Richard Appelt had been living the American dream when he started showing symptoms of a mental illness. An Army veteran who had moved his way up through the ranks at IBM during a 29-year career, Appelt was working as a successful executive and raising four sons in rural Virginia.
But in February 1989, his life changed with devastating consequences. A few years later, doctors would diagnose the Pennsylvania native with bipolar disorder. “I started having problems,” Appelt remembers of that painful time. “My memory started failing me. I was just getting overwhelmed by everything.” He started experiencing lapses in judgment.
“I felt like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” he says. “It had a devastating effect on the family. I couldn’t really function in a productive manner.”
His wife Betty says her husband’s illness was hard for the kids to understand—especially the couples’ youngest son, who was just 10 at the time. “At first, all he did was lie in bed and not want to get out,” she says.
A psychiatrist at his company diagnosed Appelt’s disabling illness as depression. He suffered another bout with the illness six months later, after he stopped taking his prescribed medication. A self-made man—the son of blue-collar parents who had emigrated from Europe—he had a hard time accepting that he needed to take pills. “I really resisted that,” he says.
The family believed the stress caused by downsizing at IBM might be contributing to Appelt’s problems, so he took a company buyout in 1990. “When I left, I thought everything would be all right,” he explains. By the spring of 1992, however, his symptoms came back. “For several months I couldn’t do much of anything,” says the gentle, soft-spoken man. He couldn’t even concentrate enough to continue woodworking—his favorite hobby. He was too exhausted both physically and mentally to drive the nails for his projects.
His wife went with him to the counselor, a move Appelt says was invaluable to his recovery. She described his behavior to the counselor, who also had noticed his moods seemed to change and that his medications didn’t work the way they should.
Appelt, who now serves as president of a local chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, recommends that everybody with a mental illness bring a loved one with them to the initial doctor’s visit. “Bringing [my wife] with me was very important, because she saw things differently than I did,” he says. “Family members can help doctors make a proper diagnosis.”
His wife agrees. “He would go to the doctor and not know what to tell him. I would make a list of things I wanted to ask. The person who has the illness doesn’t recognize it. So it helped a lot to do that. But a lot of people don’t want to go through with it,” she says.
Now, Appelt recognizes that mental illness runs in his family. He exhibited signs of a problem even as a child, he says. He lost interest in school at an early age and dropped out by 11th grade. “I always had a high level of anxiety,” he says. “I just had that feeling, something wasn’t right.”
After years of confusion, the family understands his illness, Betty Appelt says about her husband, who also is working to establish his home-based business and puts in part-time hours at Pizza Hut. “It took years of going through all kinds of things to understand it,” she says. “We both had to learn a lot. I don’t know if I could have done it without the counselor, either.”