By Emalee Gillis, NAMI Spokane Blog Editor.

Olivette Orme, who raised her family in Spokane, recounted her journey with many highs and lows of supporting her daughter who lives with bipolar disorder. Highs included seeing her daughter rise through the ranks of her job and the low point was once telling her daughter that she could no longer live with her family if she continued to refuse medication and counseling. At that point, her beloved daughter was homeless.

At the beginning of the journey when her daughter, Mattie, was twelve, Olivette didn’t see the signs of mental illness. She attributed her daughter’s symptoms like sleeping all the time, deep depression, flying off the handle at the smallest of things, and being very confrontational as typical pre-teen girl behavior. Of her three children, Mattie is the youngest and the only daughter. Olivette told herself at the time that this is just what raising a young girl looks like.

Olivette also missed signs of anorexia because her daughter wore baggy clothes. Olivette’s son spotted the signs and told Olivette. Even then, Olivette was in denial. Olivette said, “No way. She is just thin. You should have seen how thin I was at her age.”

Because Mattie’s behavior was so disruptive to the family, Olivette insisted that her daughter go to counseling. In retrospect, Olivette can see that there are advantages to having the illness come on when a child is under 18. Parents of younger children can more easily tell them what they can and cannot do. After a few months in counseling, the counselor, Jill, suggested that Mattie go through testing because Jill thought Mattie might have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Olivette reacted by praying to the universe, “Please, please, please, don’t make her have to live with a mental illness.”

After the testing, Olivette received a call from Jill that Olivette found terrifying. On the phone, Jill told Olivette that Mattie’s diagnosis was bipolar disorder. Olivette was terrified of the unknown at the time. First and foremost, she and her husband were very afraid of what the diagnosis would mean for their sweet daughter. At the time, Olivette had a friend who was in crisis with a husband who lived with bipolar. Olivette wondered what kind of life Mattie would lead. She was also deeply afraid of what the illness would mean for herself, her husband, and her two sons.

Mattie is now 31 and Olivette can see the good life that Mattie is living. Mattie is the Program Director of a wilderness therapy program in Utah tailored for kids who live with a mental health diagnosis that Mattie was enrolled in during her teenage years. She is married to a wonderful man and expecting their first child. In addition, Mattie has developed a great deal of resiliency and emotional intelligence through her journey. She is the one in the family that her brothers and parents go to bounce off new ideas for their lives because Mattie has so much insight.

But when Mattie was a teenager, Olivette knew none of that. Life at home was very difficult at the beginning even though Mattie began taking bipolar medications. Olivette enrolled Mattie in the wilderness therapy program at the end of seventh grade. The program was a high point and raised Olivette’s hopes. Mattie then did some inpatient work in Utah and returned home. Olivette hoped that all that emotional work would mean that Mattie could return to school and that life would be balanced and normal again. That wasn’t the case.

Mattie returned to the local private school where she had previously been a student and even though the staff were supportive, it wasn’t the right fit. Mattie then attended a local public high school and it was a total failure. If Mattie liked the teacher, she would get an A in the class. If she didn’t like the teacher, she got an F. Mattie skipped class frequently and Olivette repeatedly received automated calls from the high school saying her daughter had skipped a class once more, which was stressful. Mattie started pulling back from participation in anything. Olivette was always ready to offer resources to Mattie. When Mattie was a junior in high school, Olivette encouraged Mattie to go to Bard College at Simon Rock which is an early college program where she could earn high school and college credit at the same time. Olivette had high hopes when Mattie went off to Bard, but again, her hopes were dashed. Mattie again got A’s or F’s in her classes depending on how she felt about the teachers.

At Bard, Mattie went off her medications and tanked. She came back to Spokane, but Olivette had no way of reining her in. Mattie was often homeless.

At one point, Mattie said she was ready to move back home. Olivette said, “You can come home, but there are three conditions. You need to take your medications, go to counseling, and keep all your stuff in your room because Dad and I find it stressful to have your stuff strewn everywhere.”

Mattie said, “I’m not sick and I don’t need medications or counseling.”

Olivette looked at her very ill daughter in the eyes and said, “Then you can’t come home.”

Mattie said, “Where am I supposed to sleep tonight?”

Olivette responded, “Wherever you slept last night.”

Mattie left and Olivette burst into sobs.

Two weeks after that conversation, Mattie called with a different tone in her voice and said she was ready to take medications and go to therapy. She was ready to come home. That was the point where everything started going in the right direction. She successfully got her GED and an associate degree from Spokane Falls Community College and started working her way up the staff ranks of the same wilderness therapy program where she had once been a client.

When Mattie came back home after being homeless, Olivette learned about NAMI. Olivette and her husband joined a Family-to-Family course offered by NAMI Spokane and found it to be the most helpful intervention compared to everything they had done before. The Family-to-Family course helped them feel empowered to deal with Mattie’s mental health issue. Olivette was so impressed with how much she gained from the course that she volunteered to lead future courses because she felt like everyone who had a loved one with a mental illness should have that information. Since then, Olivette has led many Family-to-Family courses in Spokane and is now a state trainer for facilitators for Family-to-Family.

The Family-to-Family course showed the importance of not giving up hope in spite of how incredibly bleak and disheartening it can be to live with and love someone with a mental health history. Olivette said, “Recovery is possible. Our daughter is a very fine example of that.”

In addition to NAMI, Olivette feels that one key to their success was always treating the condition as a medical issue. Seeking out counseling for herself and her husband was also important. Olivette added, “Another key was always wanting to be there for her even if we weren’t always sure what that would look like.”

Olivette Orme is serving her second term as a Board Member for NAMI Spokane. She is a facilitator and a state trainer of facilitators for the Family-to-Family Course. She has a degree from the University of North Carolina and has served on the Board of Directors of Planned Parenthood and St. George’s School.

Emalee Gillis is a writer and blog editor. She is the author of the memoir Adventures on the Path to Living Well with a Mental Illness and has a related TEDx Talk.