Advocate and filmmaker Randi Silverman opens up about trusting her instincts and staying strong while seeking guidance to help her child’s struggle with bipolar disorder.
The film No Letting Go reflects the real-life struggles of Randi Silverman’s family after her middle son began to manifest early symptoms of bipolar disorder. The movie’s goal is to inspire community dialogue and broaden awareness about child and adolescent mental health
Q. The movie is a drama inspired by your own family’s story rather than a true “bio-pic.” Where does fiction part from reality?
My original intention was to write a screenplay that would honestly convey the story millions of families share about the challenges families face when they begin to discover that their child suffers from mental illness. As I wrote, I pulled directly from scenes in my own life to make specific points about issues that I felt were important. It wasn’t until I was about half way through the screenplay that I realized I had been writing my own story. Of course, compressing over 10 years into 1 hour and 40 minutes takes quite a bit of maneuvering. The original script would have created a 5-hour movie, and still wouldn’t have covered everything.
As for factual differences, my son was actually much younger when his illness was acute. In reality he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 9 years old and was seriously ill by 10. Also, my son was treated voluntarily, but we wanted to acknowledge that it is often very difficult and painful to get teens to comply with treatment. Otherwise, every scene in the movie, every conversation, actually happened in real life in some way or another.
Some people may find this hard to believe, but I think the film makes our struggles seem easier than they actually were. It was difficult to illustrate the intensity and magnitude of my son’s suffering, and the fact that it went on day after day for years and years, without either boring, frightening or exhausting the audience.
My son was put on more medications than I can count. Between 10 and 18 years old, he saw dozens of doctors, spent time at a psychiatric hospital and went to 10 different schools, when he would actually go to school. And his rages were so intense that they would last for 3 to 5 hours. While he never hurt anyone, we had a lot of broken furniture and damaged walls.
That wasn’t something we could show in the film because the house we filmed in was generously donated and magnificent, so we were very concerned about causing any damage.
Q. Wasn’t it difficult to expose your family’s raw pain on screen?
Yes and no. I have been very open and vocal about my son’s struggles for many years. I want my children to live in a world where they are not ashamed or embarrassed and where mental health disorders are treated with the same respect and understanding as any other medical illness.
It’s not my son’s fault that his brain works the way it does any more than it is another child’s fault for having asthma or diabetes. I decided that if I didn’t talk about it honestly and without shame, then I couldn’t expect the conversation about mental health disorders to change.
As for my family’s privacy, I would never have put our story out for the world to see if my family wasn’t 100 percent supportive. My children were all on board and actually gave me very valuable input on the screenplay from the very beginning. It was difficult watching the scenes play out on set with the actors. I had to leave the set quite a few times to regain my composure. At the same time, it was all very cathartic for all of us and brought us closer together.
Q. What kept you going during the long years of not knowing how to help?
My children needed me. It was my job to take care of them and keep them safe. What wouldn’t a mother do for her children? But a lot of the time I was barely holding on and didn’t always handle things well. I cried, screamed, and felt isolated. I became so depressed and irritable at one point that, after yelling at my other kids over nothing, I decided that it was time for me to go on medication myself. I couldn’t be the best mother I could be feeling the way I was feeling and medication helped me feel normal for the first time in years.
Q. Your family had it rough for a long time, with lots of anger and blame to go around. What helped your family heal?
Without a doubt, therapy and psycho-education was essential to our recovery as a family. We worked with private therapists, individually and as a family, and also with my son’s treatment teams.
Ultimately, learning that my son’s behaviors were actually manifestations of symptoms of anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder helped us work through a great deal. We came to realize that his recovery was a family effort; we all needed to accept my son’s condition, while at the same time learn to not allow it to rule or destroy our lives.
I used to get angry at the suggestion that I needed to change how I parented, because I took that to mean that I was being blamed, but the truth is that we needed to learn new parenting skills that would be better for him.
Children with mental health disorders simply do not respond to traditional parenting techniques and it’s very difficult to remain patient, calm and consistent when your son is throwing furniture across the room. But there are skills that can and should be learned that can make all of the difference.
Q. How about you personally?
Peer support—being with other parents who had gone through similar experiences, who “get it”—was life-saving.
Q. Do you think your training as a lawyer made a difference in helping you advocate for your son?
Being a lawyer didn’t help me for a very long time. In fact, I was angry that, even with all of my education, I had no idea that children could suffer from mental illness for no apparent reason. I thought, if I was so smart, educated and had resources, why didn’t I know that?
And when my son starting showing early warning signs and symptoms, no one else around me seemed to know either. When the severity of my son’s illness became unmistakable and he received a proper diagnosis, my lawyer training kicked in and I researched and read everything I could to understand what was going on. I was astonished to learn that 1 in 5 children suffer from mental illness and that it doesn’t discriminate. Mental illness doesn’t care about your socioeconomic status or education.
Another eye-opening discovery for me was that my son qualified under the law as a student with a disability, which meant that the school district was legally required to make sure that he received the accommodations he needed to access a free and appropriate education.
Being a lawyer made it easier to educate myself about special education law, which was very helpful when we were searching for ways to make sure that my son actually received an education. Sadly, he should have been receiving services when he was very young, but I never knew to ask and the fact that he was “fine” at school made it seem like a private family matter. But you don’t need to be a lawyer or expert in special education to learn about special education law. There are great resources out there now, including books and online resources, and there are agencies that will help parents advocate for their children.
I don’t blame the school district, but I do blame the stigma that surrounds mental illness. The teachers didn’t know any more than I did; they simply are not given the training they need to recognize possible symptoms of mental illness. The hope is that as we change the conversation about mental illness in this country, schools will realize the importance of providing training for teachers and mental health literacy programs for children. As with any other illness, early intervention can make a huge difference and change the course of an illness… but as long as people remain in the dark about the mental illness in children, how can things possibly improve? We need to break the cycle of ignorance by eliminating stigma and promoting education and awareness. It is my hope that the film will become a catalyst for important conversations about what we can do in each community to help families and children understand and cope with mental health challenges.
I felt in my gut that something was not right, but I listened to everyone around me and blamed myself. But the truth is that you can’t solve a problem if you aren’t even aware that the problem can exist.
Q. Knowing what you know now, what do you wish you’d done differently?
I wish I had trusted myself more. Pediatricians, teachers, even school psychologists, told me it was “just a stage” or that my son’s behavior was the direct result of my parenting or my personal “issues.” I felt in my gut that something was not right, but I listened to everyone around me and blamed myself. But the truth is that you can’t solve a problem if you aren’t even aware that the problem can exist.
Q. What should other parents know?
I would advise parents to seek out a group of other parents who “get it.” I actually started a parent-to-parent support group with a dear friend of mine about 5 years ago, because there wasn’t anything available in our area. I am happy to say that we have had over 800 families reach out to us for support. The need is huge. There are also great online parent forums now.
The second piece of advice I would give for a parent is to always trust his or her gut. We have powerful parental instincts, particularly mothers (sorry guys, that’s just how I see it,) but too often we doubt ourselves and listen to outside noise. No one knows your child better than you do, but it’s easy to feel like the “experts” must know better. Trust your instinct, and if something doesn’t feel right, continue to search for answers.
If a professional doesn’t seem to understand, don’t be afraid to move on. It’s important to get help and guidance from professionals, but never forget that you are the captain of your child’s team.
Q. Your own story has a happy ending: Your son got the help he needed to recover. What’s he up to now?
He is almost 20 years old and is doing very well. He actually graduated from high school “on time,” which was a huge accomplishment given how much school he missed during the years he was ill.
He is living with me and, like other 20-year-olds, he is trying to figure out how to be an independent grown-up. He is a gifted photographer and his goal is to make a living at it. In the meantime, he is working and mentoring children who have emotional or mental health difficulties.
Q. Do you think anything has changed for the better in the decade since your son was diagnosed?
I definitely think that there are more conversations about mental health and mental illness than there were 10 years ago, particularly regarding adults. Sadly, I don’t think there has been much movement regarding children and adolescents. As a society, we are still preoccupied with a belief that children’s behavior is a function of parenting and that mental illness in children is primarily an issue of trauma, neglect or poverty.
Mental illness is universal, does not discriminate and can happen in any family. Given that 50 percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin to emerge before the age of 14 and 75 percent before the age of 24, we need to engage communities in the conversation in a way that will break the cycle of stigma and normalize mental illness so that it can be treated with the same respect and compassion as physical illness. If parents, teachers, and pediatricians had even a basic understanding and awareness of early warning signs and symptoms, early intervention would become a real possibility. But we can’t bring about education and awareness until we break the stigma. I hope No Letting Go will be the catalyst to spark that conversation.
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