Perfect Chaos: A Daughter's Journey to Survive Bipolar, a Mother's Struggle to Save Her

Perfect Chaos: A Daughter's Journey to Survive Bipolar, a Mother's Struggle to Save Her

4.7 7
by Linea Johnson, Cinda Johnson

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A dual memoir of a mother's and daughter's triumph over mental illness

The Johnsons—mother, father, and two daughters—were a loving, and close Seattle family. Then the younger daughter Linea started experiencing crippling bouts of suicidal depression. Multiple trips to the psych ward resulted in a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and it took many


A dual memoir of a mother's and daughter's triumph over mental illness

The Johnsons—mother, father, and two daughters—were a loving, and close Seattle family. Then the younger daughter Linea started experiencing crippling bouts of suicidal depression. Multiple trips to the psych ward resulted in a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and it took many trial runs of drugs and ultimately electroshock therapy to bring Linea back. But her family never gave up on her. And Linea never stopped trying to find her way back to them.

Perfect Chaos is the story of a mother's and daughter’s journey through mental illness towards hope. From initial worrying symptoms to long sleepless nights to cross country flights and the slow understanding and rebuilding of trust, Perfect Chaos tells Linea's and Cinda’s harrowing and inspiring story, of an illness that they conquer together every day.  It is the story of a daughter’s courage, a mother’s faith, and the love that carried them through the darkest times.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Johnson, diagnosed as bipolar in her 20s, is one of the lucky ones, armed with a caring family, good health insurance, and a strong determination to live, as she describes with her mother in this wrenching story. As she and her mother detail their family’s attempts to make sense of the disorder, it becomes clear that mental illness doesn’t spare even the most loving homes. Between high school and college, Linea shifts from being a happy, thriving, perfectionist to someone overwhelmed by anxiety. At first, her baffled parents believe it’s fixable teenage stress. While away at college, the illness fully takes hold and gradually builds until she feels suicidal. Her parents, worried and exhausted, decide that bringing her back to Seattle is the best way to keep her safe. Despite everyone’s best intentions, Linea’s suicidal thoughts return. Her mantra as she creates a suicide plan is “I want pain, I want blood. I hurt so much.” She ends up in a psychiatric unit, where she agrees to electroconvulsive therapy. The treatments are not a miracle cure, and although months later she overdoses on medication, it’s a cry for help to save her life, and it does. The journey for Linea and her family is a moving and hopeful one, as they better understand how she reacts to the illness, and realize that being bipolar is only a part of someone’s life, not the whole. (May)
Kirkus Reviews
A no-holds-barred "biography of depression," based on the alternating journal entries of a mother and daughter. Cinda Johnson, who directs the special education graduate program at Seattle University, and her daughter Linea, a mental-health advocate and national speaker, jointly chronicle the first five years of Linea's ongoing battle to overcome the ravages of bipolar disorder. First diagnosed while in high school, Linea still battles "anorexia, anxiety, and depression," but she explains that her episodes are now controllable. "My relationship with bipolar has evolved…My illness is part of me, it is something that affects my life," she writes, "but it is something, not all. It is not my life; my life is merely affected by it. It does not define me if I don't let it." The author and her mother describe the evolution of her disease and the difficult struggle they both faced in coming to terms with it. Even though Cinda trained special-education teachers to deal with mental illness, she found it difficult to accept it in her own daughter, a popular high-achiever whose goal was to become a professional musician. This is a gritty account of what it is like to be down in the trenches with mental illness--fighting suicidal thoughts, battling the aftereffects of shock treatment, dealing with medication and its side effects and resisting the temptations of alcohol and street drugs. While Linea was battling for sanity, Cinda and her husband faced the difficult challenge of balancing their desire to protect their daughter with the need to respect her privacy and freedom. Ultimately, it was Linea who decided to give up her career aspirations, move back to Seattle from Chicago, where she had been attending college, advocate for the mentally ill and work to "create a world free of stigma." A simultaneously painful and inspiring page-turner.
From the Publisher

Perfect Chaos is an open-eyed, sometimes raw, always astoundingly honest account of a family's unanticipated battle with mental illness. Cinda and Linea's awe-inspiring resilience and the sheer courage of their emotional transparency moved me to my core and deepened my empathy for all those touched by mental illness, including beloved members of my own family. It is about the fierce, transformative love between a mother and daughter and how they both learn to share their truths.” —Glenn Close, Actress and Co-founder, Bring Change 2 Mind

Perfect Chaos is an important gift to those of us who love someone with a mental disorder. A daughter diagnosed with bipolar disorder and her determined mother take us on their often-painful journey to recovery, giving readers a penetrating look into what happens when mental illnesses strike. This inspirational book teaches us the importance of determination, resilience, love and HOPE. It is a testament to the human spirit that refuses to be defeated by a brain disorder -- a must read.” —Pete Earley, author of CRAZY: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize

Perfect Chaos is a memoir of a daughter and mother working together to overcome the daily challenges of living with a mental illness. Through their trials and triumphs, their story provides encouragement and hope for individuals and their families affected by these illnesses.” —Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, founder of the Carter Center Mental Health Program and author of Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis

“A remarkable story about remarkable women! Linea and Cinda brilliantly light a path to hope, understanding, and acceptance as they smash through the stigma of brain illness. Be inspired by the strong voice they give to patients, relatives, care-givers, and especially to those unable or afraid to show their wants, needs, hope.” —Patrick J. Kennedy, Former US Congressman and Co-Founder, One Mind for Research

Perfect Chaos is as much a map as it is a memoir, a powerful resource for families and individuals navigating the confusing and painful world of bipolar and mental illness. The dual-narrative of mother and daughter allows for twice the insight and inspiration. From the giddiness of mania, to the crushing depression and yearning to end it all, Linea captures the experience of being bipolar with raw honesty and a fresh voice. Cinda's passages illuminate her life on the sidelines, alternately feeling determined and unshakable or heartbroken and helpless. Her refusal to give up on her daughter, and Linea's will to live, resulted in Perfect Chaos, a brave and realistic, yet life-affirming message of hope to families and individuals living with mental illness.” —Claire Fontaine and Mia Fontaine, authors of Come Back: A Mother and Daughter's Journey through Hell and Back

“PERFECT CHAOS is the definition of mental illness. I read most of Cinda and Linea's words with tears in my eyes. Living with bipolar disorder myself I didn't find one untrue word, not one exaggeration in this exemplary book, only the truth. This brave and honest book will educate people who have little understanding of mental illness and allow those who live with mental illness a knowing that they are not alone. I have a feeling I'll be buying PERFECT CHAOS by the case to distribute to those who don't understand.” —Jessie Close, Co-founder, Bring Change 2 Mind

“A simultaneously painful and inspiring page-turning.” —Kirkus

“Definitely a must-read. . . a well written, clearly told, inspiring story.” —

“The journey for Linea and her family is a moving and hopeful one, as they better understand how she reacts to the illness, and realize that being bipolar is only a part of someone's life, not the whole.” —Publisher’s Weekly

“Lyrically written with razor-sharp honesty, Perfect Chaos is the story of Linea's day-to-day fight with bipolar disorder and her astounding efforts to piece together her life and achieve her own stability and independence.” —SheKnows, Parenting

founder of the Carter Center Mental Health Program Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter

Perfect Chaos is a memoir of a daughter and mother working together to overcome the daily challenges of living with a mental illness. Through their trials and triumphs, their story provides encouragement and hope for individuals and their families affected by these illnesses.
authors of Come Back: A Mother and Daughter's Claire Fontaine and Mia Fontaine

Perfect Chaos is as much a map as it is a memoir, a powerful resource for families and individuals navigating the confusing and painful world of bipolar and mental illness. The dual-narrative of mother and daughter allows for twice the insight and inspiration. From the giddiness of mania, to the crushing depression and yearning to end it all, Linea captures the experience of being bipolar with raw honesty and a fresh voice. Cinda's passages illuminate her life on the sidelines, alternately feeling determined and unshakable or heartbroken and helpless. Her refusal to give up on her daughter, and Linea's will to live, resulted in Perfect Chaos, a brave and realistic, yet life-affirming message of hope to families and individuals living with mental illness.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.84(w) x 8.38(h) x 1.13(d)

Read an Excerpt


Finally in August we all flew to Chicago and moved Linea into the nation’s largest student residence, home to over seventeen hundred students—a mammoth building on South State and Congress just blocks from Michigan Avenue. We moved her things from the rental car to the queue for the elevators that would take us to her "suite" on the seventeenth floor with a view of the Sears Tower. I couldn’t believe that our little girl, who lived her first ten years in an unincorporated village of fewer than three thousand people, would live in the South Loop of a city of more than three million.

That night, I prayed that this was the right decision for her and that she would be happy. She had struggled so long and hard, questioning and worrying about what she should do after high school. I wanted so much for her to settle into the music program, the city, and her dorm; to develop deep and lasting friendships; and, mostly, to enjoy the small things that she would experience every day and not to worry so much about her future.

I was excited for her, but of course I cried as we flew back to Seattle, leaving her in her new home. I felt overwhelmed and exhausted by the effort that it took to get her there and yet I was also very proud of her and hopeful that this was the right decision. She was so happy and independent while she packed and planned for her move, and she was equally happy and outgoing as she moved into her dorm, making friends with her suite mates, figuring out where her classes were, and settling into her neighborhood. So many feelings were churning inside of me as we headed home: excitement for her new life and for ours, fatigue from the physical and mental exhaustion of the move, and, of course, worry about any number of things that could go wrong. She could be hit by a car as she continued to cross streets against the lights, she could get mugged, her depression could return. Yet these emotions were all mixed together with the most potent feeling of all: hope.

We returned to Seattle and settled into our empty nest. I missed Linea terribly, of course, but there was also a sense of . . . not exactly relief but the lessening of taking care of someone. Other mothers in newly emptied nests confess a similar feeling. I had felt this initially when Jordan left for college, but it was stronger now that there were no children at home. Once your children have moved out and away, the day-to-day parenting decreases. We don’t wonder if they got home on time or even if they got home at all. We don’t wake up at one A.M. and check if the car is in the driveway and if they are asleep in bed. While Jordan was in college, she and I talked often and we stayed close, but I no longer knew where she was every day or when she would return from an evening out, and I didn’t really think about it. I expected the same with Linea and I looked forward to her independence.

Back at home, Curt and I talked about how you feel you have been a successful parent when the child to whom you have given so much love, energy, and worry becomes independent and yet still chooses to be in your life. Linea had always been very close to us, close enough that we worried about how we would cut all those apron strings. But she was also very self-sufficient and had always made good decisions. Even though she talked to both of us about many of her feelings and worries, and we had helped her through her decisions about college and friendships, she had demonstrated the ability to take care of herself. She was responsible, she man- aged her schedule and her many activities while achieving high grades, and she had developed deep friendships during high school. I thought she had been honest with both her dad and me, and I believe that to the best of her ability, she was. Yes, there had been tears and anxiousness and a difficult diagnosis of depression, but I still had a strong belief that she would do very well in Chicago. She was so smart and articulate, she was a talented musician and very prepared for her field of study, and in so many ways she was mature beyond her age.

We felt so much joy for her that she was on her own. The process of growing up doesn’t happen overnight, but she was moving into adulthood. She was confident and happy when we left her in Chicago, and so were we. I had been through this transition with Jordan and watched her progress from a new freshman in college, sometimes stumbling but mostly moving steadily forward, to independence. I expected the same for Linea.

In the first month of school, we talked every other day or so while she filled me in on her classes, activities, and new friends. As she got busier, I talked to her less and less. But one day in October, she didn’t sound quite right to me. She sounded anxious and unhappy, complaining about feeling behind in her schoolwork and practice sessions. I tried to understand what was going on with her. Was this another depression? Her dad talked to her and we would ask each other, "Do you think she’s okay?" I continued to worry as she was either anxious or sounded flat when she talked with us on the phone. Curt and I were concerned, but we didn’t want to intervene in her life more than necessary.

We remembered how Jordan wasn’t always happy and upbeat her first year in college, and we convinced each other that Linea was just working through the newness of her fresh- man year living so far away from home. Jordan had called many times her freshman year, crying and even wanting to come home at one point, complaining about difficulties with roommates and feeling very stressed because of the lack of privacy and her inability to find any time for herself. I remembered nights that Jordan called and I would be awake much of the night worrying about her and wondering if I needed to see her in person. The next morning I would call her and she would barely remember what had been so difficult the night before. She needed her mom as a place to vent, and then she moved on even if I was still a little behind worrying about her. Jordan made it through her college years with a broken rib, a severe ankle sprain, various colds and flu, and upheavals with friends and roommates, but she also acquired a degree, good friends, and a great boyfriend (Cliff!), and she remained emotionally intact.

At this point there wasn’t much more we could do except check in with Linea and, of course, worry (which wasn’t very effective!). But by early December, a feeling of trepidation was beginning to follow me around. Linea was never far from my thoughts. I never knew what to expect when I talked to her. She was either having a great and wonderful adventure or she was feeling anxious and down. I became less confident each time we spoke. Her happiness and excitement about her classes would last for only a short time before she moved into a darker place. She would call, full of enthusiasm and anticipation of upcoming events, telling me about an audition that went well, a paper she aced, and a new friend she had made while attending some amazing cultural event. The next call would be full of anxiety about too much work or even anxiousness about her anxiety. "I am so anxious I don’t know what’s wrong with me," she would tell me. But just when I was ready to head to Chicago, she would seem so much calmer and convince me she was doing okay. Yet I continued to worry.


I am in Chicago. Finally. A city so big you could fit almost four Seattles into it, suburbs included. Everything is big here, big and flat. I miss the trees and the mountains, but I’m here. And I’m here on my own. Alone. Now my mom can’t call me if I’m out at night and she hears an ambulance. Now I can be out late with boys without my dad knowing. Now I can drink and not feel paranoid all the time. I’m free and I can do what I want. It’s my life. My own life. Away from them. My parents. My friends. People who know me. People who think I’m good and perfect and innocent. I can do whatever the fuck I want. I can swear. I can drink. I can stay over with boys. Hell, I can even do drugs.


Linea came home for the holiday break, and we were excited and happy to spend time with her. I wanted to see her and assure myself that she was okay. During her visit, she seemed happy with college life and Chicago, but she worried about her studies and all the music pieces she needed to learn. Yet she didn’t practice or appear to do any work on assignments while she was home. She was certainly in a better mood than Jordan had been during her first holiday break. Jordan had come home with a bad cold and exhausted from her social life and schoolwork. She was not always easy to get along with as we all readjusted to a having a college freshman in the house. With Linea, I convinced myself it would take a few days for us all to get back into a family routine, and then things would settle down.

Linea was tired but overall in a good mood, and I was reassured that she was "okay." How do you know the difference between typical behaviors of a college freshman and a young adult in the onset of a mental illness? I know now that you can only stay calm, pay attention, and wait.


January—I’m home for college break and I feel as if I am drunk. I have a permanent smile on my face and I can’t help but dance naked in my room while I brush my wet hair. I apply my makeup with a new ease and look at my clothes as if it will never again matter what I wear.

I know this is the year. I have a feeling of complete hope and optimism that I had lost these past four years of high school depression. Suddenly, I’m over it. I break my new makeup, and in- stead of being completely devastated, as I would have been a day earlier, I simply pick it up and throw away the broken pieces. I continue dancing and joyously await the impending New Year. Only five hours until I get to celebrate with my favorite friends at a concert with my favorite band. I am finally all right with myself. I am beautiful and happy and free, and for some reason I feel it is suddenly all right to show it.


In the New Year, I was once again feeling optimistic that the new semester would be a good one for Linea. She was happy during the break and she left rested and seemingly calm. It didn’t last long. Shortly after she returned to school in January, I received a phone call from her. I was in a meeting and left the room to take what I thought would be a quick call, just long enough to tell her I would call her back. I didn’t return to my meeting for more than thirty minutes while Linea cried from over two thousand miles away.

She didn’t know what was wrong with her. We talked and she cried and I listened, trying to figure out what was going on with her. She told me she was just "overwhelmed" and felt terrible but she didn’t know why. Once again I was hearing, "I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Mom. I don’t have any reason to feel this way." She said that this made her feel even worse. She had everything she had ever wanted and she was doing well in school. What was wrong with her? And again, her concern about others was there as well. She kept thanking me for taking the time to listen to her and told me to go back to my meeting; she reassured me that she would be all right. I told her I would talk as long as she wanted to and she kept apologizing for taking me out of my meeting. We agreed to talk later in the day and I finally hung up with a heavy feeling in my chest.

By then the meeting was over and my friends asked me if everything was all right. I didn’t know what to say. I was shaken by her call and didn’t know what to do. Something didn’t feel right to me, and my instincts were to race to the airport and off to Chicago. I wanted to see her. I wanted to know she was really okay.

Over the next week, Linea and I spent more time on the phone, and I persuaded her to see a college counselor. I thought she was likely struggling with depression and could use some help managing her stress. She was not enthusiastic about seeing a counselor, but she also was trying to under- stand why she felt the way she did.

During Linea’s first visit, the counselor told her she thought she had bipolar disorder. When Linea called me, she was very upset, and my first reaction was to reassure her; she was very worked up and I just wanted to calm her. I said, "Honey, this might not be bipolar. I think you should get a second opinion." I was careful not to agree or disagree with the counselor’s opinion, and although I was working to reassure Linea, I felt completely overwhelmed. I had so many mixed emotions coursing through me. I was in disbelief for many reasons. Bipolar disorder had never entered my mind. We had never seen any mania in Linea, nor had she ever described the symptoms, at least not at the level of mania I was familiar with when working with children and adolescents with bipolar disorder. I also didn’t trust the counselor who had met with Linea. Of all the counselors there, she had the least experience and was not a certified mental-health provider (yes, I had spent time on the counseling Web site). It was too quick a diagnosis. I wanted a trained and experienced professional who took time to gather information, review her history, and meet with her a number of times before finalizing a diagnosis. I was frightened by the very words "bipolar disorder." It did not fit with anything I knew or thought I knew about Linea and, to be perfectly honest, my family.

I am sure now that Linea’s symptoms of depression were much worse than what she had been telling me or perhaps even than she was able to describe. At the time, however, while I didn’t discredit the idea that Linea might need serious help and even medication, I wasn’t ready to agree to what I thought was a quick diagnosis and particularly the suggestion that she likely needed a prescription for lithium. I was beginning to see that she had depressions that hit her and then retreated, at least a little, but the diagnosis of bipolar disorder felt too sudden, too casual.

I couldn’t examine my own feelings at this point because I was too concerned about Linea’s. She was frightened, uncertain, and needed reassurance. She told me she was embarrassed and humiliated having to sit in the lobby of a building crowded with students she knew, waiting to see the counselor. "I feel like a total loser sitting out here in the hallway while people I know go by and look at me like I am crazy or something." She didn’t want to see another counselor or doc- tor and particularly didn’t like the idea of medication.

Linea felt the same sense of disbelief with the quick diagnosis. She said she didn’t like the counselor. The counselor had asked her to "look inside all the boxes of [her] personality" and tell her what she found. According to Linea, the counselor was trying to help her find the "problem," a deep, dark secret that was causing the depression. Linea said, "I should just make something up to give her something to work on. I don’t have any big secrets. I don’t know why I feel this way. I am not going back." Adding to her depression, she felt even worse that she was unable to identify something that would provide a reason for her to feel so bad. She was depressed and miserable while feeling that she needed to figure out what it was that was causing her depression. Again, she said, "I have everything most kids my age would want. So what’s wrong with me? There is no reason I should feel this way." I think that this particular strategy of searching for clues to her depression did little but add to her feelings of guilt and caused us all so much worry.

In retrospect, we were all playing into the idea that some- thing concrete, something "out there," was causing Linea to feel so bad. If we could only identify what it was, then per- haps we could fix it. I thought it was stress from trying to do too much and overextending herself time and time again. I had, I thought, pinpointed many "reasons" for her depressions and anxieties while she was in high school. If only she could reduce the amount of activities she was involved with, she would feel better! If she could just make a decision about which college to go to, she would feel better! If, if, if . . . if only I could just fix it!

If it was not something outside of her, then it must be something within. What was it? Either outside of her or inside, I think the message she heard was that she should be able to fix it. Reduce outside pressures and stressors or look inside and figure out what was wrong.

It took us all considerable time to come to the realization that she had an illness and that no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t manage it on her own. Mental illness is a brain disorder, and certainly stress and exhaustion can make it worse. Yet there is a degree of guilt and blame that accompanies a mental-health condition that is not as apparent with physical illnesses. If Linea had had appendicitis, say, no one would ask her to "look inside herself" in order to determine a diagnosis and treatment. Being asked to look inside for the answers was not helpful at that point and only increased her guilt, under- scored her lack of understanding, and even fueled anger.

My job was to stay calm. We talked, and she finally agreed to get a second opinion. I asked if she wanted me to help her find a psychiatrist. She did, and from that moment we stepped into a mental-health world that consisted of hours of searching for providers and treatment, fighting with the health-care system, and oftentimes suffering from overwhelming uncertainty and exhaustion. We did not know where this new diagnosis would lead us. The depressions from high school followed her to Chicago, yet something more sinister was brewing. It was pulling us along, and we were not prepared for where it would take us.


I am in Chicago, my second semester in, and something is happening to me. I am doing the things that most college freshmen are doing, partying a lot, kissing too many boys, staying out so late I can barely finish my schoolwork. But I have also been doing things that I know my peers are not doing. I have been extremely emotional; a conversation with my mom can move from love to sadness to anger in minutes. I stare out my window and listen to music alone for hours in the dark. I can’t sleep at night unless I’m completely intoxicated. I often find myself feeling angry and left out when my roommates don’t ask me fast enough to go out. I’m constantly searching for the next party, the next chance I can have to drink or get stoned. The next chance I can have to stop feeling. I oftentimes just can’t stop crying. My thoughts of anxiety and depression have come back. I haven’t felt this sense of suffocation and nervous fear of the world since I was a senior in high school. I feel that every- thing is just on the verge of collapse. Like I am standing at the edge of a cliff in a heavy wind. I need to know why. I love my life.

I love the city I am in, the classes I am taking, and my roommates. My life may be crazy and wild right now, but I still love it. Why then am I feeling this way again?

I have begun seeing a counselor again. After numerous talks with my mom on the phone, she finally convinced me that I should at least try to talk to someone other than her. For the longest time I thought my mom was all I needed, but there were other things that I needed to talk about that I didn’t feel comfortable telling her. I still can’t talk about drinking with my mom. Not that she would judge me, but out of my own fear of not seeming perfect. Plus, I want to be an adult and I don’t want to rely on her for everything.

Though I can’t stand the counselor or her questions, I feel she may be the only one able to figure out why I have this constant sense of impending doom. If I want to keep living the life I love, I have to stop myself from plummeting off this cliff. She wants me to keep a journal so I can keep track of my moods. She thinks I may be bipolar. Sure. Whatever. She probably just thinks that because I thought it would be fun to test her out and play with her head. I mostly tell her about the partying and drinking. Having read the DSM since age eight, I know all about bipolar and want to see just how much I can play up the manic parts of my life. I have always known myself to be depressed, but I cannot understand the diagnosis of bipolar. I’m just a normal depressed college kid.

Given how quick she was to "diagnose" me, I feel an urge to play to her assumptions. I do this out of anger and fear more than fun. Testing to see how smart she really is, to see if she could really be telling the truth. The more I do this, however, the deeper I dig myself into a hole. I know what to tell her to make her think I’m fine, but something prevents me from doing that. As I go on with this act, I begin to realize that I may not be smart or strong or healthy enough to get myself out of this diagnosis, this label, and I am quickly realizing that my little game is only holding her back from truly helping me.

She wants me to look into whatever "boxes" are closed inside my head. She thinks that I have some deep, dark hidden secrets. She probably has nothing better to do with her time than convince poor college kids that they have suppressed fears or thoughts.

All of my worries and thoughts are those of a normal college freshman, so what makes me, of all people, bipolar? What is wrong with me?

I’m checking Facebook to see what parties are happening tonight and I’m listening to a new album I downloaded. Suddenly a song I have never heard before begins to play. My arm hairs raise, my neck hairs raise. My heart swells, and I have to concentrate on my breathing. I know something. Something important, something magical and true and the key to everything. I know it, but I can’t type fast enough to explain it before the song is over. Suddenly my past depression is nothing compared to this new knowledge I have of myself. Suddenly I feel pretty and interesting and intelligent. Suddenly I feel like I can go out with my friends and be confident and impress people. I feel I have never before realized that I am worth something, but now I do. Suddenly I feel like I can do anything.

I want to dance in the park, I want to sing for an audience, I want to paint a self-portrait, I want to take pictures of strangers I think are interesting. I want to travel to foreign countries and write music the way it is meant to be felt. I don’t want to write about choirs, or worry about the next year, or Juilliard, or school, or money. I want to fly away and discover a new life just my own. I want to travel, and pack few clothes, and my favorite journal, and a camera, and a voice recorder, and a computer. I want to live the way life leads me. I don’t want to make decisions based on the past, I want to base decisions on the moment. I don’t want to base decisions on what they will do to my future, or what they will do to my family, or what they will do for my friends, but on what they do for me in my current state of being. I want to be selfish and live the way I need to. I want to forget about due dates and money, and concentrate on the creation of something truly beautiful. I want to get away from anyone trying to create a future of wealth and pretend happiness; I want to create happiness now. I want to make the perfect movie and the perfect painting and portrait and song. I want to just be.


All of this was happening a few months before a trip to Scotland that Linea had planned (and paid for) many months earlier. She had a close friend in Edinburgh, and all her plans were solidified for a trip during spring break. She had scrimped and saved and was very excited about traveling to Europe for the first time. Because Linea was feeling better, we thought that this recent bout (of what? Anxiety, depression, something?) had been another bump in the road. She was keeping up on her music and her academics, and her calls were reassuring. She sounded good and was feeling positive about her courses and program. Although she seemed much happier, to be safe, I still wanted her to follow up with a psychiatrist.

I finally found a doctor who could see her, but Linea convinced me that she could wait until after returning from Scotland. She continued to sound happier, and every conversation with her convinced me that she was better. I was hopeful that her anxieties and sadness were leaving, if not gone already. Curt and I both talked to her about the trip and to each other. We agreed that she seemed to feel much better. Her grades had not dropped and she continued to do well in all her classes. She was auditioning and performing with other students, writing brilliant papers that she would share with me, and she seemed content with her life and excited about her trip. We had no specific reason to convince her not to go, and we thought that it might provide her the opportunity to be more independent and to develop more confidence in her ability to take care of herself.

At the end of March, she flew out of O’Hare airport into Heathrow and on to Edinburgh. She loved England and Scotland, and actually told us she felt "strong and independent" after her week with her friend. Linea sounded so good when she called us from Scotland and again when she was back in Chicago.

My worries subsided somewhat, and I thought that she had weathered a depression and was continuing to feel better. She laughed when she said she had found the cure for depression—"overseas travel!" My apprehensive feelings backed off, and I began to believe that all would be okay. I thought that she was beginning to settle into her life in Chicago and into her goals for her music career. She had been a confident and independent kid throughout grade school and middle school. It wasn’t until tenth grade that she had times when she was unhappy and anxious. Yet her previous years of calmness, kindness, and overall happiness steadied and reassured me that all would eventually settle down for her.


April—We sit on a train to the Highlands. Tyler and I. My biggest crush in high school. My best friend, the popular senior to my nerdy sophomore. It is amazing to me that some- how I am able to be on a train in Scotland with him of all people.

I’ve been here a week, and Tyler’s tired. For some reason I have endless energy and have been running him and his room- mates ragged. Somehow I am able to party until four in the morning, get on a train at six, and walk twenty miles in a complete day tour of London. Somehow I can do all that and still have energy to do it again the next day. Tyler does not have this much energy—really, no one can keep up with me. But who wouldn’t have this energy and drive when visiting a foreign country for the first time? Who wouldn’t be as excited flying overseas at eighteen by yourself to visit one of your favorite people in a place you always dreamed of visiting? He’ll wake up. Just give him some coffee and everything will be fine.

Tyler keeps talking about the future. He keeps talking about joining the Peace Corps. It’s funny how this conversation mirrors the same exact conversation I had with a friend just weeks earlier. A friend said he needed to do something bigger and better, to grow up and get away. I suddenly feel as if everyone is leaving me. I feel that everyone is slowly going to vanish out of my life to go on their own paths. I suppose I have to get used to this, but somehow I’m still stuck in the now. Why do they have to leave? Tyler says that it is time for him to grow up, time to decide where he wants to be in his life. I don’t understand it. I’m still stuck here. I’m always stuck here. All I can think is why do they all want to leave me? What will I do when I lose Tyler and my friends? Who’s next? Why do they need to move away? Why do they need to lose everyone who loves them to find something new?

I stare out the window blankly, and instead of enjoying the beautiful Scottish hills I watch the pale gray sky and think of how alone I am. I realize that I will no longer have the people I have always counted on. Why are they trying to lose me?

We are running through the cobblestone streets of Edinburgh in a snakelike zigzag, and I feel as if my pants will fall off. I can’t see straight. The streets are wet and shiny.

Our entourage of men is chasing after us and we run faster.

But Tyler and his friends can’t keep up with the excitement of two drunken girls celebrating my last night in Scotland.

My girlfriend and I reach the first club thinking it will be our last. We walk right up to the bouncer and tell him we are being followed by that crazy group of boys behind us. They have been chasing us. Do not let the I've boys in the back in because they scare us. We get a free ticket in and a fast pass through the line of at least twenty eager twenty-somethings.

Inside the sleazy salsa club, we are met by glances and stares of hundreds of bloodthirsty men. I whisper to her to put our rings on our wedding fingers, and in our drunken splendor we both think it is a brilliant idea. I navigate around the club and happily make friends with everyone I bump into. But we find no interesting men and leave the club disappointed. Outside, we tell the boys we are moving on and take off once again into a sprint. I know that the night will only get wilder, but somehow I’m not worried about my six A.M. right back to America.


During the last quarter of the school year, we talked to Linea at least every other day. Some days she seemed to be happy and other days she was not. She’d be anxious and cranky and worried about everything, and with the next call she was happy once again.

Both Curt and I had traveled to Chicago to visit Linea and watch her performances. We met her friends and we explored Chicago together. Yet, I admit, there was underlying worry. I was not sure how much to worry and when to act. Where is the edge? When and at what point should I do more than worry? On the surface she was functioning well at school—at least her grades, performances, and friends seemed to attest to that. Her anguish seemed to come and go and maybe it was only me she was expressing this to and maybe it was my own worries that were magnifying everything. I didn’t want to overreact, but I didn’t want to miss something. I was concerned about her all the time and never felt completely confident that she was okay. I hoped that a summer at home would be a good rest for her and a time for me to see for myself how she was doing.


I want to be alone more and more. I am extremely emotional, and my moods range from depressed to anxious to angry. Today I stressed myself out over a scholarship and became extremely angry as I convulsively copied and recopied my music twenty times more than needed. Sheets of music surrounded me like an island in our dirty dorm room. I just couldn’t make it perfect. I couldn’t line up the sides so that nothing was cut off. I couldn’t make it straight. When my suite mate shut the connecting door, I was so angry I almost threw a shoe at it.

I am going crazy. I really feel that I am. Maybe it’s just crazy artist syndrome or freshman angst, but I swear to God I’m not myself. I want to go to church tomorrow. I, of all people, want to go to church. I want to find some big Catholic cathedral and escape into beauty. The art museum is only free one day a week and Scotland is too far away. So much that I see in this world is dirty and ugly and fake. I’ve become such a cynic. An angry, depressed, hateful person. I want to throw things and break things and cry and scream and drink and run.

I want to run away. I need to be free. Why am I still not me? I felt that if I escaped to Chicago, one of the largest cities in the country, then I would be all right. I thought I could hide. I could be free. I could be myself, but I’m not who I want to be, and every day I’m getting uglier. I’m rotting inside because of this held-in ugliness. I feel like Dorian Gray. I try to play beautiful and happy on the outside, but I’m afraid it’s showing through. I’m becoming a worse person the longer I try to stay normal.

I try to be a good girl. Take care of myself. Get good grades. Be looked at as a role model. Be kind. But all I can do now is try not to fall all the way into the pit I’m looking down into. I want to lose myself in sex, in drugs, in booze, in a life of careless, disastrous behavior. But I stay in the middle, never satisfied with either side. I find myself drawn to extremes, all or nothing, good or bad. I want to be perfect or a complete disaster. I’ll find myself on one side but always longing for the other. But I know that I have to stay in the middle, stay steady. Because if I don’t, I know something terrible will happen. I have to keep my head on straight because these days every breath I take feels strained.

I need someone to talk to. I don’t want to talk about it. I need a friend, I need someone who knows me, but all of my Seattle friends are too busy being college freshmen to care. My mom makes me want to throw my phone at the window. My counselor makes me want to puke. I am in a constant state of tension like I’m holding my breath for hours on end. My jaw is so tense it pops about four times when I open it. My body is so tense I feel like I can’t even move. I can’t sleep or else I sleep too much. I hate this.


Linea came home to visit for Easter. I found her a cheap ticket and brought her home as a surprise for the family. No one else knew she was coming. I really did it because I wanted to see her, know that she was okay. We hardly saw her as she caught up with her friends, seeing as many of them as she could in the few short days she was home. She was home again, sleeping in her bedroom, driving her car, and living under our roof for a few days, but she was no longer a high school student. She had one foot into adulthood. It is a tricky business when a child/adult returns during the first year of living away from home. I remember well the discussions with Jordan. "When will you be home?" "I don’t know. Nobody asks me that at school!" Typically, "You have a terrible cold and you are exhausted. Don’t you think that bed before two A.M. would be a good thing?" I didn’t see Linea nearly as much as I wanted to in those three days, and I didn’t get the answer to my question, "Are you really okay?" Independence, adulthood, pulling away—all good things and exactly what I wanted for her. But what if I was missing something?

Linea returned to Chicago for the last two months of her first year in college. We were in the home stretch. I thought we had made it through the worst and that sophomore year would be better and easier for her. Everyone seems to have a difficult first year away at college. I did not expect her to carry a 4.0 or be the top student in her class, but she actually was very close. I wanted her to make decisions on her own, both good and maybe not always so good. I wanted her to become more independent and confident in herself. Even with the sadness and anxiety that had hit in February, she had traveled to Europe, returned to school, and was success- fully auditioning and performing, continuing to develop the musical skills with which she wanted eventually to make a living. I was often a complicated combination of optimism and worry. In most ways I thought her first year in college was successful, yet I was very anxious for her to come home for the summer. I wanted her close for a while. I wanted assurance that she was steady, strong, and intact. It had become very clear to me how many miles were between Chicago and Seattle, and I wanted her home.


As I approach the Harold Washington Library, I hope for warmth. It is raining and cloudy and cold. As usual, several homeless men are standing against the wall to keep out of the rain. I realize there are several "normal" people standing there as well: Housewives, college students, and businessmen all gather against the wall. As I wait, more and more people join the crowd. We all face the door and wait for the clock to hit one. The rain gets harder and the wind blows, but everyone waits to enter the warm, bright, clean, and silent library.

The man with the red stocking cap and missing front teeth is here for the warmth. He wants to retreat to a comfy chair on the third floor and rest his troubles. The man in the beat-up tennis shoes is here for the warmth too, but he is also here to retreat into books. He is looking for a possibility of escape from the sad, harsh world. The woman beside me clutching her umbrella a little too tightly is here to get a break from the kids and possibly pick up a treat for bedtime. The young man by the garbage can, neatly dressed with a backpack, is here to find resources on de-forestation in the South American rain forests.

I need a book, but why am I waiting in the rain with such anticipation, so eager to go in? I love the bright lights that force me to focus. The clean and yet musty smell. I love the endless aisles of books, endless knowledge, and endless ways to get into the heads of any kind of person. I love the rows filled purely with music. Notes on every page. And the rows filled with art, colors, and pictures.

I am here to escape from my current restless state of mind. I come here hoping to quiet my thoughts and release my clenched fists. I am the man looking for knowledge of the rain forests. I am the mom trying to get away from the kids. I am the man looking for warmth from the cold rain, and the man looking for warmth from the world. I am here for the same reasons as every- one. And I suddenly realize we are all just people. No matter how large our needs are or how complicated our problems are, we are all really the same. We all have bodies. We all have some sort of soul. And with these bodies and souls, we live our lives. People are all just people. As I awake from my thoughts, I realize there are now at least a hundred people waiting to enter the three doors in front of me.


Linea returned to Seattle the summer after her freshman year. I was so happy to have her home. The end of the semester had been hard on all of us, and we spent many hours on the phone. I would listen carefully to try to gauge how she was doing. Sometimes she was angry and irritable, other times she was flat, and then she would say, "I’m sorry, Mom. I am kind of stressed, I guess." Just when I thought that she was really falling apart, she would pull it together and tell me, "Don’t worry, Mom. I’m okay. I’m feeling better. I love you!"

I was anxious before, during, and often after each call. I knew something wasn’t right, but I wasn’t sure if it was wrong enough for me to do anything except be on my guard. I realized that something was different with her from the way it had been with Jordan as she moved into adulthood. But I attributed it to Linea’s personality and temperament, so different from Jordan’s. Both are sensitive, artistic, very intelligent, and emotional, but Jordan could let things go more easily than Linea. She was way more dramatic during these years, but whatever was wrong quickly faded away. Linea seemed to be holding on to churning darkness somewhere deep inside of her, but I didn’t know what it was.

There were many layers in my relationship with her during the first years of her illness that I am only now beginning to understand. The first was love, that all-encompassing love for a child that will not let go and will not give up. Holding my firstborn and then my second daughter, I knew without a doubt that I wouldn’t hesitate to do anything necessary to keep them safe. They were tiny and vulnerable, and my feelings of love were overwhelming. Although that fierce protective love settles down as children get older, it doesn’t go away and is always at the ready if needed. The next layer was the clinical professional layer, always trying to analyze and figure out what the hell was going on, because if I could figure it out then I would have a chance to do it. After love and clinical/ professional there was the paranoid alert layer, always questioning whether I was overreacting or being too protective, worrying that I was filtering everything through my own past. And finally there was terrifying fear. It was always there, lurking down deep, panicked that I could lose a child. I didn’t allow myself to acknowledge or examine this in any meaningful way. I pushed it down.

But now she was back and home, and oh, I was so happy to finally have her close! I believed that with my care, love, and support she would be all right. I would somehow be able to do it—whatever "it" was. I would figure out what was going on with her that caused her to fall backward into sadness and tie her up in anxiety. I would teach her how to slay the dragons, and if she couldn’t do it on her own, I would do it for her. She was home. We had time to make it better for her.

Linea had a job that summer with the Seattle Center Foundation. She was working in the building next to the Space Needle with amazing and brilliant young women, women who could be mentors for her and who thought she was equally brilliant and amazing. In addition to her work at the center, she had surgery on her sinuses, tonsils, adenoids, and nose. The pain was brutal, and we were amazed by her strength and stamina during the difficult recovery. The four-hour surgery was complicated enough that I almost convinced myself that any depression she had battled was connected to a low-grade sinus and tonsil infection that was finally, after many years, treated. Her recovery was not easy and involved a couple quick trips to the emergency room, after-hour phone calls to the surgeon, and lots of ice, rest, movies, and frozen yogurt.

By the end of the summer, she was in good shape, happy, healthy, and excited to return to Chicago. She seemed confident about the job she did at the Center and had caught up with her friends from high school. Once again I believed that the worst was over. Linea was healthy and happy. I so much wanted this to be a better year than last year for her!


I’m home for the summer and I have landed a great internship. I work for the Seattle Center Foundation and help the people in charge of the arts and cultural events at the center. Though living at home is often frustrating, I love coming into Seattle every day for work. Working allows me to be free and independent for those eight hours.

I love being with my parents, but they always seem to watch me; whether they are just happy to see me or still worried, I’m not sure. I try to stay out with friends as much as possible, but I miss the vastness and anonymity of a large city. I miss being able to go to parties without fear of my parents worrying about me. Plus, I have to drive everywhere, so I hardly drink.

Aside from the paranoia of my parents watching me and the longing for my life in Chicago, my depression has been a lot bet- ter. I had a major surgery on my sinuses, tonsils, adenoids, and nose, so hopefully I won’t be sick anymore. Part of me thought that some of my sadness in high school was the fact that I was constantly sick with a sinus infection. We will see if this clears anything up.

Only two more weeks to go and I’m back to freedom and my own life! At least in Chicago I can lie to my parents if I’m not feeling well. Here they can always tell.

Copyright © 2012 by Linea Johnson and Cinda Johnson

Meet the Author

LINEA JOHNSON works with the mental health awareness organization BringChange2Mind and is the primary creator/writer for the organization’s blog. She travels the country presenting her story at national and international mental health, educational and disability conferences. CINDA JOHNSON, Ed. D. is a professor and director of the special education graduate program at Seattle University. She presents at many prominent conferences nationally and internationally every year, both in her professional field, and in the field of mental health.

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Perfect Chaos: A Daughter's Journey to Survive Bipolar, a Mother's Struggle to Save Her 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Jill-Elizabeth_com More than 1 year ago
The title really does say it all. The chaos at hand is the madness (quite literally) of bipolar disorder. I have read more than my fair share of memoirs about mental illness and/or mental health. I find people’s struggles with their own brains/heads to be fascinating reading. Not in a voyeuristic, Schadenfreude-filled way (I don’t think), but from a place of deepest empathy – because I can’t imagine anything scarier in this world than getting lost inside your own mind. I’ve been pretty lucky in my life – I’m the first person to admit that. Even with that luck, I have had one full-blown and one partial (for me) panic attack in my day – and they freaked the ever-loving life out of me. The walls shrank, I couldn’t breathe, everything got over-bright and too loud and too much. They were short episodes and for the first, more severe, one, I had one of my two best friends there to quite literally hold my hand and tell me I was alright and that things would be okay. She also paid the check – we were out to dinner at the time that it hit – and walked me through the streets of Chicago in the dark until I could breathe regularly and stand the thought of being indoors again. Thank you again Lynna!! The other, partial freak-out occurred when I was by myself in my apartment; fortunately I was able to maintain just enough presence of mind to identify what was happening and talk myself down from the proverbial ledge. These events look so simple and small written down; I assure you they felt huge and overwhelming and defeating when they happened. But I know that they were not even a mote in the eye of a giant compared to the feelings of stress, anxiety, panic, fear, depression, mania and wrong-ness that people who suffer from mental illness have to deal with on a regular basis. I don’t know if I read survivor stories to educate myself enough so that if, god forbid, The Panic strikes again I can somehow deal with it until it subsides or if I read them to remind myself that I am lucky. Either way, the stories are unfailingly moving – and the strength of the survivors and their loved ones are unflinchingly impressive. perfect chaos is told in two voices. Linea has bipolar; Cinda is her mother. Reading about Linea’s battles with unidentifiable and inexplicable bouts of depression and feelings of pointlessness, about her struggle for diagnosis and treatment is heart-wrenching. Reading about Cinda watching Linea spiral out of control and then picking her up and carrying her (metaphorically and physically) when she literally couldn’t find the strength or the will to live is almost more so. The story is presented chronologically, detailing the slide Linea’s health takes as she transitions from childhood to adolescence and then early adulthood, when the most severe symptoms presented themselves. Eventually, she devolves from a bright, talented young woman with the world at her feet into a puddle of a girl who cannot bring herself to care if she lives or dies, a girl who tries to find meaning in lines of coke, beer, and razor blades. At that point, her parents literally step in and save her life. After an in-patient stint in a psychiatric facility that includes electroshock therapy, Linea’s tries to regain control as her physicians and her family try to figure out a plan for treatment and “recovery” – not only from the drugs and drinking and self-mutilation, but from the disease that has laid waste to her plans for her own life. The disease is always there and always a threat; she has to manage it as best she can with therapeutic treatments, but remain ever-vigilant for the signs of an oncoming episode and make herself ask for help when she needs it. It’s a difficult road for a young woman of twenty to put herself on, but Linea tries her best – and Cinda is always there, right beside her, no matter how rough the relapses get, no matter how scared her daughter’s mania and depression make her. Mother and daughter have very different voices, but their stories are presented in equally clear, concise, and incredibly open language that conveys the manic (no pun intended) cycles of episodes and treatment that comprise Linea’s life. The book required a lot of energy to read; bipolar is emotional and infuriating and dramatic and perplexing and draining – and that’s just when you read about it. I can’t imagine the strength of character it takes to talk so openly and honestly about the most difficult times in one’s life. Or to be the friend or family member confronted with the onslaught of an episode – or its aftermath. Kudos to both women for their unflinching look at bipolar and its treatments, and for doing what they can to raise awareness and understanding.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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BipolarMomLife More than 1 year ago
This book is an amazing recollection of the trauma and stress a family goes through when their daughter is suffering from and is ultimately diagnosed with a mental illness. It takes you day by day through their raw emotions and fragile feelings, so much so, that you feel as though you are right there with them, fighting as hard as they were to keep Linea alive and stable. Their story hits home hard for me, as it is strikingly similar to my own. Reading Cinda's words was difficult for me, as I couldn't help but think that those were the same emotions and fears that my own parents experienced when I was first hospitalized. I related so strongly to Linea's descriptions of what her mind was thinking during her darkest times. I would recommend this book to anyone, not just a family dealing with a family member who has a mental illness. It provides an insightful education to a normal person on what someone who lives with a mental illness goes through and how support from friends and family can mean the difference between life and death.
kaseysmom1 More than 1 year ago
This book outlines the real struggles that both Linea & Cinda go through. It helps both victims and their parents realize they are not alone. What Linea goes through just to be "normal" is so scary and enlightening. It is an excellent read for parents that have a child diagnosed with some type of mental disorder. It proves that mental disorders are for real and not just a slang terminology. It opened my eyes greatly to some of the struggles my own child is going through right now. Highly recommend this read to anyone experiencing a disorder. Contact the authors by messaging them on facebook. They will respond to you. A+ in my opinion.
LindadeSosa More than 1 year ago
These dual journals, if you will, let you see into the decent into mental illness and you realize it could happen to anyone. Hopefully you would cope with the help of a loving family.
JordanJane More than 1 year ago
I have just finished reading this wonderful book. I loved the way it was written and how you feel like you are experiencing this journey with them. It is emotional and even funny at times, in a weird way...but it's really refreshing to read the honesty written on the pages of this book. I think this is a great read for anyone and I think that anyone, young or old, with mild or severe depression or mental illness would find a lot of comfort in this true story.