoid the real reason for this lunch date. Linda is a real people person. She’s a great facilitator and motivator. I’ve always envied how comfortable she is in front of a room full of people.
"Well, you should know how hard that is. You haven't been a very successful retiree yourself," she says.
Linda and I first met at college. She was in another sorority, but her hair got my attention – carrot orange, large, curly, gorgeous. It overwhelmed her thin face and body. "You look great," I say. "I love that color green on you. It matches your eyes. And, your hair is still gorgeous."
She gives me an impish smile while combing her fingers through her mane. "It comes out of a bottle now. I tone it down from my natural shade – a little more geared to my age."
I continue with the girl talk. "Yeah, I won't give up the bottle either. My stylist weaves low lights through my hair so some of the gray shows. I think going totally dark would really age me too."
"Low lights? I never heard of that before."
"Oh, sorry. I thought you knew. Those are like high lights in reverse."
I look up and spot the waiter coming toward us from behind the counter. I spread out the fork, the knife and put my napkin on my lap. I take a sip of water. He sets down our bowls of rice and vegetables and puts the salad in the center of the table. I take a bite, chew, and barely swallow it. It tastes delicious, but I have no appetite. I haven't had one for months.
Linda looks like she doesn't eat much either, but that’s no different from always. She’s always been thin and never had to watch her weight. Without her sweater on I can see her prominent collarbones and flat chest underneath her pale green t-shirt. She never wears a bra. "Have you seen Alice and Richard lately?" I ask.
I’ve known Alice since I moved to Los Angeles in 1961. After I graduated from University of California at Los Angeles, we took art lessons together for years, every Thursday night, until I stopped painting. Now she has a couple of paintings at the Smithsonian and one of Chelsea Clinton that she personally presented to Hillary. She also painted a wonderful portrait of Bob and me that gets rave reviews from our visitors.
I reconnected with Linda a few years ago when Alice and Richard renewed their marriage vows in the backyard of their home in Ojai. I kept looking at her across the yard as we all stood in a circle during the ceremony, telling my husband Bob that I knew her from somewhere. Once we started talking and asking each other where we were from and where we went to college and how long we’d been in Los Angeles, we discovered that we first met at the University of Wisconsin. We clicked immediately and though we were never very friendly at college, we’ve been good friends since that Ojai party. We even tried to figure out how we could work together, but never came up with anything common to both our skills and interests.
She looks up from her bowl and sets her fork down. I take a bite of salad. I gulp it down.
“I was out there last weekend,” she says. “They're great. Alice is doing a new project – a series of paintings of naked old ladies. ”
“I know. That project is amazing. She wanted to paint my mother, but she refused. I offered, but she said I'm not old enough.”
I try another bite of the rice while Linda digs into the salad. The waiter comes by to see if we need anything else. We don’t. “And what’s Richard doing?”
Linda puts down her fork, picks up her napkin, and wipes her mouth. Her once fine, clear skin now has deep lines – in her forehead, around her mouth, in her chin. Yet I don’t find her less beautiful than when I first met her over forty years ago.
“Oh, you know Richard,” she says. “He putters in the garden, leads that men’s group in LA once a week, and does those wonderful sculptures of old men. Sort of companions to Alice’s old ladies.”
“I love their creations,” I say. “Alice and Richard are amazing. They live simply on that idyllic piece of property and are so mellow and happy together. They are like the love children of the 60s. Like they never grew up.”
Linda takes another bite of salad and a sip of tea. She squints. The sun is coming straight at her now.
“I know. I’ve always called them the oldest hippies around. Did you know they are planning to write a book someday about the art of aging with images of their work?”
I take another bite and chew for a long time. Then I put my fork down. I can’t eat anymore. “Yes," I say. “They are in the perfect spot to inspire their creative juices.”
“Madeline, are you all right?” Linda asks. “You’re not eating anything.”
"Sure, but I can't seem to get much down. It's called the stress diet. Whenever I'm stressed, I lose weight."
"Well, some would think that's lucky," she says. "I have a hard time keeping weight on myself." She takes her fork again and tries to pick some carrot sticks off the salad. They fall off so she picks them up with her fingers and munches, picks up one or two more, turns them around in her fingers, and drops them into the bowl. They are so fresh looking – almost the color her hair used to be. "You know, we haven't talked about Paul," she says. "Would that be all right for you?"
I look up. "What do you want to know?" I ask. I uncross my legs and re-cross them with the right leg on top. The time has finally come to get down to the real stuff.
"Well, I know he killed himself. Alice told me that. But she didn't know how he did it," she says.
I look out the window again and see a woman with two young boys enter the comic-book store. I stare at them for a few seconds. I want to scream at her and all women to take care of those little boys and cherish every minute they have with them. Then I turn back and reach around to the back of my chair and into my purse for a tissue. I wipe my eyes and look back at Linda. "He put himself in the bathtub and slit his throat," I say.
She clamps her hand over her mouth and chin and opens her eyes so wide they seem to take over her face.
The waiter comes by to take away our plates. He asks if we want any dessert.
"Why don't we share the apple crisp?” I ask. “Maybe we can manage to eat that."
Still holding her chin in her hands, she nods up and down, and the waiter leaves.
"I'm sorry to shock you, but you wanted to know." I take her hand and she squeezes mine. But, that's all the comforting I have in me right now.
“Oh my God,” she says. “How horrible for you.” She lets go of my hand, wipes her eyes with her napkin, and straightens up in her chair.
The waiter comes back with our dessert and two spoons, and we each have a few bites as I watch a fly on the other side of the window trying to get inside. In the bright light its body looks like electric blue velvet.
"This is delicious, isn't it?" I ask.
“No,” she says, “I can’t eat anything more.”
Finally, we pay our bill and get up. She puts her sweater back on, and I take my purse from where it's hanging on the back of my chair. She puts her arm around me as we walk out the restaurant door. I put my head on her shoulder. Linda has never married or had children. At this moment I think she is lucky. She didn’t have the worries, the sleepless night, the fears. Right now that’s all I think about. Right now it’s hard to remember the good parts.