Title: Where Are the Cocoa Puffs?: A Family’s Journey Through Bipolar Disorder
Author: Karen Winters Schwartz
Genre: Literary Fiction
As eighteen-year-old Amanda spirals into mania, her father, psychiatrist Dr. Jerry Benson, sees the realization of his worst fears: his daughter is not just moody, but truly ill. With his words, his diagnosis—manic depressive illness—his world and that of his family is forever altered. Carol, Amanda’s mother, struggles with the guilt and shame of having raised a “crazy” daughter. Christy, Amanda’s fifteen-year-old sister, denies the illness; after all, my sister’s a bitch is so much easier to accept.
Meanwhile, the Bensons’ extended family offers up everything from unconditional support to uncomfortable scrutiny as Amanda careens between bouts of frightening violence, cosmic euphoria, and suicidal despair. Then there’s Ryan, an architecture student who is initially ensnared by Amanda’s manic sexuality, but is ultimately captured and held throughout the chaos by the force of love and strength of family.
Where Are the Cocoa Puffs?: A Family’s Journey Through Bipolar Disorder follows a family through the tragedy of bipolar disorder, but it’s not tragic. It’s funny, sad, and thought-provoking—and as real and as raw as mental illness itself.
Amanda’s mother, Carol, and Jerry, Amanda’s father, have a little argument.
“She’s getting worse, not better,” Carol complained to Jerry. She had survived—just barely—three days of hell with her daughter, the only reprieve being the few hours she could go to work while Amanda was at school. But now they were safe in their room. It was Wednesday night and Amanda was out with Ryan for a couple hours, giving the house a welcome calm. “Maybe she needs to try a different medication.”
Jerry shook his head. How many times must they have this discussion? “It takes time. She’s not even up to a therapeutic dose of Depakote yet.”
“It’s making her worse,” Carol persisted, as if she knew what she was talking about, as if she were the psychiatrist with over twenty years of experience. This was one of the many things he found frustrating about treating mental illness: the families’ impatience, their constant distrust, made all the worse because they were correct not to trust; he did not really know what he was doing. He could not know if the medication would work. He could not know if the diagnosis was even correct. What the diagnosis even meant. There was no exact science, no lab test or x-ray. He relied on his gut and experience and he was using this, this not really knowing what he was doing, to try to save his daughter’s life.
“You don’t know what it’s like! How badly she treats me when you’re not here!”
You don’t know what it’s like. How many times had he heard these exact words from his patients’ family members over the last twenty years? And he had always assured them that he did, because didn’t all these years dealing with these difficult patients give him perhaps even a better understanding, a more solid medical understanding? And then there was, of course, his mother, her first break when he was very small, certainly giving him the empathy he needed. He had truly believed this. But now, knowing that he’d not understood at all, not understood at all what the families were going through, how it felt to lose a family member—his mother, never having quite been his—to lose your child, and yet not lose her, because there she was, in your face, hating you. Not just hating you, but loathing you. And there you are, grieving as if she were dead—even wishing she were dead so you could get on with it. But she was there, in your face, loathing you.
Maybe if he had spoken these thoughts to Carol—thoughts that shouldn’t be said aloud, thoughts that should have not even been thought—things might have gone differently. Instead, what came out of his mouth when he responded to Carol’s mistrust and distress and resentment was something else, some manifestation of his own frustration. “Damn it, Carol! It’s not the medication that’s making her worse,” and he said it harsher than he needed to. “You need to give it time. It’s not like the brain has a switch that can be turned on by a few days of medication, and suddenly decide, “’Oh! Now I’m going to be normal!'” he continued with mean sarcasm. “You’ve got to trust me, damn it!” It felt good to say what he always wanted to say but could not to his patients and their families, but the look that Carol gave him, after he spit his frustration at her, made him feel more alone than felt it too, the loneliness, the isolation. The only one she could talk to, now an enemy. She hadn’t told a soul what she was going through. Not her mother, nor her brother, not Sarah, and certainly no one at work. And why? If Amanda had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor or cancer, something more tangible, she would have told them, gotten their support, not been ashamed or embarrassed.
“How do you know it’s not the drugs?”
He was tired now. He wanted to go to sleep. “Marijuana isn’t causing the manic state she’s in. If anything, it calms her down; she’s self-medicating.” He’d told her all this before. They’d been through all this before and he was so tired that all he wanted to do was sleep, but his wife was like a terrier, with unlimited access to her daughter’s doctor.
“Maybe she should be in the hospital,” Carol said.
Jerry sighed heavily. “I told you before; I don’t think it’s warranted. She’s not suicidal. She’s not a danger to anyone. You don’t know how bad things can be at the hospital.” Then he told her something he’d told his patients and their families many times over the years, but he said it coldly, without compassion. “You are, of course, entitled to a second opinion.” And with that, he rolled his back to her, a period on the end of the discussion. He added an exclamation point as he flicked off his light.
Before his mind drifted off to restless sleep, he wondered again about the inanity of what he was doing—treating his own daughter.
Carol lay on her back in the dark, staring at the ceiling she could not see, and enjoyed the sensation of the tears that rolled slowly down the sides of her cheeks, knowing that she’d been wronged, that he was being a jerk, and that she’d lie there all night and cry just to spite him. Tomorrow, when she was crippled by lack of sleep, he would see what he had cost her. And then she’d find her daughter another doctor—one who wasn’t a jerk; one who actually knew what he or she was doing. That would show him for thinking he’s God’s gift to mental illness.
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What’s your favorite thing about the Fall season:
It used to be going to the local apple orchards and picking up apples. Honeycrisp and Macoun were my favorite! I loved eating them in the car, hearing that crunch that you can only get from a just-picked apple, juice running down my chin as I drove on home. Now that I’ve moved to Arizona, I’m guessing my favorite thing about the Fall season will be days where the temperature is below 100!
What inspired you to write this story:
I was inspired to write this story when mental illness hit our family in a very personal way. What I found most difficult when dealing with a loved ones mental illness was that no one seemed to “get it.” I wanted to write a story that would provide insight and empathy for those dealing directly and indirectly with these tragic brain disorders.
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Karen Winters Schwartz was born and raised in Mansfield Ohio. She wrote her first truly good story at age seven. Her second-grade teacher, Mrs. Schneider, publicly and falsely accused her of plagiarism. She did not write again for forty years.
Educated at The Ohio State University, both Karen and her husband have shared a career in optometry in Central New York's Finger Lakes while raising two daughters together. She now splits her time between Arizona, a small village in Belize, and traveling the earth in search of the many creatures with whom she has the honor of sharing this world.
Karen is the past president of NAMI Syracuse (National Alliance on Mental Illness), a strong advocate for mental illness awareness, and a sought-after speaker at health association events and conferences across the country.
Her widely praised novels on mental illness include Where Are the Cocoa Puffs?: A Family’s Journey Through Bipolar Disorder, Reis’s Pieces Reis’s Pieces: Love, Loss, and Schizophrenia, and The Chocolate Debacle (Goodman Beck Publishing). These are not only honest and engaging stories but advocacy and educational tools that are a comfort to those dealing directly and indirectly with mental illness. Her new novel, Legend of the Lost Ass, was released by Red Adept Publishing on July 21, 2020.
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