Moments after Jessie Close entered a food market in Bozeman, Mont., in 1997, she experienced the first warning sign: a wave of nausea. Even though she could have mistaken the queasiness for the flu, Jessie knew the sensation heralded something different, something much worse.
Soon after the nausea and dizziness, lethargy set in. No matter how hard she tried to force her legs to work, her movements became sluggish, her feet dragging through the aisles. Then came the clincher: near immobility. Jessie felt rooted to a spot. Even as her mind reeled, she could hardly move a muscle.
So, no, Jessie wasn’t coming down with the flu. “I was having a panic attack,” Jessie, now 59, said while recently in Seattle.
She knew the cause, or at least thought she did. Nearly a year before, in 1996, Jessie, sister of Oscar-nominated actress Glenn Close, had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. A brain disorder, the National Institute of Mental Health reports it causes unusual shifts in energy and mood and affects the ability to carry out day-to-day activities, like grocery shopping. People with bipolar disorder experience manic episodes followed by depression.
Approximately one in four adults lives with a diagnosable mental disorder, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders.
But what Jessie didn’t know as she stood in the aisle was her diagnosis of bipolar disorder was incomplete. Intuitively aware her medications didn’t address her symptoms, she self-medicated with alcohol. “Anything I could get my hands on,” Jessie said.
And another complication made her panic attack all the more severe: Her then 6-year-old daughter, Mattie Close-Davis, was in the market as well.
Jessie had had no choice but to bring the girl. There was little to eat in the house the mother and daughter shared. Since other family members, including Jessie’s then teen-aged sons Calen and Sander Pick, lived elsewhere, it was up to Jessie to shop.
So even though she was petrified to leave the house, sure that some entity, some dangerous force she couldn’t quite name waited outside the door, she shepherded Mattie into the car and drove to the market only to wind up panic-ridden in the aisle.
Mattie, just old enough to be in elementary school, didn’t have the words to describe her mother’s condition. But she’d seen her in a similar state before. She knew what had to be done: “I’d continue shopping,” remembered Mattie.
She selected grocery items, while her catonic mother suffered. Jessie stood next to the cart as Mattie filled it with groceries, then Jessie drove both of them home.
Those were difficult times, back in the late 90s. Jessie’s panic attacks seemed insurmountable, and she dreaded stepping out of her home. These days, Jessie can leave her house without any trace of that fear.
She credits numerous factors for the change: a correct diagnosis, proper medication, sobriety and perhaps most importantly, family. Jessie said she couldn’t have undertaken the journey from illness to wellness without her children Mattie, Calen and Sander. “There’s a lot of self-stigma that happens with mental illness,” Jessie said. “If a family doesn’t participate in your recovery, it makes it a hundred times worse.”
Family participation would prove essential for the Closes, because Jessie isn’t the only family member who has confronted panic attacks and paranoia. Her son, Calen, faces his own mental health condition.
For some time, the Close family didn’t comprehend the true scope of Calen’s illness. But that all changed when Calen and his younger brother Sander took a vacation together.
Whereas Jessie’s panic attacks immobilized her in a market in a small Western town, Calen experienced a psychotic break in the frozen landscape of the Austrian Alps.
Snowballing among the snowy peaks
Calen, then 18, ventured to the famed mountainous region in 1999. His brother Sander, then 16, and some of Sander’s boarding school friends had planned an Austrian ski trip, and when the opportunity arose for Calen to join them, he thought it seemed like a good idea.
But that good idea became a hellish experience as soon as they took to the air.
As he sat on a seven-hour flight across the Atlantic, Calen stared out the window, his gaze rarely venturing from the sky outside. Even when Sander, in the neighboring seat, kidded him that a world existed inside the plane, Calen couldn’t tear his eyes away from window: He had to look outside. Calen just couldn’t explain why to his brother.
Once the plane landed, the group of young boys and adult chaperones headed for a tiny, snow-blanketed alpine village. But unlike the classic film musical where Julie Andrews sings, “The hills are alive with the sound of music,” to Calen, the Alps were dead, phony: The mountains seemed nothing more than enormous projections.
He believed the village they would stay in, below those projected peaks, had been constructed just before his arrival, a movie set created for… what purpose, exactly? Perhaps as part of a larger conspiracy that involved cameras he imagined followed his every move.
If the outside world caused anxiety, the indoor realm bred paranoia. In his room, while his brother and his friends hit the slopes, Calen took apart the tv looking for the cameras he thought tracked him. When he couldn’t find them there, he ripped the mirror off the wall. At meal times, he refused to eat; he was convinced people were trying to feed him human flesh. “I just completely broke down, completely lost it,” Calen said.
Calen’s tenuous hold on reality altered Sander’s interactions with his brother. Sander could sense that Calen wanted to trust him, so he worked to engage his sibling. During the moments when clarity reigned, and he could speak, Calen would offer Sander descriptions of the delusions. But the glazed-eye look would soon return, a symbol that Calen’s delusions were in full force. “And then a retreat back into the paranoia,” Sander remembered.
For days, Calen’s psychoses snowballed. He felt trapped; Sander felt lost. And with their family elsewhere, Sander couldn’t shake feeling alone. “We may as well have been on the moon,” he said.
Luckily, they were in Austria with adult chaperones, one of whom had dealt with people facing mental illness. She conferred with the other adults, and they realized Calen had to go home. They called the boys’ mother, Jessie.
She was in London. She and her daughter Mattie had taken a trip to visit Glenn Close as she worked on the film “102 Dalmatians.” Jessie listened to tales of Calen’s mental state. “I remember going completely hysterical,” Jessie said.
Jessie wanted to fly to Calen and Sander. After all, she was fewer than a thousand miles away. But, Jessie said, Glenn convinced her that showing up in a hysterical state would only make the situation more difficult.
Instead, Calen’s father flew from the United States and brought Calen to his Helena, Mont., home. Jessie returned, along with Mattie, from London days later. When Calen came to visit her at her home outside Bozeman, she watched her son struggle with mental illness — a struggle to which she could relate.
Not long after returning from Austria, Calen experienced what he called another serious psychotic break at his father’s home. Calen made a decision: “to sign myself into a locked unit in Helena, Mont.”
Hearing the news from Calen’s father, listening to him cry on the phone, Jessie felt a great loss. “It’s as though your child has died, because there’s nothing left of them: It’s all psychosis,” she said.
Calen’s voluntary admission into St. Peter’s Hospital in 1999 marked the start of a long psychiatric hospitalization for the teen — and foreshadowed two rounds of hospitalization for Jessie, as well.
Like son, like mother
In the locked unit at St. Peter’s, Calen met a fellow patient. Both had access to a room with a white board, and one day, they began to sketch on the board with markers. As their sketching grew more intense, the pair made connections among wildly divergent ideas, many of the connections colored by biblical beliefs.
Calen couldn’t separate the apocalyptic thoughts represented by their sketches from life in the unit. “I thought I was going to fight the final battle between good and evil,” he said.
As he started bowing to the ground, nurses on the unit took notice. Calen watched as they put on rubber gloves, thinking, “Oh my God, these people are going to kill me.” But before he could react, three security guards tackled Calen from behind. They subdued him but only after a fight. The guards handcuffed Calen to a bed, then strapped him down. Nursing staff administered a shot of Haldol, a drug used as an anti-psychotic.
When Jessie visited the next day, Calen stood near the nurse’s station. Scratches covered his cheek from the previous day’s altercation. Jessie was shocked, but after the anti-psychotic, Calen greeted her with a smile and a “Hey, Mom.”
The voluntary admission and Calen’s psychosis marked a low point for the Close family. Like his mother, Calen had received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. But the family wondered if perhaps he needed more evaluation and different treatment. Jessie contacted relatives who were physicians, and they searched for a different psychiatric facility. They recommended McLean Hospital.
Located outside Boston and known for treating people such as singer James Taylor and author Sylvia Plath, McLean is affiliated with Harvard Medical School. After a few weeks in St. Peter’s, Calen flew to Boston with his mother at his side.
One of Jessie’s first observations of McLean was that the place didn’t have locked rooms. Leaving Calen there made her apprehensive: What if he tried to escape? But, Jessie said, she trusted the staff, including a big Jamaican man who worked as an attendant. “I didn’t think anyone would get past him,” she said.
Calen never tried. Staff worked to obtain a correct diagnosis. After a battery of tests, doctors concluded he had bipolar disorder with psychotic tendencies. They prescribed a number of medications, none of which seemed to work well.
More tests followed. Then, more after that. Finally, doctors agreed upon a diagnosis: schizoaffective disorder, which the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders defines as a “perplexing mental illness that has both features of schizophrenia, including hallucinations, delusions, and distorted thinking, and features of a mood disorder, such as depression or mania.” Schizoaffective disorder is considered rare.
The hospital treated Calen with new medications. His demeanor changed, which family members noticed when he came home for Christmas, and his earlier psychotic states diminished. By the time Calen left the hospital to return to Montana for good, it was 2001. He had been at McLean almost two years.
During Calen’s hospitalization, Jessie’s mental health struggles continued. As in the past, she sought alcohol as a way to calm the paranoia, to quash the panic attacks. But alcoholism made her emotionally unavailable to her daughter Mattie. So after years of drinking, Jessie quit in 2001, the same year Calen left McLean.
Still operating under the belief that she had bipolar disorder, Jessie couldn’t keep her symptoms in check. She experienced a return of the psychotic moments where she felt as if some entity — a creature of sorts, akin to the murderous monster in the film “Predator,” that could be seen as a shimmer in the jungle canopy, but only in the right light — was out to get her. “I went to visit my mother and Glenn was there, and they could see I needed help,” said Jessie.
They arranged for Jessie to attend the institution she had seen once before: McLean.
The staff clarified Jessie’s diagnosis. Physicians settled on bipolar disorder with psychotic features and a tendency toward a mixed state, where she can experience both mania and depression at the same time. “It made sense,” Jesse said.
A new diagnosis led to relief and new medication. She was released from McLean after five weeks.
Doctors recommended that she not stay alone, so Jessie lived with her sister Glenn for a while, before heading back to Montana. A recurrence of symptons sent her back to McLean for a short visit. Since then, her symptoms have remained in check: “It’s a relief.”
Change is good
Nowadays, Jessie said she and her family want to help other people who have mental health diagnoses find stability.
In 2009, her sister Glenn founded Bring Change 2 Mind, a national nonprofit that seeks to eradicate the stigma of mental illness. One of its tools is a media outreach. A video at bringchange2mind.org features Jessie wearing a shirt that reads “bipolar,” while next to her, Glenn wears a shirt bearing the word “sister.” Calen also appears with a “schizophrenia” shirt, an arm wrapped around his sister Mattie’s shoulder. (Filmmaker Ron Howard, who directed the “A Beautiful Mind,” about a Nobel Prize-winning economist with schizophrenia, made the video.)
Along with blogging every week for Bring Change 2 Mind, Jessie travels the country to speak about mental health. Recently, her family members have joined her. In early May, Jessie, Calen, Sander and Mattie all came to Seattle to deliver the keynote speech at Sound Mental Health’s annual fundraising gala.
Focusing on how mental health can affect families has also taken a scientific bent for the Close family. Jessie said three generations of Closes were tested for genetic indicators of mental illness. Results showed only two family members had major chromosomal anomalies: Jessie and Calen. More tests will be conducted, she said.
In the eight years since her correct diagnosis, Jessie said life is peaceful. She lives near a river in Montana in a house she’s not afraid to leave. Calen is now married, and he and his wife reside in the same house Jessie occupied when she experienced panic attacks in the market.
She said because the family embraced her and Calen in their mental health struggles, it strengthened their family bond. Her heart goes out to people whose families get bogged down by stigma: “If they aren’t supportive, if they don’t believe in mental illness, it makes your journey a lot harder.”