Joan E. Childs presentation at the South Florida HerStory Conference, December 12, 2020.
“Man has places in his heart that do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering, in order that they may have existence.”
-Leon Bloy, the French novelist, essayist and poet
I come from a place of gratitude. I am grateful to be alive, to be part of this auspicious event. I have lived most of life in the best of all possible worlds and the worst, not unlike many of you. I grew up in Miami Beach, Florida in the fifties, the last age of innocence. I married and divorced three times, had five children, two boys and 3 girls, a full house, queens on top and raised them as a single mom. I survived lung cancer three times, and continued working all through the trials and tribulations I endured, sometimes working 3 jobs just to keep a roof over our heads. I have 15 minutes to share my story with you that spanned for more than 15 years. I’ll begin at the end.
My worst nightmare happened on July 2, 1998. My beautiful daughter, Pam, a social worker and clinical psychologist leaped to her death from her father’s 15-story window. I never believed that Pam chose suicide. I was convinced that it was her mental illness, bipolar disorder that was her executioner and hurled her out the window.
Pam was the first of my five children She was gifted, intelligent, exceedingly charming, gracious, generous and breathtakingly beautiful. There was nothing about her behavior that gave any indication she had a mental disorder, until she reached her late teens and early twenties. Then her affect and behavior slowly morphed into a deadly mental disorder. It was as if she was gradually turning into another person. I wasn’t aware of exactly when it began as I was working full time as a psychotherapist, and raising a family. But over time perhaps beginning in high school I noticed her innocence and nativity begin to change. It was after her breakup with her first boyfriend that she began to withdraw and become surly and despondent. She wasn’t present or engaging. She was on a slippery slope sliding into a depression. It seemed normal that as teenager she would struggle with rejection, so at first, I wasn’t too concerned. But as time went on, she became moody and despondent. I became the target of her aggression. The changes in her personality were disturbing, but I thought that between her break up and being a teenager, rebellion and acting out was a normal part of development, so I took it in my stride.
On her 16th birthday, October 1st, I made a her a beautiful party, with all of her girlfriends. After everyone had left, we sat on the living room floor, just the two of us, holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes. Her eyes were warm and her heart open. She seemed so genuine with gratitude, thanking me for making her the party and her words were so sentimental and affirming. She said she wanted to be just like me when she grew up. On October 25, I turned 40. After my party, she repeated the same loving phrases, I want to be just like you Mom when I grow up. Over time her behavior became unmanageable until one day after confronting her with behavior that was unacceptable, she exploded and decided on an impulse to leave us. It was less than a month after my birthday, just before Thanksgiving. She called her father who lived in a small town in Missouri about 5.5 miles outside of Ft. Leonardwood, a military base, and declared war on me, choosing to live with him.
This was an act of anger that I would never have imagined. She was in her junior year of high school, a cheerleader, a thespian in the middle of rehearsal of a play, and very popular. I was stunned and needless to say, heartbroken. There was nothing I could do or say that would make her change her mind. That was the beginning of the end, only I had no idea what was to follow over the next 18 years. She returned to complete her senior year, leaving again to attend college at University of Missouri, and never returned home again, except occasionally for holidays. She received her Masters in social work in NY, and years later a PhD in Psychology in California where she chose to reside. She was a lead therapist at the John Bradshaw Center healing the souls of others while hers was being infested by a serious mental disorder that had not yet been diagnosed. It was when she was 24 years old that I received a call from one of her roommates. I needed to bring her back home. They had to call an ambulance to take her to the hospital the night before. Pam had a psychotic break. She believed the devil was going to take her soul. She came home where she was admitted to a treatment center and diagnosed with a manic episode and a psychotic break. It was down hill from there. Bipolar Disorder is not an easy diagnosis to make. There is so much comorbidity. It mimics other mental illnesses It can take up to 10 years to make a differential diagnosis. Although the treatment worked, it was only temporary. She was in the middle of her PhD program and wanted to complete it, rejecting my suggestion that she take a break and complete it the following semester. She was insistent that she return to complete her degree. I was 3000 miles away so I had no idea how ill she was.
She maintained the belief system that the devil was going to take her soul. Her behavior was out of control. She ignored parking tickets that she collected over the next few years mounting to more than $2000, until finally all her wreckage caught up with her. She had to return once more to live with me. As time passed, she grew more ill, hospitalized multiple times and under the care of several psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health counselors. Nothing worked. She continued to decompensate, unable to work. I tried everything I knew how to get her help, but our mental health system was and still is sub-standard unless you are either very rich or indigent. She had no place to go where she could be treated properly.
I had to go to Israel to my girlfriend’s daughter’s wedding. She begged to go along believing she would be closer to God and she could spend time praying each day at the wall in Jerusalem. That might have been the worst 2 weeks of my life. She insisted on going to every church, mosque and synagogue, praying to Jesus, God and Allah, with hopes she would be healed. We spent a weekend in the most religious, Jewish community in Jerusalem. Everyman in the household was a rabbi and most couples had up to more than a dozen children, depending upon their age. We stayed in a home with a couple, both age 35 with 11 children. Pam went to the synagogue to pray five times a day.
We marched in the streets at midnight with our fists raised shouting, “I defy you, I defy you”, as if our audience was the devil himself.
After her death, the initial shock, overwhelming grief and a cascade of emotions, I realized I had choices. I could become a victim of this nightmare; live my life as a survivor in quiet desperation forever immersed in the events and loss, or I could morph my pain into purpose and passion and become a Phoenix, not unlike the mythological bird that rises from the ashes and becomes empowered.
As a mother of four surviving children, grandmother of 6, and psychotherapist for more than 42 years, I chose the latter and found a way to give meaning to my daughter’s life and death. Embracing the collateral beauty, I was able to find acceptance and peace. Ultimately, by helping others, I continue to help myself. It is a story of tragedy and heartbreak. It is also a story of hope, courage and healing. We either gain strength from adversity or we become victims. The choice is ours.
My mission is to destigmitize and eliminate the shame from mental illness and to effectuate progressive change in our mental health system so others don’t fall through the cracks as my daughter did. And at 81 years old, this will be my legacy.
I learned to accept my daughter’s death and move on with life.
Joan E Childs, LCSW is a renowned psychotherapist, inspirational speaker, and author. For more information on inner child work and how to create and maintain a conscious relationship, order Joan’s new book, I Hate The Man I Love: A Conscious Relationship is Your Key to Success.