Editor’s Note: Helen Coffey is a mother I met during my talk at NAMI DC. Her daughter’s story has left a great impression on me; her words of desperation continue to echo in my mind. Helen has been gracious enough to share her and her daughter’s story so that others may learn about the reality of an untreated diagnosis. Thank you to Helen and to Heather. I promise to give her a voice — to help all of those who survive from day to day, all those still alive but are barely living. _____________________________________________________________
The day my daughter, Heather, died I wanted to destroy everything in this world that had hurt her. When the phone call came, I went into a rage. I was so angry at the doctors, insurance companies, employers, ER’s, police, law makers, rehabs, and certain individuals, but most of all I was angry at myself.
I have to admit that I was angry at Heather and God. I screamed over and over, “Heather, how could you leave us, and God, how could you let her die?” Then I thought, “Why didn’t I go over there this morning? How could I not have known that she needed someone?” I wallowed in self-pity for a while after her death, but then I came out fighting. I decided that everyone should know that Heather had a mental illness and that she died by suicide.
They were going to hear her story from me. Many times I cried and couldn’t get the words out, but I tried. The more I tried, the more I could. I am not talented at speaking or writing, but I am telling a story that must be told.
Heather’s life was a procession of extremes from infancy until the day she died. Extremes, such as neatness, hard work, and organization, were her marks of excellence. Other extremes, such as sleep irregularities, difficult relationships, and intense reactions to normal situations, created chaos. Little did I know that all of the above were symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).
At fifteen she attempted suicide by taking an overdose of over the counter drugs. After going to the emergency room, having her stomach pumped, and completing a police report, our family doctor chastised her and told us that she was a “normal teenager, just trying to get attention”. He did not suggest any follow-up, and unfortunately, she disguised her internal turmoil and depression from her family quite well.
School had always been easy for her, but suddenly high school was difficult. She began skipping school, using alcohol and drugs, and engaging in risky behaviors.My husband and I were so concerned that we had her involuntarily committed for psychological assessment in a hospital in Houston. However, she was released within 24 hours with a “normal teenager with overly-concerned parents” diagnosis — again.
Heather’s next few years were plagued with moving often, changing colleges and jobs often, sexual harassment and abuse incidents, abusive relationships with boyfriends, several more suicide attempts, drug and alcohol abuse, traffic tickets, and a DUI, but when Heather was 26 years old, she married and settled into a more stable condition with a commitment to finish college. She completed a degree in chemistry and psychology. She worked as a medical sales representative, was highly successful and became passionate about women’s health care.
Even though she was able to function, her undiagnosed mental illness cycled during these years, taking a toll on her emotionally, mentally, and physically. Because of her husband’s job, she was alone most of the time—working, caring for two children, and managing the home. If that wasn’t enough stress, her marriage and finances were deteriorating. Soon the ramifications of the mental illness and the resulting alcoholism were raging. Unable to perform her responsibilities, she lost the job.
When she told her father and me about her desperate situation, we offered our home to Heather and the children. They moved from Houston to Oklahoma City in December of 2004. After a few months she found a good job as a pharmaceutical sales representative. Heather was then diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of thirty-five years — twenty years after her first suicide attempt! I now believe that the diagnosis should have been BPD.
About a year before her death her psychologist told her internist that Heather had BPD. This psychologist did not tell Heather or her family nor did she provide treatment for BPD, demonstrating the lack of education about mental illnesses even among professionals. Today I believe that such myths — that the patient shouldn’t be told that she/he has BPD — must be dispelled (Dr. Brian Palmer at the 2010 NAMI National Convention reported that recovery is very promising when BPD patients are told of the diagnosis).
Heather asked for help, over and over. I can’t imagine how she felt when people looked her in the eyes and refused to help her or looked her in the eyes with the glare of disgust and disbelief. When Heather decided to enter a three-month rehab, she asked the counselor, “Can you teach me how to live?” The counselor replied with a yes but proceeded to do what everyone else had already done.
It seems that the answer for all individuals with mental illness and substance abuse is to work “The Twelve Steps”. In reality, Heather needed something like Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). When she “graduated” from the rehab, she went home with the same emotions and problems and still without the skills to counter them and started drinking again. When she made a drunken call for help to the counselor, the counselor refused to talk with her and told her to call back when she was sober.
She never called that counselor again.
Heather died by suicide on February 4th, 2009. She was 38 years old, and her two daughters, Aubrey and Alyssa, were 9 and 6.
Heather had the possibility of a brilliant life. The only thing lacking was a correct BPD diagnosis and a suitable treatment plan. I still don’t know how to deal with this loss or how to help these wonderful children deal with it. I just try to tell them about their mother. I don’t think she should be put on a pedestal, but I do want them to have good memories and to never forget her.
NAMI has given me unbelievable support. I feel so fortunate to have met Amanda Wang at the NAMI National Convention in Washington DC on June 30th, 2010 and to have heard her remarkable story. I am drawn to Amanda’s story and her desire to help others with BPD. Her remarkable work is priceless and promotes healing for those living with BPD. If anyone can win the fight as well as help others, it is Amanda! Helen Coffey
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