Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

When life comes unglued, a Minnesota family’s experience June 23, 2021

HE AROSE FROM HIS CHAIR, lost. I watched him stagger and collapse on Sarah’s chair, plunging his head into his big sister’s chest.

As that scene unfolds on page 297 of Unglued—A Bipolar Love Story by Minnesotan Jeffrey Zuckerman, I cried. I cried at the deep heartache adult siblings Joey and Sarah experience when learning of their mother Leah’s attempted suicide. I cried at the pain. I cried at the challenges Leah faces in living with bipolar disorder. I cried for those inside and outside my circle who have lost loved ones to suicide, who live with serious mental illnesses, who are brave beyond words.

Tears cleanse, releasing pain and emotions.

I feel grateful to freelance editor and writer Zuckerman for sharing his family’s story, which increases awareness, understanding, and, most importantly, offers hope.

HEART-WRENCHING HONESTY

Zuckerman writes about his wife’s “broken mind” with an honesty that is simultaneously heart-wrenching and beautiful. Although at times he literally runs away, his love for her endures and he never gives up. He never gives up through the manic episodes, the rage, the hurt, the personality changes, the exhaustion, the anhedonia (lack of feelings), the sleepless nights, the hospitalizations, the efforts to find the right medications that will help…

Through all of it, he learns. He begins to understand, to see bipolar disorder for what it is, a medical illness. He sees, too, the stigma, and he begins to open up. To neighbors. To friends. And also to those in a National Alliance on Mental Illness support group. He writes: It’s hard to explain just how listening to my story with grace and without judgment was exactly the help I needed.

THE 3 Cs

I listened to his story, taking notes as I read Unglued. Although I feel fairly informed about brain disorders like bipolar disorder, I find myself acquiring new knowledge every time I read personal stories like that of the Zuckerman family. This marks the first time I’ve read a book written from a spouse’s perspective. Even through the most difficult days, Jeff loves Leah and comes to realize that he didn’t cause her illness, nor can he control or cure it. He recognizes, too, that he must care for himself if he is to be of any help to his wife of 30-plus years.

SEPARATING THE INDIVIDUAL & THE ILLNESS

Theirs is a love story marked not only by loss and grief, but also by forgiveness, by strength and resilience. Zuckeman is able to see Leah, the individual, and not Leah the illness, first. From her, he learns to be more tolerant and less selfish.

Through his storytelling, this gifted Minneapolis writer personalizes bipolar in relatable and ordinary ways. Half-way through Unglued, he writes about stopping with Leah at Ben and Jerry’s for Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream before returning her to a psych ward. After 25 days of hospitalization, Leah is discharged and, writes Jeff, they begin gluing back together her life…and their long, fractured marriage. And that glue is love.

RESOURCES & HELP

FYI: If you or someone you love is considering suicide, get immediate professional help. Resources include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) also offers a helpline at 1-800-950-6264. Many resources are available through NAMI, including support groups for those dealing with mental health issues and their families.

Above all, care. Listen. Support. And continue to love.

AWARD-WINNING BOOK

Unglued was named a finalist for the 2020-2021 Minnesota Book Award, among other honors.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Focus on mental health: What we can do May 26, 2021

Photographed at the Northfield Public Library. Minnesota Prairie Roots edited and copyrighted photo.

IF YOUR FRIEND was battling cancer, what would you do? Send an encouraging card? Deliver a meal? Offer a ride to the doctor’s office? Plan or support a fundraiser for her?

Now, what if that same friend was battling clinical depression? Would you do the same?

I’d like to hope we’d all answer “yes.” That we would respond in the same loving and supportive way whether someone was fighting cancer or dealing with a serious, debilitating mental illness.

But the truth is that most of us wouldn’t. And there are multiple reasons for our inaction. We are unaware. We don’t understand. We’re too uncomfortable. We’re at a loss as to what to do. We may even wonder why our friend can’t just get over it.

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL

Yet, those struggling with serious mental health issues need our support, encouragement, understanding, compassion and love. They can’t simply wish away chemical imbalances in their brains. They can’t simply take a pill and magically return to good health. The struggle is real. As real as cancer.

I’m hopeful that an increasing focus on mental health, especially during the pandemic, will shift thinking and reduce the stigma attached to mental illness. That’s a start. But so much more needs to be done.

WE NEED…

We need more mental health professionals. In my area of Minnesota, the wait to see a psychiatrist can be lengthy. Some doctors are not even taking new patients. Psychiatric care is limited, especially in areas outside the metro. That’s how bad it is. Imagine being in a mental health crisis, the equivalent of a heart attack, and being told you can’t get medical attention for six weeks? That’s reality for way too many people.

We need more funding for research that will lead to new, more effective medications or other treatments for mental illnesses.

We need early intervention. Education. Heightened awareness.

We need to move this beyond buzz words and hashtags. We need to stop throwing out offensive words like “crazy,” “insane,” or “nuts” when talking about mental illness or anything, really.

YOU CAN HELP

I recognize we as individuals hold little power over changing most of those problems. But we do have the ability to, on a very basic level, acknowledge and support those in our circle who are dealing with mental health issues. Send a card. Deliver a meal. Offer a ride. Listen. Give a financial gift—individuals and families in the throes of a mental health crisis often face overwhelming financial challenges. There’s so much we can do. If only we choose to take action.

FYI: May marks Mental Health Awareness Month. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is an excellent resource for information on mental health. If you or someone you love is in crisis, seek immediate medical attention in your emergency room. That’s a starting point. Above all, please know that help is available and that you are not alone. The same goes for those who care for and love family members struggling with mental health. NAMI offers confidential family support groups.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Focus on mental health: What you can do, what “we” can do March 10, 2020

 

I photographed this at an ethnic celebration last fall at the Northfield Public Library. This message refers to the struggles with mental illness. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2019.

 

THEY’RE NOT NUTS, crazy or whatever other derogatory term you want to tag to someone with mental health struggles.

Such uninformed, inaccurate and offensive words continue to perpetuate the stigma, the blame, the discrimination against those diagnosed with anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar, schizophrenia, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and more.

If you sense a bit of anger in my words, it’s because I’m trying to come to terms with something offensive I saw in small town Minnesota this past weekend as it relates to mental illness. I’m currently processing this, recognizing that a knee jerk emotional reaction won’t help.

 

This sculpture outside the Northfield library is called “Waist Deep” and addresses the topic of mental health. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2019.

 

So let’s set that aside and talk about positive things that are happening now to raise awareness and educate about mental health. This Thursday, March 12, Minnesota’s National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is organizing “Mental Health Day on the Hill” at the Minnesota state capitol in an effort to strengthen and expand our mental health system. That’s much-needed in a state with a severe shortage of mental healthcare professionals. A rally is set for 11 am to noon in the capitol rotunda.

 

A sign explains the story behind the “Waist Deep” sculpture. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2019.

 

Rallies are effective because they draw attention to a cause. But we need to do more. And that starts with each of us individually, personally. We need to educate ourselves, to show support, care and compassion to our families, our friends, our neighbors, anyone who is struggling with their mental health. Just like we rally when someone is diagnosed with cancer, we need to give that same support during a mental health crisis. But how many GoFundMe pages or local community fundraisers have you seen for someone facing insurmountable medical and other bills due to a mental illness? Not many or none, I would guess.

However, there are exceptions. Recently a Faribault police officer took his own life. In an obit published in my local newspaper, the family shared this about their loved one: He took a medical retirement after a 10 year career. He was diagnosed with PTSD and lost his battle with the disease by taking his own life. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help cover his funeral expenses with any extras going toward his children’s education. We read often in an obituary that someone died after a long, brave battle with cancer. To read about someone battling a disease like PTSD is equally as important, especially in ending the associated stigma.

There’s a reason mental illness is sometimes called the “no casserole disease.” In Minnesota, I’d say, the “no hotdish disease.” It’s time for that to change—time for us to start taking hotdishes to, sending cards, visiting, calling and otherwise supporting those who are in the throes of a mental health crisis or recovery. (And their families.) Just as we do when someone is hospitalized during and after surgery or going through chemo or…

 

A close-up of that reaching hand on the Northfield, Minnesota, sculpture. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2019.

 

And we need to speak up when people use stigmatizing words like “nuts” and “crazy.”

I appreciate that this week, and again in late April, Faribault Community School is offering an 8-hour youth mental health first aid training course to help adults identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness or substance abuse. The more we learn, the better prepared we are to help one another.

NAMI is a fantastic resource and help for anyone dealing with mental health issues. With state chapters nationwide, you can often find a nearby peer or family support group. My community doesn’t offer a family support group. But neighboring Owatonna and Northfield do.

No matter who you are, where you live, dealing with a mental health issue or not, we need to work harder on ending the stigma, raising awareness and showing compassion. I am committed to that. I hope you are, too. This affects all of us, even if you don’t realize it.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling