By Randi Barnum
25 years ago, I packed my two young children and cedar chest into the back of my truck. We were westbound from Colorado Springs to Medford, Oregon, looking for a new life away from abuse. We started over in the safety of a duplex behind my brother’s house. He and my sister-in-law had secured the nice, humble home for us while I was still making my escape plans on the other side of the Rockies.
I had the perfect job transfer working for Mayflower transit. My daughter was enrolled in the same school I went to at her age and my son went to a good daycare. Things seemed like they were all going to work out, and we would have the perfect American dream, if just I worked hard enough.
One morning, my brother called and told me that my beloved grandfather had suffered a heart attack. I remember falling to my knees and screaming. The strawberry cake I had been frosting for my daughter’s second grade class fell to the floor, coming apart all over the tiles. It seemed like a metaphor for my crumbling life.
This was the last traumatic event in my life that my mind could handle, and it marked the beginning of my first bipolar episode. It would not be my last, by far. I was diagnosed with PTSD and Bipolar I at the age of 30. I thought I had escaped my marriage with my sanity, but at that point, my sanity felt so far gone.
It wasn’t long after the funeral that I was admitted to the hospital. I was traumatized and manic —and I began experiencing psychosis.
My family tried to help with the children, and my mother even flew out from Arizona to stay with them for the first month that I was in and out of the hospital. She took care of me after I was released, which was no small task. I was so thin. I remember her making me peanut butter milkshakes to eat with my morning pills.
I soon spiraled into another mania despite all my mother’s heroic attempts to save me.
I remember galloping my horse Nick down the road, dodging traffic and yelling at the top of my lungs. I believed the whole world was watching me, as if I were on a live broadcast. By this time, my mother needed to go back to Arizona. She could not handle my manic energy any longer — it became too much to manage in addition to caring for my precious children, who were now scared to death. They had never known me not to protect them.
I tried so hard to take care of my kids with other family support. My younger brother stepped in and had me readmitted to a mental health facility. He was able to convince me to hand over my babies to my other brother and sister-in-law, promising they would be fine.
When I left to be hospitalized, my son, who was only a toddler at the time, was terrified. My daughter was stood nearby, sobbing. My heart was so broken.
I remember the drive to the hospital. I panicked and tried to jump out of my brother’s Volkswagen van. He quickly reached over and shut the passenger door. I punched him in the jaw with a solid right. But somehow, he managed to coax me into the emergency room again.
At this point, I was hallucinating and so scared that I had to be put in restraints. I was immediately taken to the psychiatric ward. I was held in solitary confinement with a big metal door locked behind me. The windowless room felt like a cold dungeon.
When I woke up in the morning after being tranquilized so heavily, all I could think about was my children, and how they must be needing me right now. Even though I knew my family had stepped in to care for them, I could only think of them wondering where their mother was, especially after the unsettling drama the night before.
I remained manic for several days in the hospital. Once they let me out of solitary confinement, I was introduced to the community group room, where I very slowly adapted to stimuli again. I remember only being allowed to sit by the fish tank. I would watch a bug-eyed black fish for a while and feel some level of relaxation before being brought back to my little quarantine room below. I could not handle too much activity at this time in my treatment program; I was extremely sensitive and fragile. I finally stabilized enough to go home.
After the manic phase, and my release from the hospital, came a wave of depression. There are no words to describe the depth of despair I plunged into. One day, I knocked out half the power of Medford by ramming my truck into a utility pole. Transformers crashed down all around my truck. Later that day, I made an attempt on my life, leaving scars behind.
Following this series of events, my children went back to their father’s home in Colorado, as he was able to prove I was not fit to care for them. My children struggled to adapt to their new situation for much of their childhoods.
My mental health journey has been a scary and challenging road for my family, especially my children. They are scarred but resilient. I’m so grateful for them. They have been so forgiving of both their father and me.
Ultimately, I’ve learned that hope walks with the hurting. I held onto my faith, and I spent a lot of time praying, with tears flowing down my face. Despite the ups and downs, I am determined to survive the coming storms.
Randi Barnum is an enthusiast of life and all that may come with it. While fighting mental illness for over 25 years, she continues to encourage others to not give up on their own personal battle. She has hope that by sharing her struggles and triumphs, she will encourage and strengthen others in their plight.
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