Beach author Dottie Pacharis has a story to tell -one that is personal, but one that needs to be told to help other families cope with what they are facing or may face in the future.
It's a story about a son's unsuccessful struggles with bipolar disorder, and a family's futile attempts to acquire the proper medical health care desperately needed yet too often stymied by a dead end in the navigation of the mental health system.
Pacharis recently held a book signing at Annette's Book Nook in Santini Marina Plaza. Mind on the Run: A Bipolar Chronicle is her first book (released in July 2011; published by Idyll Arbor) that took two years to write, another year to attract a publisher and weeks of courage to extract painful memories of her son, Scott Baker's unpredictable illness.
Beach author Dottie Pacharis signs her book titled, Mind on the Run: A Bipolar Chronicle, at Annette’s Book Nook in Santini Marina Plaza on Wednesday, Feb. 15.
"This is a story about a suicide that proper treatment would have prevented," she said. "My purpose of writing this book was to raise awareness of mental illness but, more importantly, the difficulty that families encounter when trying to get adults aware that they are are severely overcome by this illness and too sick to know they can be treated. It is the families that are the first to recognize that they are becoming ill, but they are helpless."
According to Pacharis, bipolar disorder is a complex medical disorder of the brain involving a series of episodes of mania and depression with recurring episodes. It is a lifetime illness and, with treatment, doesn't have to be terminal.
"Roughly 10 million people in the U.S. are currently diagnosed with this disorder," she said. "Some people are very proactive and stay on their meds. They control the illness, and they do not allow it to control them. But others, like my son was, are in denial."
Pacharis has become an "advocate for family intervention in the treatment of adults who are too sick to know they are sick." She volunteers at the National Alliance on Mentally Illness of Collier County every Thursday at the nonprofit organization's office.
"My son was 27 when he was diagnosed in 1994 in Virginia. Commitment laws in that state are very explicit. At a hearing before a judge, the individual must be presented as either suicidal or homicidal," she said. "If they can fake it long enough, the judge will release them."
Pacharis said Baker, who passed away in February 2007 at age 40, had five major prolonged episodes and was hospitalized 14 times in 11 different hospitals in five different states.
"He was very psychotic and delusional. During an episode, he fantasized that he was in a witness protection program. He became very religious and some days he thought he was God or the President of the United States. He actually made many attempts to get into the White House, thought he was in possession of top secret information that would bring down important people in the country if he went public and thought federal agents were making attempts to assassinate him," she said. "He talked about buying a gun to protect himself. That was very scary to us."
Dottie and George, her husband of 15 years and Scott's stepfather, split their time between Fort Myers Beach and West River, Maryland. She says a lot of the story takes place on Fort Myers Beach when he would be manic during his visits.
Since involuntary commitment laws are different in every state, family involvement can be difficult once a child turns age 18. Adults have the civil right to refuse treatment and meds. Thus, they remain mentally ill.
"I contend that there has to be some sort of balance in protecting civil rights of mentally ill people, while at the same time still acquiring them the much-needed treatment to rejoin society and not be a threat to society," Dottie said.
Pacharis recalled two other untreated mental illness cases that did become societal threats: Jared Lee Loughner, the alleged gunman in the "Tucson shootings" where U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others were shot, and Seung-Hui Cho, the perpetrator in the "Virginia Tech massacre." Baker did not appear to be on that course.
"He went from a very successful entrepreneur in his mid 20s to an unemployable person. Each time he was allowed to go for long periods of time untreated, he was sustaining further brain damage," Dottie said. "It damaged his thought process and ultimately destroyed his life.
Scott was one of six children who never studied, made straight "A"s and was voted "most likely to succeed" when he graduated from high school in Virginia. He enrolled early in James Madison University and became a CPA before starting his own business.
"He was, by far, the smartest of all the six," said Dottie. "He was an outgoing person who never met a stranger. But, even when I reflect back at his childhood, there were some signs that maybe something was wrong. We discounted it to his very, outgoing personality."
Baker became manic and psychotic in 1993 after graduating from college.
"He talked nonstop and required no sleep. We knew something was wrong, but we didn't know what it was," said Dottie, who remembered stories of her son's delusional incidents that led to psychiatric treatment.
"He would rejoin society and, some six years later, the second episode happened."
Baker lived through two failed marriages, had a loyal dog as a pet and later would not respond to family phone calls before taking his own life. Although the book was written in two years, it is a reflection of a life's work for Dottie Pacharis.
"I have collected over 13 years of illuminative diary by documenting every hospital he was in, every hearing, the meds he was taking, while thinking that it might help a psychiatrist to reach him," she said. "So when he died, I had the choice to put my blinders on and toss all that stuff or maybe help other people."
She chose the latter.
"I am accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish -to raise awareness of mental illness. But, it still carries a stigma. A lot of people have it, but they just don't talk about it. People are just uncomfortable with it," said Pacharis. "It's nothing more than a brain disorder, and nothing to be ashamed of."
Mental disease history
Back in the 1950s, relatives could be committed to mental health facilities.
"The insane asylums, as they were called then, became a dumping ground for not only mentally ill people but disabled people. The patients were badly treated at those facilities and neglected by their families," said Pacharis. "When this became public knowledge, there was a major outcry to close all those facilities, which I applaud, and states started passing laws stating that you could not enforce someone to be treated against their will or take their meds."
A balance needed to be struck.
"In my view, the pendulum swung too far in the wrong direction. There has to be some balance to help families who struggle with this get their loved ones treated so that they are not a threat to society," she said. "We are very grateful he never hurt anyone. He certainly was capable of it."
Medications do help the mentally ill.
"Once you force them to take their meds with involuntary treatment, you can see the improvement within a week. It is absolutely amazing," said Pacharis.
The Baker Act -no relation- that became a law under Gov. Jeb Bush allows the families of the mentally ill to call the police to notify them that there loved one is mentally ill.
Dottie will be traveling to north Florida for the Mental Health Symposium for the Jacksonville Bar Association in June 2012 to educate the legal field on mental illness.
"I'm also trying to educate judges and medical doctors. Psychologists only hear what the patient tells them when they come to their office. They need to know what families must deal with on a daily basis," she said. "I've just become an activist for educating everyone who is willing to listen about this terrible illness and the damage it can do."