The words, “You’ve suffered no hardship,” ring in Meg McGuire’s ears as she watches her forty-three year old son receive a sentence to four years in prison. It is then that she realizes there are some things a mother’s love simply cannot overcome, and mental illness is one of them.
In her riveting memoir, Blinded by Hope: My Journey Through My Son’s Bipolar Illness and Addiction, McGuire tells the story of her son Ryan who battles bipolar, addiction and incarceration. Yet on a much larger level, McGuire exposes the messy and often heartbreaking reality of mental illness.
In the beginning, McGuire didn’t worry about her son’s adrenaline filled bursts of energy.
“He reminded me of my father who seemed incapable of sitting still or relaxing…I didn’t associate creative energy with a mood disorder,” McGuire writes.
Then Ryan’s behavior began to change; his grades dropped and he found himself on probation for smashing a window. He told his mother, “I don’t know what happened. I barely remember.” Shortly thereafter, Ryan’s counselor called McGuire to suggest that her son return home from college–and that he not travel alone.
On that plane ride, McGuire noticed that the once fearless skateboarder was gripping the hand rests of his seat, and sweating profusely. Still, McGuire searched for any reason to believe that her son would be okay.
“I talked myself into believing that if I got Ryan home, we would get help and as my sister had said, everything would work out,” McGuire writes.
After a depressed winter, Ryan decided to move to San Francisco with his then girlfriend, Holly. Shortly thereafter, when Holly called McGuire to tell her that Ryan was using heroin, Ryan insisted his girlfriend was lying. McGuire believed him.
Three months later, when she received another call, this time from Ryan’s friend, it was to tell her that he had broken his wrist. At the hospital that night, McGuire made a startling discovery–Ryan and his friend had been injecting heroin. McGuire directed her anger at Ryan’s friend, warning him that, “If you ever inject my son again, I will personally break every bone in your body.”
Through involuntary psychiatric holds, hospitalizations, numerous medications, and behavior that often frightened her, a pattern emerged between the author and her son.
“My son, now twenty-four, would not admit there was a problem and I wanted to believe him,” McGuire writes.
When Ryan dropped to the floor and began convulsing in front of her, she later learned that he had been mixing alcohol and lithium–a deadly combination. When Ryan was admitted into a residential center that treats dual diagnosis addictions, McGuire learned another scary truth: Ryan had lost a substantial portion of his grandfather’s ad agency because of his drug use. He had also lost his girlfriend Suzanne after breaking a promise to her not to use drugs.
Ryan did, however, stay sober for two years after treatment. But as things began to unravel, he fell back into heroin use, and dangerous behavior that resulted in another visit to the emergency room.
At a National Alliance on Mental Illness meeting, McGuire learned just why coping with a family member with mental illness is so hard:
“…Most family members feel overwhelmed, confused, and at a loss for how to respond. Some meet each event with denial and refuse to believe it is happening. The pain is too intense to accept. They reject the facts despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary,” McGuire writes.
When Ryan was caught forging checks that had been meant for his psychiatrist, McGuire finally came to terms with her underlying codependence.
“Even though my attempts to get him into treatment had not been successful, they had given me something to do in an impossible situation. Each inquiry created an artificial relationship and staved off hopelessness,” McGuire writes.
It was years later that McGuire realized that her over-involvement in his life had gotten in the way of his recovery.
Eventually, McGuire came to terms with the fact that her version of recovery – returning to “normalcy” – was an illusion, and one that had kept her imprisoned for years. Terrified drug use would claim Ryan’s life and uncontrollably compelled to rescue him, she had offered the best treatment money could find. But he still found his way to a four year prison sentence at San Quentin.
“We are all defeated in the face of mental illness and addiction,” McGuire writes.
Written with compassion, discerning clarity, and brutal honesty, Blinded by Hope unearths the many misconceptions that surround recovery from dual diagnosis and addiction, to reveal that by letting go of our illusions about recovery – or it’s normalcy – we can find a way to live with the addicts we love.
Blinded by Hope: My Journey Through My Son’s Bipolar Illness and Addiction
She Writes Press (2017)