Mental Illness? My Daughter?

Jennifer entered residential treatment for her eating disorder in June of 2005.  While she was away, I remember apologizing to our minister for not focusing on my responsibilities for a church committee.  He said, “Of course you can’t focus.  Your daughter is in a mental institution.”  I was shocked at his words because I never thought of my daughter as having a mental illness.  She was getting treatment for an eating disorder.  I didn’t quite know what that treatment involved, but I was quite sure it wasn’t a mental illness!

Jenn was being treated at Friends Hospital in Philadelphia.  According to Wikipedia, “Friends Hospital is a mental hospital located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. Founded in 1813 as The Asylum for Persons Deprived of the Use of Their Reason by Quakers, the institution was later renamed the Frankford Asylum for the Insane.”  I didn’t know it was a mental hospital.  I only knew that her treatment team at Cornell recommended Friends Hospital and Jenn wanted to go there.

I was unconsciously biased.  I saw my daughter as someone in honors English at Cornell.  Her grades were great and she had won a writing award.  She was playing full concertos on the violin and singing in the chorus and an a capella group.  She could go to a party, pull out Plato’s “Republic”, and get everyone talking philosophy.  She spoke French fluently and was comfortable with Italian.  In my mind there was nothing wrong with her brain.

And yet, the facts were right in front of me.  I clearly lived in denial.

Jenn suffered from depression. I knew that.  She would call and tell me about the different medications she was trying.  We discussed the side effects she felt with Xantax, Prozac and Zoloft.  We celebrated when she finally found one that helped her without side effects, Lexapro.   And, every month I went to the pharmacy to fill her prescription.  There was no secret here.  I knew about her struggle with depression.  And yet, the words mental illness never entered my mind.

Jenn suffered from ADHD.  I knew that.  I remember when she told me that recent research had found a connection between ADHD and eating disorders in females.  David and I willingly paid for all the tests to confirm an ADHD diagnosis.  She was so frustrated with the difficulties in getting treatment for her ADHD.  The drugs inhibit appetite and she had a very serious eating disorder.  She was successful in this battle, too, eventually getting a prescription for Adderol.  And, every month I went to the pharmacy to fill her prescription. And yet, the words mental illness never entered my mind.

Jenn had an eating disorder.  I knew that.  She and I often talked about her struggles with food and weight. She had tried outpatient treatment and then, when it was clear she needed something more, she agreed to a partial hospitalization program in Buffalo.  I knew that.  We drove her to treatment on Sunday nights and picked her up again on Friday nights.  We attended family sessions.

This residential treatment program at Friends Hospital was even more intense.  I knew that.  David drove her to Philadelphia and paid the $1500 copay.  I knew she had to stay there for 10 days and couldn’t come home until the treatment was complete.  (I should note here that she really needed more than 10 days, but that was all insurance would cover.)  I spoke to her every day and encouraged her to get better. And STILL, the words mental illness never entered my mind.

The truth is, my daughter had THREE mental illnesses and she battled them courageously.  First, control the depression.  Second, get the ADHD diagnosis and seek treatment.  Finally, battle that illness for which there is no medication, just a day-to-day struggle to defeat the demon. 

My daughter, who graduated summa cum laude from Cornell, who won writing awards, who was beyond brilliant, suffered from a cocktail of three mental illnesses, all distinct from one another, and all linked together.  She was far more than the smartest person I have ever known, she was also the strongest.  She had diseases no one could see, but each of them as deadly as any cancer.

I’ve had colon cancer and breast cancer.  People call me a warrior.  It’s possible my obituary might read, “she died after a courageous battle with cancer”.  No one would doubt that I had fought with all my physical strength.

Jennifer Mathiason died on February 21, 2009 after a courageous 14-year battle with mental illness.  She is remembered for her strength and perseverance in the face of many obstacles.  She fought with all her might until her strength was gone.  She was a true warrior.