South Florida psychotherapist writes book about dealing with daughter’s bipolar disorder, suicide

Pamela Ann Glassman leapt to her death from her father's 15th-story window. She was 34, a psychotherapist, the eldest of five children — and a woman tormented by inner demons.

But 16 years later, her mother believes suicide was not the cause of death, as a coroner ruled in 1998.

“Her executioner was her illness and our substandard health system that failed her,” says Hallandale psychotherapist Joan E. Childs.

Childs, who has practiced in South Florida for nearly four decades, has written a book that explains how bipolar disorder is to blame for her daughter’s death. In Why Did She Jump?: My Daughter's Battle with Bipolar Disorder ($14.95, Health Communications) the grieving mother recounts the highs and lows of her daughter’s extreme mood swings, the frustrating and futile efforts to get her help, and how the family members who remained behind eventually learned to forgive themselves and move on.

Childs will speak about her book and her journey through grief at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Books & Books in Coral Gables.

“Two nights before she jumped I talked to her and she was completely lucid,” Childs recalls. “But I think there was this sudden surge of delusions in her system, these demons that just took over. She didn’t plan to do this. She felt forced to do it. There wasn’t even a note.”

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, affects about 5.7 million American adults, or about 2.6 percent of the U.S. population 18 and older, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. A brain disorder that often appears in the late teen or early adult years, the illness causes unusual shifts in mood, activity levels and the ability to lead a normal life. Though it can be treated, there is no cure and it lasts a lifetime.

There are four types of bipolar disorders, and Childs’ daughter was diagnosed only a few years before her death with the severest kind, Bipolar 1 Disorder. Bipolar 1 is defined by manic or mixed episodes that last for days and are so severe that the person needs immediate hospital care. Glassman, however, was displaying symptoms long before that. She had her first psychotic break at 24. At the time, she was working in Los Angeles, far from her mother’s home in South Florida and her physician father’s in the Midwest.

In hindsight, Childs now says she blinded herself to the symptoms: “As her mother, I wasn’t objective. I excused a lot of behavior. I couldn’t see she had a personality disorder.”

That is not unusual. Bipolar disorder is not easy to recognize, and some people suffer for years before they are diagnosed and treated. For all her professional training, Childs kept believing that her daughter simply “had a lot of energy.”

It wasn’t until high school when Childs confronted her about her defiance and sloppiness that Glassman’s “Jekyll/Hyde personality” came to the fore. She stormed out of the house and went to live with her father in Missouri. She returned after a year and graduated from North Miami Beach High, but her parents were concerned enough to send her to a therapist. “I thought that a lot of it was unresolved issues from the divorce,” Childs adds. It was much more.

On anti-psychotic drugs, Glassman appeared to lead a normal, productive life, finishing a Ph.D and maintaining a practice. “She could compensate for everything,” Childs says. “That’s why it was so hard to really know what was going on.”

But psychotropic medication is, as Childs explains, “a hit or miss” solution, and Bipolar 1 is the most insidious and most difficult bipolar disorder to medically manage. Glassman was seeing both a psychiatrist and a psychologist, but she was never considered suicidal — and that limited her options for residential treatment. In the book, Childs explains that there was no in-patient facility available under her daughter’s HMO. And though Glassman was hospitalized briefly several times, long enough for stabilization, she didn’t meet the criteria for long-term care, which Childs believed she needed.

“It was one stumbling block after another. I felt like I was in a nightmare I couldn’t get out of,” says Childs, who figures she and her ex-husband spent well over $100,000 in trying to get their daughter treatment.

After her daughter’s suicide, Childs could barely function from the shock. She eventually returned to her patients — “Work saved my life” — and got certified as a grief counselor. She had produced a television series of 24 one-half hour shows on mental health, which she dedicated to her daughter.

For seven years she also worked on the book. “I had no choice. I was called to the computer as a catharsis. My heart wrote it.”

Childs wanted to leave a record of the experience for her own family as well as others dealing with mental illness or suicide.

“My daughter’s experience isn’t just her experience,” she says. “This happens, and I want people to know you can survive it, you can make your way through it.”

Every July 2, on the anniversary of Pam’s death, Childs and her four adult children gather around a maple tree she had planted in Valle Crucis, N.C. This year was no different, though they did plant an oak to replace the maple that died this past harsh winter.

“There’s not a single day I don’t think about her,” Childs says. “There’s not a single day I don’t feel she’s with me.”