Today, I have the honor of an interview with a woman, whom I admire greatly, Madeline Sharples. In the face of unspeakable tragedy, Madeline has found a way to help others. Her gift to the world is the ability to expess herself in ways that touch the hearts and minds of others.
Madeline's new book, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother's Memoir of Living with Her Son's Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide charts the near-destruction of one middle-class family, whose son committed suicide after a seven-year struggle with bipolar disorder. Madeline, an author, poet and web journalist, goes deep into her own well of grief to describe her anger, frustration and guilt. She describes many attempts -- some successful, some not -- to have her son committed to hospital and to keep him on his medication. The book also charts her and her family's redemption, how she considered suicide herself, and ultimately, her decision live and take care of herself as a woman, wife, mother and writer.
What does the title of the book mean?
At first I believed—my magical thinking—that if I left the hall light on, if we didn’t move away from our house, if we didn’t change our telephone number, Paul would know how to make his way back. Paul would know we were still here waiting for him. For a long time, I waited for that familiar sound of his Volvo coming into the garage, the sound of the door from the garage slamming as he entered the house and went down the hall to his room, the sound of him walking around the house at night, the sound of the door opening and closing as he went in and out of the house. In fact, for a while I thought I heard those sounds. I, also, left most of the things in his room and closet alone for fear of removing his presence there. For a long time, I refused to give away his things in case he would need them when he came back. Once those sounds in my imagination and my magical thinking fell away, my need to keep the hall light on became another one of the things that helped me get through my grief. We left the hall light on for him when he was home. I just couldn’t break that routine.
What were the warning signs when your son first began to experience symptoms of bipolar disorder?
Just before his first manic break in February 1993, he had traveled from New York where he was attending college at the New School to attend my mother’s 85th birthday celebration. I have a wonderful photo of him playing Happy Birthday on the piano with her sitting beside him. He was perfectly normal. He was calm, loving. He talked easily to everyone and readily smiled as he posed for a photo with his brother and cousins. For the two nights he was with us, he slept easily in his childhood bedroom, and kissed and hugged me when I said goodbye to him at the airport.
Two weeks later, he was calling us up every few minutes, writing all over his apartment walls with a blue felt-tipped marker, and saying people were lurking in doorways out to get him and poisoning his food and cigarettes. His clothes were strewn all over the place, his dishes were stacked up—all behaviors so foreign to the orderly and neat guy he normally was. Most important, he was a jazz musician no longer able to sit still long enough at the piano to play a song through from the beginning to end.
In those two weeks after he returned to New York City, he played three successive gigs with some older musicians in Brooklyn, rather than with his own group, and had not slept for at least two nights in a row. He, also, drank heavily during these performances. So, it is possible that this burgeoning jazz man lifestyle of little sleep, little food, and lots of booze sent Paul over the edge. He was, also, so affected by the news of the heroin-overdose death of one of his classmates he became unintelligible and had to be taken from his school to the hospital.
How do you give support and comfort to a person who doesn’t want support or comfort?
We were in a hopeless situation. Because Paul was an adult child, we had no control. We couldn’t help him unless he let us. We felt like our hands were tied behind our backs—and by him. Paul was the driver—it was all up to him. We were out of touch and out of control at his choosing. All we could do was hope for the best, that somehow he would integrate what everyone had been telling him for so long—that his survival and recovery were up to him.
At the same time, we concluded no matter what, he was our son and our responsibility. We would never turn him out into the streets. No matter how painful it was being with him, having him living with us, experiencing the effects of his illness on him and our family, we would take care of him for as long as he needed us to.
How did you maintain your sanity after your son’s suicide?
A long list of things helped: friends and family, getting back on my exercise program, pampering myself, writing in my journal and taking writing workshops, attending the Survivors After Suicide meetings at the Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services organization, finding a job outside my home, and being respectful of each other as a family. We stuck together as a family, we moved through our grief in our own way and in our own time, and we came out the other side as a family closer than ever before.
What can a person do to help and comfort a family that has experienced a suicide or other tragedy?
My greatest comfort after our son’s death came from my next-door neighbor, Patty. She offered to put up out-of-town relatives, she brought over bagels and cream cheese in the morning, and she supplied the coffee for the open house after the funeral. The word “suicide” didn’t make her back off.
Before the first Thanksgiving after Paul’s death, Patty left a basket on my doorstep. Her note said that she dreaded the holidays after her mother died, so she gathered a few things to ease the holiday season for me. As I read her note and looked through the basket, I cried, not only out of the dread of being without Paul on Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and his New Year’s Eve birthday, but for the generosity and caring of a person I hardly knew. In such a quiet and unassuming way, she showed me real human compassion and understanding. She never asked me a lot of questions, and she didn’t intrude on my privacy. She just let me know she was there for me if I needed her.
Among the items inside was a poetry book about coping with the loss of a loved one—she knew I wrote poetry. She also included a journal, a sweet smelling candle, a box of absolutely delicious, chocolate-covered graham crackers, and a smooth gray stone.
This stone became my biggest comfort. Just large enough to fit in the palm of my hand, it feels the perfect size when I close my hand around it. One edge is round and the other is triangular. One side is plain; the other has the word “son” carved into it. Right after Patty left the basket on my doorstep, my little stone became my nighttime friend.
I got into the habit of going to bed with it. Once settled, I held it on my chest just between my breasts. I liked its coldness on my aching heart. It helped me relax. Holding it in my hand and reading the word with my thumb, also helped. I carried it around in my pocket for a while. I wanted to feel it there for me. Then, I began to wonder about my own sanity. Was I trying to exchange my son for a stone?
When I got myself more together and began to feel better, I let go of it and let it rest on another item from that basket—a little, silk-covered, sachet pillow that smells of lavender with butterflies and the word “heal” painted on the silk. These two gifts from Patty are still there on my bedside table after all these years.
What advice do you have for families that have been affected by mental illness or suicide?
First, I recommend families find out as much about bipolar disorder as you can—the best doctors, hospitals, medications available, and how to get to them. Also, know about suicide prevention. What I didn’t know when our son was diagnosed is that bipolar can be a killer disease—especially in young men. Then, try to give your loved one with the disease the facts. That way he/she will feel less stigmatized and will be more likely to accept help.
Second, I would want people affected by suicide to know that it is possible to survive and be productive after the death of a child. I would advise them to:
- Take your time—don’t let anyone tell you that the time for grief should be over
- Take good care of your health: workout, eat healthy, get enough rest, meditate, travel, and be open to new friends and new experiences
- Pamper yourself: stay in shape physically, get massages, facials, and manicures and pedicures
- Pretend you’re feeling better by putting on a smiley face and pretty soon you will feel better (I call it playacting)
- Find an artistic outlet and other diversions to take your mind off of it
Many thanks to Madeline for sharing her story and her wisdom. I encourage all my readers to get a copy of her book.
Madeline Sharples studied journalism in high school and college and wrote for the high school newspaper, but only started to fulfill her dream to work as a creative writer and journalist, late in life. Her memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide, was released in a hardback edition in 2011 and has just been released in paperback and eBook editions by Dream of Things. It tells the steps she took in living with the loss of her oldest son, first and foremost that she chose to live and take care of herself as a woman, wife, mother, and writer. She hopes that her story will inspire others to find ways to survive their own tragic experiences.
She also co-authored Blue-Collar Women: Trailblazing Women Take on Men-Only Jobs (New Horizon Press, 1994), co-edited the poetry anthology, The Great American Poetry Show, Volumes 1 and 2, and wrote the poems for two photography books, The Emerging Goddess and Intimacy (Paul Blieden, photographer). Her poems have also appeared online and in print magazines.