This Fragile Life: A Mother’s Story of a Bipolar Son is a biography, a memoir, and a family’s story of mental illness. The publisher, Lawrence Hill Books, describes the book as follows:
“It is the story of an African American family facing the challenges of their son’s bipolar disorder which did not manifest itself to them until he was twenty-five years old. Pierce-Baker, the author and mother, traces the evolution of his illness, providing insight into mental disorder as well
as family dynamics. In looking back, she realizes she mistook warning signs for typical teen behavior. There were hospitalizations, calls in the night, pleas for money and more money, jail, lawyers, prescriptions, doctors, alcohol and drug relapses, and continuous disputes about how to live – and not live. Her son’s journey was long, arduous, and almost fatal. This Fragile Life weaves a fascinating story of mental illness, race, family, the drive of African Americans to succeed, and a mother’s love for her son.”
Thank you for joining me on This Fragile Life.com where I will strive to bring knowledge I have gained to the lives of caregivers like myself.
Mental illness was a foreign topic for me as I began to travel this new path with our adult son. Writing a book about our son’s struggles with bipolar disorder began with my daily note taking about care strategies we were using; I kept a journal to record my own frustrations and feelings of aloneness. I was not lonely. I had family who cared about our very ill son; I had dear and longtime friends who offered consolation. I felt alone. I was sure there was no one else who had traveled our uncertain, unpredictable road of mental illness. At least, no one was admitting to that life.
My reading, at that point, offered no connection to African American families who were talking freely about their angst. My husband and I leaned on each other. And as we became more entrenched in the daily and unexpected routines of mental health care givers, I thought: “No one should be blindsided as we have been. There must be a few guideposts, some kind of relief, someone who understands, firsthand, what this pernicious illness is doing to us.” But, I remained alone.
After each of our son’s manic episodes, it seemed forever before the prescribed medication took effect. Even as the medicine began to work on his shifting moods, our son was unnerved by his continuously shaking hands and the response of others who saw his glazed stare. Gradually, very gradually, the son we recognized returned. Each time we got to the other side of a full-blown episode, we breathed deeply and brought the family back to the “usual normal.” In one instance, after only six months of the usual normal, our son became manic again -- and then psychotic. We searched our bag of tricks and diligently rehearsed what we had done previously, only to realize that this time was a bit different. We needed another strategy. Where to turn? The doctors were always ready to step in, but there were no on-the-ground “experts” to offer suggestions.
I continued to journal. One evening, as I wrote, my notes seemed to form a story. I connected other stories I had written and highlighted the anecdotes. It was then that I realized I might have a longer narrative -- a manuscript. With the outline of a prospective book, my agent sent out a nearly completed draft to several publishers, but the draft proved overly long. Rejections arrived: “Sorry. We already have a book being released on that topic. It’s a good idea. Best of luck.” Friends and families of loved ones suffering with bipolar disorder urged me to continue. “Try again,” they said. “We need something about African Americans and mental illness.”
Years later, with the unrelenting support of my agent, Jane Dystel (Dystel and Goderich Literary Management), an acquisitions editor at Lawrence Hill Books, Sue Betz, found the nearly finished manuscript -- and me. Here I am!
As I completed subsequent drafts of the book, my mind whirred to a projected ending for my family story. It did not take long for me to realize, there was no ending. This Fragile Life is what I have to offer you. I cannot promise you an enjoyable read, but it is an honest one. I hope to encourage other families to speak about their struggles. There are many of us looking for a new kind of kinship. I hope that by sharing, we will make a difference in the way we all survive.
Charlotte Pierce-Baker is a native of Washington, D.C. She is professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and English at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape