In so many ways, Kate McLaughlin’s life was the American ideal. Married to her high school sweetheart, Mark, both she and her husband pursued their academic and career goals. As Mark began to climb the corporate ladder, Kate taught school and attended graduate classes. The couple soon purchased their first home, and had their first child, a beautiful little girl they named Chloe. Three years later, son Michael was born, and three years after him the couple was blessed with another daughter, Monica.
Wanting to stay home with her children, Kate quit her teaching job so she could focus on her young, active family. While Mark worked, she and the children took day trips, nurtured gardens, read books, and baked. As the children grew, Kate helped in their classrooms, and Mark became a coach for Michael’s Little League team.
“If you encountered us in the mall,” Kate writes, “you would have seen a happy, upper-middle class family enjoying the American dream. We had it all.”
In fact, they still have it all, but their definition of wholeness would be challenged and ultimately changed by a journey that was all at once frightening, heartbreaking, and overwhelmingly difficult. It’s a journey that Kate details in her groundbreaking book, Mommy, I’m Still in Here, which were the words whispered by a distressed seventeen-year old Chloe as she suffered one of the first (of what was to be many) episodes brought on either organically, by rapid-cycling bipolar disorder, or as side-effect to one or more of the many medications prescribed in an attempt to control her symptoms. It would only be a few years after this incident that Kate’s son, Michael, would also be diagnosed as bipolar.
With unrelenting and gut-wrenching candor, Kate revisits these episodes, describing not only her children’s battles, but her own raw emotions as mother and caretaker, and the effect of mental illness on the entire family. There are so many facets to this story — psychological, practical, spiritual and emotional — that it would have difficult for any author to write, but Kate, aided by her dedication to keeping journals, manages to cover every facet in a way that is deeply stirring, often frustrating, and ultimately illuminating.
Readers will find themselves sharing in the family’s agony of trying to find the right combination of medications, and the long waits to see if they’d work. They will be moved by Chloe’s struggle with side-effects no teenager could easily live with, including weight gain, acne, and hair loss – and her valiant attempts to return to school, and recapture the academic brilliance and self-esteem that was often left sapped by prescription drugs. They will sit on the edge of their seats as Michael, intelligent, healthy and athletic, disintegrates into a suicidal teenager who attempts to self-medicate and mask his symptoms with drugs and alcohol.
Kate also sheds light on her own battle with exhaustion and depression, and a family history of mental illness that was kept in the closet. Without minimizing the toll that bipolar disorder had on her children and her family, Kate also shows us how unwavering dedication and love brought them each to a place of acceptance and, eventually, renewal.
In a way that was likely unintentional, Kate’s book also leaves the reader examining one of the most important issues of our day – which, for many Americans, is the lack of comprehensive health insurance. One has to wonder what other families, not as well situated, would do in similar circumstances. While there is no ideal time to be struck by tragedy, the circumstances of the McLaughlin’s allowed their children to be treated and hospitalized as they needed to be, and even to change therapists and doctors in order to find the ones best suited to their cases.
In addition, the McLaughlin’s income allowed Kate to stay home and be her children’s primary caretaker, and their education level was such that they were able to do a lot of research on behalf of their children which benefitted their care as well as the family’s understanding. Yet the McLaughlin’s journey was in no way easy, and at times so brutally difficult that it is painful to process, even from the distance of the written page. If this is the effect of mental illness in a family with the “best case scenario” – insured, financially stable, and educated – then it does not take much imagination to guess at the struggles of those in lesser circumstances.
I would recommend Mommy, I’m Still in Here not just for those individuals and families whose lives have been effected by bipolar disorder, but for everybody who has ever had questions about mental illness, and for all of those who are left searching for hope, and some light, at the end of any long familial battle. Beyond the diagnoses, the challenges, and the pain, Kate McLaughlin’s story is ultimately a story that encourages and inspires hope.
Mommy, I’m Still in Here is available at Amazon.com