The film helped me to process the experience. What do you do? How are you supposed to act? There's no manual for that.
As a parent who lived through the loss of a child, what compelled you to turn such a private tragedy into a film?
Well, the film is about our son's bipolar illness and his suicide at fifteen, which was so shocking, and numbing, and painful, and horrifying that the only thing we could think was that no one else can go through this, or should. It's really a parent's worst nightmare, especially after having struggled through such a terrible illness and doing everything we could to try and help him.
The film helped me to process the experience. What do you do? How are you supposed to act? There's no manual for that. For me it was really a way to dig through it and try to ask as many questions as I could, and examine Evan's life and his death so I could better understand it. That said, it is not an educational film, nor does it necessarily offer any solutions. But it does raise a lot of questions I think are important to ask, and discuss.
Bipolar disorder is such a misunderstood mental illness. Can you describe what you learned about it through your experience?
Mental illness itself is pretty incomprehensible to those of us who haven't struggled with it. It's particularly hard on family members who have to live with it. Bipolar illness is what we used to call manic depression. I think we're more familiar with the term "manic depression" and I think we also are more familiar with that illness presenting in adults. I had never heard of it in relation to a child.
With Evan, almost from when he was born, there was something going on with him both with his behavior and demeanor. He seemed to be very dark and moody. It wasn't until he was hospitalized following an attempted suicide attempt at school at the age of eleven that he was actually diagnosed as bipolar. That was the first time I had heard that term in relationship to a child. And I was shocked.
There wasn't much literature available in 2000. So we went and tried to do as much research as possible and try to learn about it. I was starting to think that indeed, yes, children can not only be depressed, which the establishment did not used to think, but they can also be bipolar, which is depression with a manic element to it.
There are no tests for it, so you can't take your family member to a doctor and get a blood test and come home and say, "Well, now we know we're bipolar." It's more a measure of answering questions and charting the mood of the patient. So you never even really know if your child or your loved one is actually bipolar other than by analyzing the symptoms.
Talking...really helps, which is one of the problems around mental illness and suicide: the reluctance to talk about it, as if it's some sort of character flaw, and not a real illness, which it is.
What advice can you offer to people dealing with behavior they think might be bipolar in themselves or a loved one?
As a parent, the first thing I say is, take your child seriously. I think we've all heard of dramatic adolescents acting out. But there's a level that we experienced, where the talk was not normal. It wasn't just a frustrated teenager. It was a real obsession with death and darkness. And we learned because another family member had committed suicide, my son's uncle, my husband's brother. So we took it very seriously because I just don't think you can be too careful.
There are books and web sites specific to this sort of thing, in particular the Child and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation, where they publish studies, medication trials, what's new in the field, and also, parents can share their frustrations of day to day practical issues on a forum. There are many more outlets available now for information about this than there were when we were going through it. From there, you've got to put together your treatment team which is really challenging. But you as the parent need to drive that, and identify the people who are best for your child, and make it happen because there isn't anyone else who will do it for you.
As someone who has experienced profound loss, what advice do you have for others who are going through a similar grieving process?
I had no preparation for the grief that came with Evan's suicide. I can hardly describe how profound it is. A parent is not supposed to bury his or her child. It just goes against everything we hold sacred. I found myself going back to this idea of having to get up each day and put one foot in front of the other. And that's really all I did for the first year or so: just get through life. Get through the day.
Making the film was actually really helpful, as painful as it was to make. But at least I felt like I was doing something. So, being active in whatever way that works for you is helpful. I also find that talking about it really helps, which is one of the problems around mental illness and suicide: the reluctance to talk about it, as if it's some sort of character flaw, and not a real illness, which it is.
All I can really say to someone who has experienced this kind of loss is that it gets a little better as time goes by. But it's a profound loss, and a profound grief, and I think that talking about it, writing about it, doing something about it, whatever it might be, is really helpful.
2009 Documentary Films Series