Randi Silverman’s new film No Letting Go reflects the real-life struggles of her family after her middle son began to manifest early symptoms of bipolar disorder.
The bewildering effort to figure out what was wrong and how to make it better fired Randi’s passion to help other parents. She co-founded a support group, dove into advocacy, and wrote the script that became No Letting Go.
How closely does the movie mirror your own family’s experiences?
My son was actually diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 9 years old and seriously ill by age 10. In the movie, we made “Tim” a teenager because onset of mental illness during adolescence is more typical. 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.
Why expose your family’s raw pain on screen?
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. But I would never have put our story out there for the world to see if my family wasn’t 100 percent supportive.
Your son got the help he needed to recover. What’s he up to now?
He’s 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. Like other 20-year-olds, he is trying to figure out how to be an independent grown-up. His goal is to make a living as a photographer.
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. But a lot of the time I was barely holding on. I cried, screamed, and felt isolated. I became so depressed and irritable at one point that I decided that it was time for me to go on medication myself. Medication helped me feel normal for the first time in years.
What helped your family heal from all the anger and blame?
Therapy, individual and as a family, and psycho-education. Ultimately, learning that my son’s behaviors were actually manifestations of anxiety, depression and bipolar helped us work through a great deal.
How about you personally?
Peer support—being with other parents who had gone through similar experiences, who “get it”—was life-saving.
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.
What should other parents know?
It was eye-opening to discover my son qualified as a student with a disability, which meant the school district was legally required to provide accommodations for him. I never knew to ask. There are great books and online resources out there now about special education law, and agencies that will help parents advocate for their children.
Do you think anything has changed for the better in the decade since your son was diagnosed?
There are more conversations about mental health and mental illness in adults. Sadly, I don’t think there has been as much movement regarding children and adolescents. Given that 50 percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness emerge before the age of 14 and 75 percent before the age of 24, we need to break the cycle of stigma and normalize mental illness so that it can be treated with the same respect and compassion as physical illness.
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