Surviving Mental Illness

If you’ve ever wondered how to effectively deal with mental illness, Jessie Close has a lot to tell you. Her new book, Resilience: Two Sisters and a Story of Mental Illness, offers a heartbreaking, honest description of her 40 years of personal experience.

Jessie, the sister of actress Glenn Close, has experienced decades of great highs and deep lows. She went through five husbands, moved 12 times in eight years, became an alcoholic and used drugs, and was at one point on the brink of suicide.

“At one point, I was juggling three lovers, working as a general manager of a coffee house and was a mother of three young children, she says. “As long as I was manic I could handle the pressure, but when my mood changed, shame and darkness overtook me.” Years passed before she got the help she needed.

Then her son Calen was diagnosed as schizophrenic in his late teens. “My family finally began learning the vocabulary of mental illness,” she says. “Calen broke the mold and my family saw that I needed help too.  I went to the hospital when I was 50.”  That’s when she was diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder and was prescribed the medication she needed.

“When it finally sank in that I had been alive but not living over so many years, that I had sacrificed my youth, my adulthood, my relationships, my children, to the mental illness that lived in my brain like a creature, I fell into deep grief.  With the help of family and friends, I’ve gotten to where I can give love and give back.”

Thanks to a good psychiatrist and the right anti-psychotic medication for her, Jessie, now 61, has had more than 10 years of happiness, she says.

Here are some of Jessie’s thoughts:

How would you sum up your long journey with mental illness?

Jessie: I’ve been through hell. A lot of the hell for me was also for my children.

One thing I will probably never completely get over is how I was at the pinnacle of my illness when my daughter Mattie was 8 or 9.  Now she’s 23, going to college, has a baby, and is getting married in June. She’s resilient, very determined. She doesn’t hold it against me. We’re really good friends, really because we did go through this together.

What advice would you give those struggling with mental illness, personal or with family members?

Jessie: We don’t need to make excuses; it’s just an illness, and we also need to find structure. For instance, I take my medication at 7 every evening. Try to exercise and eat right; I’m working on that myself. I’m very overweight because of my medication. [Jessie takes clozapine (Clozaril), which has a side effect of weight gain]. Don’t ignore your medications; you have a commitment lifelong to being treated.

The sooner you’re treated the better. My son Calen was treated at 18 – much earlier than I was – and his life fell into place at a much younger age. He went through a lot. He’ll be 34 in June, is married, and works as an artist.

If I could have been treated that much earlier I can’t think about what I would have been able to do, because it makes me sad.

How does stigma negatively affect people with mental illness?

Jessie: Stigma within my own family kept me from being seen and understood. Yet there was already a lot of mental illness in my family. I had a crazy uncle, and a cousin who died in a mental hospital, and a third relative, who is 70, who has lived with schizophrenia his whole life.

I remember I always felt different. My mom always said I was a skinny little baby who never slept. Glenn says they all just thought I was incredibly irresponsible and they didn’t have a clue. People don’t want to hear about mental illness. Or they’re scared.

I didn’t get effectively treated until I was suicidal, and then I told Glenn, and suddenly I was whisked off to the hospital. It raised the whole family’s antennae. My dad was alive then, and he was a doctor, but he had no knowledge or desire to learn about mental illness.

You say you have completely sworn off men. Why?

Jessie: I would be terrified to be in another relationship. I would be so scared that I would hurt somebody.

You’re now a public speaker on mental health. How does advocacy with BringChange2Mind help you find your own voice, as Glenn said in your book’s epilogue?

Jessie: It shattered any kind of shell I may have had about talking about mental illness or my own struggle.  One of my dreams is that when you go to the supermarket, and you see these jars at the checkout that say something like, “Help Tommy, he has cancer,” you’ll also see a jar that says, “Help Bobbie, he has schizophrenia.”  That would kind of normalize things.

Learn more:  Resilience: Two Sisters and a Story of Mental Illness, by Jessie Close, Grand Central Publishing, 2015.

Resources:  BringChange2Mind.org, an anti-stigma organization created by Glenn Close.