Over the last month or so, I’ve rewatched all of Grey’s Anatomy from the beginning. During that time, I once again lost O’Malley, Derek Shepherd, Sloan, “Little Grey” (Lexie), Cristina (not dead, but gone), Karev (aka, Evilspawn. also not dead), and others. Some I don’t miss, but others were like a punch in the gut. In many ways, it feels like the best people have left, though I still cling to Bailey, Grey, and Webber. The one that hit me pretty hard, though, was Deluca. It isn’t that I was that enamored of his character, but the reaction of some people to his death this season really got to me. Everyone was “tired of his drama”, saying “good riddance”, and generally crapping all over his character. It was disheartening, because I knew why they were tired of him. He had some episodes of really bad manic behavior, followed by depression so bad he couldn’t leave the bed. People hated him for that.
Why do I care? Because my daughter also had bipolar disorder type 1 and had a terrible time of it. We as a family went through hell along with her. When I see someone reacting to a TV character as they did, for God’s sake, it makes me realize all over again how hard life was for her as a real person with a valid, real mental illness.
She inherited it. My dad had some serious mental issues that he never sought help for. My mother referred to it as shell shock (their term for PTSD in WWII vets). I think she and everyone else expected him to get over it and move on. There are things that are difficult to “move on” from without professional help. He drowned his anxiety in booze until it almost killed him.
Mom also had her own issues with depression and anxiety and OD’d on Valium a few times. Hers came from both my dad’s treatment of her (everything was her fault in his eyes) and from losing her first child when she was only 18 years old. (In 1948, they didn’t allow her to see or hold her son. They whisked him away, and the only thing she ever saw of him was a picture of him in his casket.) I never really understood what that did to her until I lost my first child through miscarriage, and lost my daughter to an early death, as well. My mom was already dead when Stephanie died, so I couldn’t go to her and talk about it. I never told her about my miscarriage.
Depression and anxiety have not skipped a generation, either. Each one of us children has had problems. I’ll be on anti-depressants for the rest of my life, I’m sure, and I was diagnosed with bipolar type 2 about 10 years ago. The diagnosis helped me to understand some of my struggles from earlier in my life. That illness, combined with the loss of my children, almost took me out. It took fighting like mad to dig myself out of the hole. After 12 years, I’m doing alright. That isn’t to say that I don’t wonder what my first baby would have been like, or that I don’t miss my daughter every single day; it’s just that I’ve learned to live with it. My siblings deal with theirs in their own way. Some with medication, most without.
I’ve learned to take care of myself better. I’m not always perfect at that, but like Deluca, I had to be compliant with my medication, get enough sleep, remember to eat, and try to incorporate exercise of some kind into my life. Stephanie was not compliant at all. She didn’t like that the drugs leveled her out. She said she felt numb. So she would go off the meds and the whole cycle would start again. The difference between bipolar type 1 and type 2 can be simplified in this way:
- Type 1 is the “bad kind”. Patients tend to cycle between manic episodes and depressive episodes. During the manic episodes, they are on a real high and can indulge in very risky behaviors. They are more apt to attempt suicide during the lows.
- Type 2 patients tend to have hypomanic episodes (maybe only one in their lifetime). They are much more inclined to have depression that is hard to treat.
Personally, I liked Deluca’s story arc. Despite his manic behavior, he was spot on about the child trafficker that was in the ER. Just because he was in a manic episode didn’t mean he didn’t know what he was seeing. The writing could have been better. They didn’t provide enough context for us to understand the clues he was picking up on, really. An overprotective mother could act just as the trafficker acted. But because Deluca hadn’t slept in days and was exhibiting irrational behavior, no one believed him. I remember my daughter saying to me once, “You know, Mom, I don’t always lie.” But she had lied so many times that I always defaulted to thinking she was doing it again.
It’s hard to parent a child with a mental illness. It’s really hard when you have your own struggles and were raised by two people who never modeled sane or sober behavior. I was always the easy target for Stephanie’s wrath. She knew that no matter what she did to me, I would never stop loving her. And she pushed every button to make me prove it. So when she died, not only had I lost my child, whom I loved very much, but I also – in a way – lost my reason for living. I had taken care of all her needs for so long that I didn’t know who I was without her. That, my friends, is co-dependency. But that’s for another story.
People hurt Steph. She was very vulnerable because of her illness, because she believed herself to be invincible. She ran to danger. I often didn’t know how to find her, especially after she turned 18 and decided that she no longer needed us (though she was never able to care for herself). One time, I found out she had been in the psychiatric hospital for two months. I only found out because her roommates called and said that we needed to come get her stuff out of the apartment so they could find another roommate. To this day, I can’t write about how I felt when we went to her place to clean it out. My heart broke.
Yes, it’s easy for you to mock and belittle a TV character. I get it. But Grey’s has been groundbreaking in many ways. To have a physician on staff who goes off the rails is groundbreaking. I’m sure there were those who sat at home saying, “They’d never let him be a doctor. This is jumping the shark…blah blah blah.” But what about Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychiatric physician and professor at Johns Hopkins?
Jamison suffers from debilitating bipolar disorder type 1, which she has learned to live with. She overcame the worst episodes and has used her personal knowledge to augment her training, helping many others in the process. A good start for further reading is her book, “The Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness“. Imagine for a moment that you are a psychiatrist, at the top of your game, and your mind turns on you. Imagine her fear that she would lose everything.
When will we, as a society or as human beings, stop seeing mental illness as something someone should just “get over”? Your brain runs everything. When it goes haywire, you can have physical problems (migraines, strokes, epilepsy) or mental problems (schizophrenia, anxiety, depression). It is an organ, like your liver or your heart. If someone has a heart attack, we don’t say, “Oh stop being such a drama queen! Get over yourself!” No! We are solicitous. We ask how we can help. We bring comfort to the person. But God forbid the same person have agoraphobia and become unable to leave the house. Boy, will we ever judge them!
If you’ve read this far, take some time now to think on this. How have you reacted to someone in your life who had a depressive episode or an attack of anxiety so severe they ended up in the emergency room, thinking it was a heart attack? How would you feel if someone at your workplace started exhibiting manic behavior? Now think about your reaction if that same person fell over with a stroke. Would you react the same way? I want to challenge you to think before you judge, even if you’re judging a TV character.
Someday I hope to see the afterlife as a beach, like Deluca did in his final scene. If I’m lucky, Stephanie (and maybe my mom) will be there waiting for me, calling me. And that will be beautiful. Because in the afterlife, no brain chemicals will be damaging any of us.