I hope you’re having a good week, as we all adjust to fall. I just finished a book and have hit the deck running into September, as I always do. We have two family birthdays in September, which provides some fun and levity. But this week is always a serious one for me, particularly so this year.
As most or all of you know my son Nick suffered from bi polar disease all his life. In those days, doctors absolutely refused to diagnose patients with bi polar disease as children. It was considered unthinkable to diagnose them before their early twenties. Today, it’s entirely different, children as young as 3 are diagnosed, treated and medicated. It’s thought now that not treating the disease as early as possible can cause irreversible changes in the brain that can’t be reversed later, due to lack of treatment early on. So doctors are quick to diagnose bi polar now. And I’m sure, as with anything, there may be some premature diagnoses, that turn out not to be accurate later. But on the whole, I think lives are changed, improved, and even saved by today’s early diagnoses. And maybe it’s better to early-medicate than not medicate at all until too late. It was clear to me by the time he was 4 that Nick had a serious disorder of some kind, and by the time he was seven, I was sure he was bi polar. I first suspected it when he was two. And no doctor agreed with me until he was 15, and he was first medicated at 16, which was considered shockingly early. The appropriate medication changed his life within weeks, and was definitely the right thing for him. Once on medication (lithium), he said he felt normal for the first time in his life. (Before that, when he was very young, doctors would explain his ‘off’ unusual behaviors by his near genius IQ, his too bright mind, and the fact that he was possibly spoiled, and had a famous mother. And yes, I probably did spoil him, but that didn’t account for his too exuberant, too bright, precocious behaviors. To most people, he just seemed like an extremely bright kid, but I thought there was more to it than that. He was too smart, too fast, too old for his age).
Despite his illness, Nick led an amazingly full life. As many bi polars are, he was brilliant, talented, charming, funny, incredibly endearing. I got a long letter a few months ago, from a girl who met him 21 years ago in a parking lot while he was on tour, and a half hour encounter and conversation with him, she claims, changed her life forever. She was a drugged out 15 year old at the time, and he tried to talk her out of doing drugs. He was what they called straight edge, although on the racy music scene, he did no drugs and didn’t drink at the time. She said his words came back to haunt her as she grew up, and she eventually gave up drugs, and has a solid life with two kids now, and decided to share the story with me. I’ve had many letters like that. He touched many people in his short life, and made a lasting impression.
In his short time, Nick performed (sang as lead singer, wrote music and lyrics) with two bands, one of which became relatively famous and is still around. There are CDs and videos of Nick performing with them. He toured the country, performing night after night, which wore him out, but he loved the tours, which were grueling. He had an incredible musical talent, and huge stage presence and personality. I think he would have been famous if he’d lived. And he was just a knock out person, and an incredible kid. He was ridiculously funny with a great sense of humor, a huge heart, he was compassionate. And very, very smart. He was bright and funny and talented and greatly loved. And 20 years ago this Wednesday, September 20th, he took his life at 19. He made three attempts before that, and finally succeeded on the fourth one, although we kept careful watch over him and he was never alone. But with that kind of determination, we couldn’t stop him from succeeding at suicide in the end. The weight of his illness was finally just too much for him.
Many, many, many people with bi polar manage the disease well, get good treatment, and lead full, productive lives, just as some people survive cancer. Nick just wasn’t destined to be one of them. That’s hard to accept, but it was true for him. Someone wrote a song about him after he died that said “If love could have kept him alive, he would have lived two hundred years.” He was loved by just about everyone who knew him, and incredibly so by his eight siblings, his father and me. But sometimes love isn’t enough. With bi polar every day was a battle, and a victory. When I read his journals after he died, I read with great sadness that he had begun talking about suicide with great determination at eleven. We were able to give him another 8 years. I wish it could have been more. We tried every kind of treatment. But I can say with certainty that in spite of his illness, he REALLY enjoyed much of his life, LOVED his music with a passion, did more than many people by the time they’re sixty, and accomplished a great deal in 19 short years.
This week is the anniversary of his death. Always a tough day for us as a family. We each have our special memories of him. He had a special relationship with each of us, and was very close to me. He was a great blessing in our lives, and a gift. I don’t think he was meant to live a long life, and I don’t think he could have done it. He put a huge amount of energy into surviving for nineteen years, and so did we, in helping him do it.
This year the anniversary is particularly poignant. It has been 20 years. It doesn’t seem possible, but it is. His younger siblings have grown up, have good lives, and his older ones, and he comes with us every day in our hearts. Sadly, his two best friends are gone now too, and also died very young, one also by suicide although unlike Nick, he showed no warning signs before, and the other tragically in a fire, saving his room mates, he helped them all get out, and got trapped himself and died a hero’s death. So Nick and his pals are up there somewhere now, up to mischief, I’m sure!!
We all think we could never survive the death of a child, and it’s certainly not an easy thing. We have tried to balance his death by a foundation in his name, to help the mentally ill, and have helped thousands of people in his name. I used to dread too when he would have been gone for a long time, when his life among us would seem so far away…. twenty years…. but it isn’t far away, he still seems right here with us, and stories of some of the really funny or outrageous things he did still surface all the time, and we end up laughing all over again. There was a lot of laughter in Nick’s life, and love, and joy. He was a gorgeous boy and a wonderful person. And is constantly and forever loved and missed.
I’ll spend the day quietly with some of my children, as I do every year. The anniversary of that date is a tough one, and doesn’t bring back happy memories, but then the happy memories flood in. Nick was all about joy! He constantly made us laugh and smile, and even now he still does. Sometimes I just grin or laugh out loud when I’m alone and remember something ridiculous he did. He did ridiculous so well!!!
As someone said so simply afterwards, “Too bright, too brief”. It was too brief, but he was a very, very bright star, and lives on in our hearts forever, shining brightly. The brightest stars remain with us forever, and he surely will. My love to all of you, I hope you have a peaceful week.