The Johnsons were a close and loving family living in the Seattle area - two parents, two incomes, two bright and accomplished daughters. They led busy lives filled with music lessons, college preparation, career demands, and laughter around the dinner table. 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 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 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.
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About the Author
Linea Johnson is a recent graduate from Seattle University, with a major in English and Creative Writing. Prior to transferring to SU, she completed three years at Columbia University, Chicago, in a musical performance program. Linea recently worked as an intern at the World Health Organization in the Mental Health department. She is a national speaker and writer, advocating for understanding and support for people with mental illness and the elimination of stigma.
Cinda Johnson, Ed.D., is a professor and director of the special education graduate program at Seattle University. She is also the principal investigator and director of the Center for Change in Transition Services (www.seattleu.edu/ccts). She is a national leader in the area of transition from high school to post-high school settings for young people with disabilities. She has written articles and book chapters in the area of secondary special education and transition services including youth with emotional and behavioral disorders and mental illnesses.
Linea Johnson is a recent graduate from Seattle University, with a major in English and Creative Writing. She is the author of Perfect Chaos. Prior to transferring to SU, she completed three years at Columbia University, Chicago, in a musical performance program. Linea recently worked as an intern at the World Health Organization in the Mental Health department. She is a national speaker and writer, advocating for understanding and support for people with mental illness and the elimination of stigma.
Cinda Johnson, Ed.D., is a professor and director of the special education graduate program at Seattle University. She is a national leader in the area of transition from high school to post-high school settings for young people with disabilities. She is the author of Perfect Chaos. She has written articles and book chapters in the area of secondary special education and transition services, including youth with emotional and behavioral disorders and mental illnesses.
Read an Excerpt
A Daughter's Journey to Survive Bipolar, a Mother's
By Linea Johnson, Cinda Johnson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2012 Linea Johnson and Cinda Johnson
All rights reserved.
cinda I am one of those moms who worry. My job from the moment I held each of my two precious baby girls in my arms was to keep them safe. Whether from my own sense of fragility in the world or some constant premonition of danger, keeping my children safe is a guiding light of my parenting. From my earliest years I was a caretaker. My mother was often ill while I was growing up and, as the oldest child, I became watchful and learned that a girl needs to be on her toes to assure safety. My skills as a caretaker and worrier continued when I had my own two daughters. I now had two lives to protect, and I took to it with enthusiasm, often to the annoyance of my girls. Although worrying about their safety has given me many sleepless nights, it may have also given me the strength and the stamina to face the most challenging days of parenting. Worry and my basic urge to protect kept me moving forward when I wanted to quit.
I would guess that to the outside world looking in, my family seems fairly typical. We are a family of four plus one more. Curt and I have two daughters, Jordan and Linea. Cliff became our son when he and Jordan were married. We live in and around Seattle, where it doesn't rain nearly as often as most people think. We are educated but not particularly wealthy when compared to our tiny corner of the world in which we live, but vastly wealthy compared to the world as a whole. Both my husband and I chose fields of study and professions where the dollars aren't large but the work is rewarding. We are in "caring professions" — I am a professor in the field of special education and Curt is a vocational rehabilitation counselor working primarily with patients with spinal cord injuries. He works at the University of Washington Medical Center, providing support to some of the most severely injured people from all over Washington, the Northwest, the nation and, often, the world.
Sometimes I think I chose my profession to secure skills and training that would further protect my family from whatever dangers might be out there. (I do know that the experiences in the forthcoming pages solidified my commitment to my work.) I am a professor at Seattle University, six miles across the city from Curt's office. We both work in the area of disability, disease, pain, and heartache; him on a daily basis, me with a slim buffer of graduate students and professionals between my office and the field. His office is on the same floor as patients who are new to catastrophic injuries and illness or are fighting the long haul of chronic disability.
I teach graduate students in special education, school psychology, and counseling, and conduct research in the field of disability. In addition to my work with students and schools, I often work directly with families and individuals with barriers and challenges in their lives. I get phone calls, emails, and visits from students and parents lost in the maze of disability, trying to find their way out, in search of any help they can find. I was really good at providing advice. I was "professional." I knew the resources, the connections, and the steps to take. I offered information, suggestions, and sympathy. Looking back, I realize how little I knew from a personal perspective and how different it is to be lost in the maze of finding help for my own child while overwhelmed with an intense fear that I could lose her. I didn't know nearly as much as I thought I did.
As with most couples who have been together for many years, the traits that first attract you to your mate are often the very same characteristics that irritate you after a few years of marriage and then eventually come front and center again as a focus of love and appreciation. I was attracted to Curt's great strength, loyalty, and commitment. These qualities can also present as stubbornness and tenacity, which have made the females in our household angry with him at one time or another. Yet his steadfastness is one of the reasons we all love him: He is there for us, we can count on him. And while he often tells me how strong I am, he is the strength in our family. We couldn't have made it through those difficult years without him. His stubbornness and tenacity are what held us all together.
Jordan Suzanne is our older daughter. She is seven and a half years older than Linea, and so growing up, Linea often had one and a half mothers. Jordan has always been intensely protective of her little sister. Jordan was a fierce girl and grew into a fierce woman whose beauty is a cover for her strength. She might look fragile, but she is not. She buries her fears deeply. She uses her superpowers when necessary and her wits and guile the rest of the time.
Jordan does not particularly like the display of strong emotions, particularly if tears are involved (even though she spent the two hours before and during her wedding crying from happiness). Jordan holds her feelings inside while she projects her very competent self to the world. She is strongly caring, loving, and kind, though she'd prefer that you didn't know it. But she has never been able to fool me or anyone else who knows her.
Art and music have always been part of our lives together. Jordan earned a degree in fine arts and has her own business. A gifted artist with creativity that springs from a vivid imagination, she paints, creates murals, and teaches art.
My daughters have always been close as sisters, sharing a wild sense of humor, passion for the arts, and deep love and adoration for each other. It is my greatest joy to be part of the girl trio of Jordan, Linea, and myself. We have spent hours dancing, singing, playing, and laughing. We are very entertaining, at least to ourselves.
Jordan married a man I would have chosen as my own son if I had been given the opportunity. Cliff is confident, kind, loyal, funny, smart, and handsome. He has a wicked sense of humor that he wields deftly. He fits comfortably into our family and provides Curt the space and male camaraderie in a house of women.
Linea is a musician. She plays any instrument she can get her hands on and showed a special attraction to the piano as soon as she was tall enough to reach the keyboard. I taught her to play a few songs before she started school, and from there she moved quickly to formal piano lessons. She practiced and practiced ... and practiced some more. We never had to bribe, threaten, or even ask her. From an early age, she learned to play the viola, the guitar, and any other instruments with strings. She began music lessons in grade school, played in orchestras in middle and high school, and attended orchestra camps during the summer, where she experimented with more instruments. Music is a passion and sheer joy for her.
Linea also has the voice of an angel. In grade school she was known for her singing; she forced her friends into productions of Phantom of the Opera,Cats,The Wizard of Oz, and any other musical that caught her ear. She carried around a shoe box containing recordings and programs of the selected musical-of-the-month, which she produced on the playground during recess.
When Linea was ten years old and still going by her nickname of "Mia," we moved from a school district with only four hundred students total in kindergarten through twelfth grade to Western Washington. Her new middle school had more than six hundred students in the sixth to eighth grades, but the move didn't slow Linea down at all. In the first year of middle school, Linea walked onto the stage and introduced herself to an audience larger than her entire previous grade school. Holding a cordless mike, she said, "Hi, I'm Linea," and sang a hauntingly beautiful solo. Sitting in the audience, my hands were sweating with anxiety. I would never have had the nerve to do that!
Afterward, Linea said to me, "I told you I wanted to be a singer. Now can I take voice lessons?" Soon she added voice, viola, and guitar lessons to the piano lessons she began in elementary school. As she got older, she concentrated more and more on piano and voice.
In addition to her music, Linea played softball and basketball from an early age and continued into high school. She was headstrong, persistent, and competitive in music, sports, and school. But she was kind and very sensitive to her friends and their needs. Her sensitivity was acute and she was easily hurt by injustice, both real and perceived, to her friends and even strangers.
My description of young Linea may sound completely unrealistic, too good to be true, and you might be asking if as her mother I am exaggerating. But my description is accurate — Linea was preternaturally talented and hardworking; she was kind, loving, and a joy to be around. Later I wondered if her tenacity and ambition in music and sports may have been a detriment, as she pushed herself to extremes so as to do everything the best. I also wondered if her unwillingness to give up may have saved her as she later fought to live. In a million years we could not have guessed what was in store for her.
Things were more difficult when Linea started high school. Competition was fierce, as in all large high schools. There were competitive spots for sports and for music, and tryouts for both were nerve-racking. Everyone was working on applications for college and counting the number of star positions they held. Even the hours of community service were competitive and seemed to be more for résumé padding than for actual service. Her freshman year was successful and she appeared able to do it all. She was consistently on the honor roll with her grades, and she sang in honor choirs and ensembles, performed in shows and musicals, and played softball.
As a sophomore, she hit a wall — it became impossible for her to continue with all of her activities. She was pitching for the varsity fast-pitch softball team and simultaneously adding more commitments in musical performances, ensembles, and music lessons. There were simply not enough hours in the day to participate in both sports and music to the degree to which she wanted. The stress was taking its toll. She wasn't sleeping well, and she had times when she couldn't stop crying. I now know these were anxiety attacks, but at the time, I was amazed at how well she managed everything most of the time.
We spent hours talking about how to simplify her life, and I offered her all the help that I could. I wanted her to be kinder to herself. I encouraged her to let some things go and wanted her to know that all she had to do was just "be." I wanted her to know that she didn't need to have an exact goal for her future, and that her activities could be just for fun and not to assure a scholarship to a prestigious music program. I compared her anxieties to those of Jordan's at the same age and wondered and worried if I should do more ... but more what? I questioned whether we had pushed her into overexcelling with our pride in her successes. As parents we think we are supposed to give praise for things well done. Had we given her the message that she had to achieve all of this for us to be proud of her? Did I somehow help her define "perfect"? I worried and tried to reassure myself that this was a normal progression through adolescence. My worries would escalate and then suddenly she would feel better for a while — or at least I thought she did.
I knew she was struggling with too many commitments and too much pressure. It was difficult for her to decide what activities to leave behind. The professionals in her life didn't make it any easier. When she decided to quit sports, her coach pulled her aside and tried to talk Linea into continuing. The same pressure came from her music teachers, who pushed her to hang on to everything she was doing. She had the talent to excel in many areas but simply not enough time. When Linea finally made the hard decision to let sports go, she quickly filled every hour with music. She seemed unable to leave any empty space in her schedule.
While she was trying to figure out what to do with her own young life, her friends were also struggling. Her sleepless nights were often full of worry for her them and the things they had confided in her and she had sworn to secrecy. She tried desperately to fix their problems, problems of which parents were not likely aware. One of her biggest fears was about her best friend, Chrisy.
linea Sophomore year — I am lying on the grass in the backyard, on an old cotton blanket big enough to hold me, ten books, two journals, two pillows, sunscreen, and some homework. I'm in my swimsuit even though I know that sunbathing doesn't always do well with my fair skin. I need this lake of soft green grass. This big blue sky. This cocoon of evergreens. I need them because I feel happier this way. At least a tiny bit.
Two days ago, I told my favorite schoolteacher about Chrisy's problem. I told her because I thought she would understand, because I was sure she would never jeopardize my relationship with my best friend by letting her know I was the one who told. But somehow I was the one waiting in the office when Chrisy was pulled from class in the middle of the day. I was the one blamed for the humiliation she felt when she was forced to expose the obvious scars on her arms, for having to leave the school counseling office crying in front of our classmates, when I was forced to take her to her car to get her Swiss Army knife, when I was told to take her, crying, into her classroom to gather her things. It was my fault that everyone knew. It was my fault that the unprofessional high school counselor called Chrisy's mother at work and told her that her daughter had been cutting. And it was my fault that Chrisy was never going to talk to me again.
I had to tell. I had watched through the weeks as the scars crawled farther down her arm and deeper into her wrist. I watched as she shut the door to the bathroom in front of me and told me to walk away. She told me not to worry about it. She told me it was only a phase. I watched when she told me she wasn't going to commit suicide because, well, you had to cut this way and not that way. (That will never leave my mind. I will forever know how to slit my wrists.) I had to tell.
So I sit here in my backyard, bobbing my feet to some stupid radio hit. My hair in a high tight ponytail, my red polka-dot bikini barely hanging on. I sit here and wonder. What is happening to Chrisy at this exact moment? What did her parents say? What does she do behind shut doors? Who does she talk to for support now that I no longer exist in her life?
Then the thoughts change. Could I cut myself? Where would I cut myself? I can't do it on my arm. That would be way too obvious. I can't do it anywhere people could find out because then I would be such a hypocrite and everyone already knows I was the one who told about Chrisy. But I had to. I had to because I love her. I had to because I would never forgive myself if something happened to her.
But where would I do it? On the bottom of my feet? No one would find it there. But that would hurt to walk. Under my arms? No, they would see when I play basketball. I know. Between my toes.
The sun is shining down on me as I sit in a daze. I am utterly blank, yet my mind is racing a hundred miles a minute. I don't know what I think, or what I feel, but I have this feeling of extreme anxiety and extreme emotion. I don't know what I'm emotional about, but it is digging deeper into the depths of myself. It hurts as it overtakes me.
cinda The door to Linea's depression opened when she discovered that her best friend was cutting herself. Linea was caught in a friendship in which she had promised her allegiance and confidentiality but knew that Chrisy needed adult help and support. She shared her fears with me. She was terrified of not keeping the vow she had made to her friend not to tell and yet she knew that her friend needed help. We talked about cutting and we talked about confidences and when it is necessary to help a friend who may not want it. We discussed me calling her mom or Linea and me together calling her mom with or without Chrisy involved and, finally, Linea talking to someone at school. After much discussion, Linea decided to trust a school counselor. It was not the right choice. The counselor broke Linea's trust and Chrisy's as well. She called Chrisy's mom at work and told her over the phone that her daughter was cutting her arms with a knife. Linea called me, sobbing. She never wanted to go school again.
When I teach a class of future school counselors and school psychologists, I still use this story as an example of what not to do. I was furious. I was also deeply sad for Chrisy and her family, and I was frightened at the depth of anxiety and depression I was seeing in my daughter.
Linea was a mess. She couldn't stop crying and she couldn't stop thinking about what had happened. She was terrified that Chrisy would continue to hurt herself, and she was humiliated by the scene in the counseling office. The situation had a huge and negative effect on Linea's mood, and her overwhelming schedule didn't help. Linea continued to be anxious and so very sad. We talked for hours about everything that had happened and how she was feeling, but I know now that she didn't — and couldn't — tell me everything that was going on. I did know enough to worry about her mental health, and I asked her to see a psychologist or counselor, who could assure us (I hoped) that we were doing everything we could for her and to help her build skills to deal with stress that it seemed would continue to be a part of her life as an overachiever.
Excerpted from Perfect Chaos by Linea Johnson, Cinda Johnson. Copyright © 2012 Linea Johnson and Cinda Johnson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.