July 14, 2013
In 1999, when he was 20 years old and a junior in college, Max Maddox was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Maddox was in the frenzied throes of his first manic episode - tightrope walking the center line of a busy street in Iowa - when police collected him.
Thus began a blind tumble into the world of mental illness, one that would, nearly a decade later, lead Maddox and his mother, Kathy Brandt, to collaborate on a book that would let them untangle their own recollections and emotions, and provide a platform to share what they'd learned. That memoir, "Walks On The Margins: A Story of Bipolar Illness," published in April by Monkshood Press, tells Maddox's tale through alternating perspectives and voices. The book was a finalist for the 2012 Iowa Review Award in Nonfiction.
"There just aren't very many forums for the expression of these stories," said Maddox, now 34. "I think my story is not very unique at all, for the illness. I suspect there are people out there that went through much more traumatic things than I did."
Maddox grew up in a blended family in Colorado Springs with his sister, step-siblings, stepfather, Ron Capen, and his mom, a mystery writer who taught creative writing at the University of Colorado. He graduated from Palmer High School and then headed to Grinnell College in Iowa before attending the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia.
Before that first manic episode at Grinnell, Brandt had no idea her son - artist, creative, deep-thinker - was unwell.
"There was no clue that he had any problems at all," she said. "He just suddenly had a manic episode that turned to psychosis very quickly."
The onset of the illness, which frequently manifests in early adulthood, is often that sudden, said Brandt, who, as a result of her son's ordeal, became active in the Colorado Springs chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, serving on its board and then as president.
"People think it has to do with levels of stress at that time, when a lot of people are leaving home, going to college, getting out on their own," Brandt said. "Max, after that first episode, had a major episode every year, and his episodes always got really extreme, with him ending up in the hospital."
In the book, Brandt writes extensively about the confusing medical maze she and Maddox were forced to travel as they searched for illusive, effective treatments and therapy.
"I've been very angry and continue to be angry about the mental health system in our country," said Brandt, who lives in Woodland Park. "It's really hard to find good, consistent help. It was always hard to get Max into the hospital. It's just a broken system in every way."
The idea for a writing project - a narrative about bipolar, written by mother and son - came to Brandt in 2009. Before she and Maddox began working on the book, Brandt - the author of the "Underwater Investigation" series of mystery novels - didn't know how well her son could write.
"He was always very literary - he was a philosophy major - but his writing is just full of imagery. I was just floored when I started reading his stuff," Brandt said.
For Maddox, the questions and things left unsaid - about his illness and how it affected those around him - drove him forward and into the project. What did it say about modern society, he wondered, that an educated and articulate group of adults should have trouble discussing the nuances of a mental illness that so deeply affected them? The answer, in a word: sensitivity.
"It's just not a topic that goes very far at dinner. People have to find other ways of communicating their stories," said Maddox, who's living in Denver and teaching art classes. "There are a lot of circumstances where the topic should be broached, but there is a sense - even if it isn't a conscious tabooing - of my feelings or the feelings they suspect I have about it. They get embarrassed and they get embarrassed for you."
Maddox hopes his book will provide a narrative resource for others - one he wished he'd had in those early years.
"One of the prognoses for bipolar is it's supposed to get worse over time. Episodes get harder to control and more severe. I think that when I read that, being first diagnosed, it was very traumatic," said Maddox, who attributes the three years he's gone without a hospitalization to rigorous art therapy, effective medication and a therapist he trusts.
He hopes the book can provide answers to questions like: What does it mean for a manic episode to get worse? What does it look like? What about when someone who was manic then becomes psychotic?
"That's scary stuff when you're just getting a sense of what's wrong with you," Maddox said. "People who are first diagnosed, they need a story like this to read. I needed a story like this."
Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364