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Family's Fight Against Bipolar Disorder Leads To Shock Therapy Success

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The Mayo Clinic's confirmation Monday that Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. is receiving care there for bipolar depression is a reminder that the condition, which affects around 2.3 million Americans, can be treated.

But figuring out the right treatment for each patient can be a long and difficult road, as a new memoir called Perfect Chaos: A Daughter's Journey to Survive Bipolar, a Mother's Struggle to Save Her shows.

In an interview with Tell Me More guest host Jacki Lyden, book authors Linea and Cindy Johnson share their story of how they eventually turned to electroconvulsive therapy.

Before being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Linea was a bright student-athlete, ready to pursue a music career. So the diagnosis surprised her mother, Cinda. She's a professor and program director of the special education graduate center at Seattle University, and taught classes on emotional and behavioral disorders and mental illness.

Cinda thought that her daughter's ups and downs were normal for a sensitive teen. But when Linea entered college, her mood swings became harder to ignore – and she says they eventually led her to seriously consider suicide.

Journal entries Linea shared with her mother gave Cinda insight into the initial stages of bipolar. "I was just blown away by how she could describe the mania and the depression and the anxiety," said Cinda.

Cinda admits now that she didn't know how to deal with it. "I kept looking for something outside of her to fix ... It was way beyond what we could fix."

She tried rearranging Linea's busy schedule or discussing her condition for hours. But they eventually decided to seek professional treatment.

Linea did not like the psychiatrist or how the medication made her feel, so she flushed the pills down the toilet without her mother's knowledge. At that point, Linea was admitted to the hospital for the first time. Cinda said that this led to the darkest moment for Curt, her husband. It was when Linea said to the two of them, "Just let me go."

Linea was put on 24-hour suicide watch. "I would look around a room and find everything I could use to harm myself with," she says.

Shortly after Linea was admitted, the doctor treating her there called for electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, to halt the suicidal impulses and depression that had not responded to medication.

The ECT came as a huge surprise to Cinda. "I honestly did not know people still did ECT, or if they did, it was not to people like my daughter," she says. "It was maybe some last-ditch effort in some mental hospital somewhere when they had given up on someone." That's partly thanks to Jack Nicholson's Oscar-winning portrayal of a rebellious mental patient in the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Even though she knows the treatment isn't for everyone, Linea said ECT was positive for her. "After the first ECT, I stopped having [suicidal] thoughts," says Linea. Linea said she that she's now happier than she has been in years because she's able to manage her condition.

The experience also led Cinda to reconsider ECT. "I see it now as part of a treatment plan that works really well for so many people," she says.

Cinda is proud of the progress her daughter has made. "I think it's also important to show people that you can live well with bipolar disorder," Cinda said. "Linea wouldn't have to tell anyone because when you meet her at her job or out with her friends ... She's doing well."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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