"My daddy would go into the woods. That was the first indication that something was not right," explains Ellen Airs, co-chair of the "Pathway to Awareness Weekend," being held Sept. 30Oct. 1, to raise awareness of those who are struggling with mental disorders.
Airs recalls that she was just six years old and living in Mt. Airy, when her mother told her that her father's frequent trips to the neighborhood woods were okay: "Daddy loves you. Do not worry about Daddy, he'll be OK." In time, she learned that her father was a man of extremes who struggled daily with manic-depressive illness, commonly referred to as bipolar disorder.
Her father, Bob Foy Sr., graduated from Virginia Military Institute in the class of 1932, with a degree in civil engineering. According to Airs, he was a proud man, well-respected and enjoying life to its fullest. After graduation he took a "career-man's job" with the North Carolina Highway Department.
"That was a good job," says Airs. "He enjoyed business travel."
But soon afterward, the problems began to surface -- and he sank into a debilitating depression for a year and lost his job. After his recovery, he joined the Army to use his civil engineering talent for his country during the War. But, again he suffered another long period of depression. He was sent to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., for treatment and finally honorably discharged, to his disappointment. Later he returned to his old job at the highway department, and while traveling to Baltimore he met his soon-to-be bride, Virginia Keating, Airs' mother.
Her mother attended college and was a certified medical technologist -- a skill that she used later when economics dictated.
"Mother took care of everything, as was her way," says Airs. "She went to work when Daddy was out of work, and later transferred her medical knowledge into a career as a health insurance representative. She was never able to earn what Daddy could -- because women just did not earn equal pay, but she just persevered."
In 1949, at the urging of his wife, Bob Foy made a trip back to Baltimore to meet with doctors. They diagnosed him as suffering from manic-depressive illness. In those days there were not medications to treat the illness so the "cure" was electric shock therapy, says Airs.
"It was horrific," she says. "Daddy said he'd never go through it again. But he did, again and again."
The family moved repeatedly for economic reasons.
"Daddy would get better, he'd get a new job, and we'd get a different house," says Airs. "Then he'd have another breakdown and lose his job and the cycle would continue. It became impossible to make any one house a home for very long."
She recalls really beginning to understand that something was very wrong in their life when she was in seventh grade.
"We'd come home from school, and Daddy would be sitting in the same chair in the corner of the living room -- like a bump on a log. This went on for months, and sometimes, years," Airs says. "He wouldn't talk with us, shave, shower or sleep -- Daddy would just sit. He just did not care. It's a very sad state of being when you are in the depressed state. I never saw him in the manic state though I know he had it later in his life after I moved away from home."
Her mother called Airs and her two younger brothers together.
"She said, 'You need to know that Daddy is sick. Just because he does not get out of bed in the morning does not mean he is lazy. He is sick, and we are working to get him better."
She worked at the best job she could find, and worked to get her husband well, but she also enjoyed participating in her children's lives, school meetings, Airs' school plays and traveling to her sons' intrastate sports activities. Her children were the brightest part of her life.
"She wanted us to be social and was willing to admit early on that Daddy had a mental illness," says Airs. "She did not keep Daddy in the closet. We had our friends over often. They'd see Daddy sitting in the chair, and yes, there was some awkwardness, but they knew he was sick. We just did not hide it."
Virginia Foy was the head of the family and a pillar of strength to her children.
"It was remarkable," says Airs. "Mother worked so hard to get the right treatment for Daddy and to be kind to him while he was sick. Mother was the strong one. She was raised Catholic so she knew her marriage had to stay together. Mother was raising three children and trying to support the family and at the same time get Daddy well."
Airs recalled that after another episode her father was, suddenly, all better.
"Just like this," she says, snapping her fingers. "The night before, Daddy was in the chair; the next day he was just fine, normal. It truly was as if he had a chemical imbalance that had corrected itself."
He suffered at least five depression episodes, some lasting more than a year. But then in 1970 he was given lithium -- the little beige pill that he called his "miracle drug."
"Daddy was fine once he had meds," she says, "with the exception of two highs, or mania episodes, which were about one month long in 1968 and 1974. Depression was the norm for him, not mania. In the 1970s when Daddy had mania he ran up bills of $3,000, and in those days it was a lot of money, especially for our family."
Bob Foy wrote a letter to the editor of the Lexington newspaper in March 1994 and discussed his lifelong battle with manic-depressive disorder. "I am a manic-depressive. Thanks to the "miracle" drug, lithium, I have had no symptoms of the illness for 20 years," he wrote.
"One does not become cured of the manic-depressive diagnosis," he continued. "It has only been in recent years that the course of the illness has been found to be a chemical imbalance. Nevertheless, prior to the discovery of lithium, I experienced five episodes of depression."
Foy wrote the letter in response to an article he read in The Baltimore Sun about how depression was slowly coming out of the closet, thanks to public disclosure which helped to erode the stigma of the disease.
Airs keeps her father's journal, with his handwritten draft of the letter and a list of the dates of each episode of depression and the locations where they took place.
People handle the diagnosis of a brain illness differently. Bipolar disorder tends to run in families, and close relatives of someone with bipolar disorder are more likely to be affected by the disorder. Both of Airs' brothers struggle with bipolar disorder, as did her paternal grandmother and several cousins.
Though Airs' mother and a brother were very open about the illness, another brother had to work through it alone.
"He fought it from day one and eventually had a breakdown in 1989," says Airs.
Airs said that many incorrectly assume that if one member of the family suffers with this disorder, the same treatment and drugs will work on other members of the family that may be affected with the disorder.
"Folks don't understand that it is truly an individual thing," she says. "It's interesting that in our family they all needed different medicines. For my father, lithium was the miracle drug. One brother took Nardil, and the other brother took a variety of medications before the right one was found for him."
In addition, therapy is important to help people understand the illness and to develop skills to cope with the stresses that can trigger episodes. Changes in medications or doses may be necessary, as well as changes in treatment plans during different stages of the illness.
Airs' mother died in 1984 at age 70. Her father lived 11 more years.
"We all know that Mother died of exhaustion," says Airs. "She was the epitome of the caretaker. All the years of struggle, and I think the loneliness, caught up with her."
Airs' father died at age 84 when he fell and hit his head at the retirement home he was living in at the time.
"As I grew older I grew more tolerant of the memories of my childhood," she says. "Daddy's trips to the woods, and later his dark times in the chair in our living room, were emotionally complex for me. But I know he loved me as much as he could love me. I was lucky to have him, and in the last years we grew quite a bit closer. Manic-depressive illness did not preclude us from having a loving and giving relationship."
Claudia Watson is a Pinehurst freelance writer.
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