Her Kids Thought She Was A Monster. And So Did She — Until She Found Out What Made Her That Way.

Imagine your aunt, the same aunt who makes you food, has felt sad and angry all her life. Now imagine if you found out she felt that way because she was sick — but not just any kind of sick.

That's what happened to Blas Diaz. He could barely believe when he found out that his aunt had suffered all those years. So he interviewed her.

For those of you who might be triggered by the topic of suicide, heads up from 4:30 to 5:19.

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Narrator: Getting help can make the difference between surviving or ending your own life. Blas Diaz works in a Chicago nursing home for the mentally ill, but he never thought he would find mental illness so close to home, right in his own family.

Blas Diaz: My aunt is 52 years old and has three kids. Her youngest is just starting college classes here in Chicago. I want to thank her for taking the time to talk about something that most people wouldn't. Here she is.

Aunt: When I was first diagnosed, I was like late 30s and they said I was manic depressive, and I didn't know what that meant. I thought I was just depressed all the time, but eventually I found out that it was called bipolar. And they tried all kinds of medicines on me, till maybe I was in my mid 40s. They finally found something that kept me stable, but you have to play with medicines to find out what's going to work.

Blas Diaz: It can take a long time to find that perfect mix of medicines that leaves you feeling, what we call, normal. Nobody reacts exactly the same to a drug, and because these drugs affect one of the most complex organs in our bodies, our brains, many people with mental illness would rather not even receive treatment in the form of medication.

So, we've all seen those commercials for medicines used to treat depression, like Zoloft, Cymbalta, or Abilify, that talk about depression for 30 seconds and then list a ton of side effects that seem to go on forever.

First Commercial: Zoloft is not for everyone. People taking MAOIs or pimozide shouldn't take Zoloft. Side effects may include dry mouth, insomnia, sexual side effects, diarrhea . . .

Second Commercial: Tell your doctor about alcohol use, liver disease, and before you reduce or stop taking Cymbalta. Dizziness or fainting may occur upon standing . . .

Blas Diaz: It's almost funny, until you remember that so far medications used to treat mental illness all have long lists of side effects. The truth is that you need to work closely with a doctor that you trust to minimize side effects, and this can only happen through trial and error and a lot of communication coming from both the patient and the doctor.

Aunt: I was taking Depakote and that one would give me real bad migraines. I also had another side effect where I was confused. I wouldn't know where I was going. I would be driving the car in my neighborhood and I didn't know where I was. So, I would lose, I guess, lose my mind. Another medication I took affected my kidneys. It would hurt really, really bad and as soon as I stopped taking it, I felt a lot better.

Blas Diaz: If it almost seems like the medication is worse than the illness, imagine what it's like for children who are living with untreated mental illness.

Aunt: I didn't know that I had my, that I was bipolar when I was little because everybody thought that I was just being spoiled, and I would have these fits, and I never told anybody that I wanted to kill myself when I was a kid.

Blas Diaz: So, you wanted to kill yourself when you were a kid, too?

Aunt: Oh, yeah. I always thought about, you know, jumping off the house. I wanted to just go away. I didn't want to be around here any more. I would do crazy things. I wouldn't remember a lot of things. People would tell me that when I was little I used to fight a lot. And when that happens, I could tell that my blood starts rushing to my head, and that's when I explode and I start fighting, and throwing things, and, like I said, I'd black out.

Blas Diaz: I knew her as the mother of my cousins that I grew up with. I knew her as my tía. She'd feed us all when my sister and I would go over to her house to play. She lived in the same neighborhood as us. She has a wonderful laugh. I asked her how she felt about getting help for the first time. I knew going into this interview that she had bipolar disorder, but I still wasn't ready for what she was about to tell me next.

Aunt: I wasn't embarrassed, I wasn't worried, I was happy that somebody told me that there was a problem with me because I had kids then and I didn't want to kill myself. Well, I did try suicide once when they were little, and then I went to them to say goodbye. And I looked at their face and I couldn't do it. I took a lot of pills, so I started throwing up. I put my finger in my mouth, my throat, and I started throwing up. And from what I understand, I was asleep for two weeks. I guess that, you know, that medication did something to me that I was sleeping for two weeks, but somebody took care of me, and I did it for my kids.

Blas Diaz: I've worked with a lot of people now who've attempted suicide, but I never thought that somebody so close to me could wrestle with the same issue. I thank God that her story has a happy ending, that she decided not to end her life, instead kept fighting. I remember thinking, if I'm just now finding out that somebody in my family has attempted suicide, how many other people out there are completely unaware that somebody in their own family is thinking of killing themselves?

Aunt: When my family found out that I was in the hospital, they wanted to know why and I told them, and they were very proud of me that I went for help and that I kept fighting every day to find my medications, but I feel so much better. My kids see the difference and they enjoy being with me. In the past, they didn't, and now we're a lot closer, and they're happy now with me. I'm not the monster I used to be. I'm a person, a normal person. That's all I can say. There's no other word I can say.

Blas Diaz: From Latino USA on Vocalo, I'm Blas Diaz.

Blas Diaz's story came to us via the Vocalo Storytellers Workshop from Chicago Public Media.

There may be small errors in this transcript.

Podcast by Latino USA, with the original audio on Vocalo Storytellers Workshop. A million thanks to Blas Diaz and his tia for sharing her story. Think you, a relative, or a friend might have bipolar disorder (or maybe you just wanna find out more)? Check out the National Institute of Mental Health. Thumbnail image by Flickr user Bill Strain, used under Creative Commons license.

Jul 23, 2014

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