“When I held Sam alone for the first time…I was nursing him and feeling really spiritual, thinking, please, please God, help him be someone who feels compassion, who feels God’s presence loose in the world, who doesn’t give up on peace and justice and mercy for everyone. And then a second later I was begging. Okay, skip all that shit, forget it – just please let him outlive me.” ~Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions Anchor Books, 1995
I am very happy to feature Memoir Author and Poet Madeline Sharples in this guest post/book tour. Her recently launched memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On is receiving critical acclaim for its raw honesty about the heartwrenching story of a mother’s survival from her beloved son’s bipolar disease and suicide. Madeline will answer a series of questions about her story and the journey of healing that resulted from writing about her devastating loss. It is a testimony to the power of memoir to heal. My reviews can be found on Amazon and Goodreads.
Questions and Answers
1. What does the title of the book mean?
At first I believed—my magical thinking—that if I left the hall light on, if we didn’t move away from our house, if we didn’t change our telephone number, Paul would know how to make his way back. Paul would know we were still here waiting for him. For a long time I waited for that familiar sounds of his Volvo coming into the garage, of the garage slamming as he entered the house and went down the hall to his room, of him walking around the house at night, of the door opening and closing as he went in and out of the house. In fact, for a while I thought I heard those sounds. I also left most of the things in his room and closet alone for fear of removing his presence there. For a long time I refused to give away his things in case he would need them when he came back.
Once those sounds in my imagination and my magical thinking fell away, my need to keep the hall light on became another one of the things that helped me get through my grief. We left the hall light on for him when he was home. I just couldn’t break that routine.
2. What were the warning signs when your son first began to experience symptoms of bipolar disorder?
Just before his first manic break in February 1993, he had traveled from New York where he was attending college at the New School to attend my mother’s 85th birthday celebration. He was perfectly normal. He was calm, loving. He talked easily to everyone and readily smiled as he posed for a photo with his brother and cousins. For the two nights he was with us, he slept easily in his childhood bedroom, and kissed and hugged me when I said goodbye to him at the airport.
Two weeks later he was calling us up every few minutes, writing all over his apartment walls with a blue felt-tipped marker, and saying people were lurking in doorways out to get him and poisoning his food and cigarettes. His clothes were strewn all over the place, his dishes were stacked up—all behaviors so foreign to the orderly and neat guy he normally was. Most important, he was a jazz musician no longer able to sit still long enough at the piano to play a song through from the beginning to end.
In those two weeks, he played three successive gigs with some older musicians in Brooklyn and had not slept for at least two nights in a row. He also drank heavily during these performances. So it is possible that this burgeoning jazzman lifestyle of little sleep, little food, and lots of booze sent Paul over the edge. He was also so affected by the news of the heroin-overdose death of one of his classmates he became unintelligible and had to be taken from his school to the hospital.
7. How have you seen the stigma of mental illness and suicide play out in your life?
My son was a young adult, age twenty-one, when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And throughout the seven years he struggled with the disease, I thoroughly believe the stigma of his mental illness stopped him from a program of treatment that might have saved him from his destiny, suicide. He was a master of hiding his illness. In fact he worked as a trouble-shooter for an internet service provider the last two years of his life, and his co-workers had no idea he was ill.
Stigma is also rampant in my family. A few months ago my cousin came to our house to review and discuss the family history my husband had been writing. After reviewing the material he made one request—leave out the part about his father’s bipolar disorder. In fact he didn’t want to see any discussion of any of the mental illness that permeates my side of our family. That was proof enough for me that the stigma of mental illness still exists.
8. What can a person do to help and comfort a family that has experienced a suicide or other tragedy?
My greatest comfort after our son’s death came from my next-door neighbor Patty. She offered to put up out-of-town relatives, she brought over bagels and cream cheese in the morning, and she supplied the coffee for the open house after the funeral. The word “suicide” didn’t make her back off.
Before the first Thanksgiving after Paul’s death, Patty left a basket on my doorstep. Her note said that she dreaded the holidays after her mother died, so she gathered a few things to ease the holiday season for me. As I read her note and looked through the basket, I cried, not only out of the dread of being without Paul on Thanksgiving, Hanukah, and his New Year’s Eve birthday, but for the generosity and caring of a person I hardly knew. In such a quiet and unassuming way, she showed me real human compassion and understanding. She never asked me a lot of questions, and she didn’t intrude on my privacy. She just let me know she was there for me if I needed her.
Among the items inside was a poetry book about coping with the loss of a love—she knew I wrote poetry. She also included a journal, a sweet smelling candle, a box of absolutely delicious chocolate covered graham crackers, and a smooth gray stone.
This stone became my biggest comfort. Just large enough to fit in the palm of my hand, it feels the perfect size when I close my hand around it. One edge is round and the other is triangular. One side is plain; the other has the word “son” carved into it. Right after Patty left the basket on my doorstep, my little stone became my nighttime friend.
I got into the habit of going to bed with it. Once settled, I held it on my chest just between my breasts. I liked its coldness on my aching heart. It helped me relax. Holding it in my hand and reading the word with my thumb also helped. I carried it around in my pocket for a while. I wanted to feel it there for me. Then, I began to wonder about my own sanity. Was I trying to exchange my son for a stone?
When I got myself more together and began to feel better, I let go of it and let it rest on another item from that basket—a little, silk-covered, sachet pillow that smells of lavender with butterflies and the word “heal” painted on the silk. These two gifts from Patty are still there on my bedside table after all these years.
10. One of the ways you dealt with your personal tragedy is by writing about it. How did that help you?
Writing has been part of my life since I was in grade school. However, when my son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and after his suicide I needed to write down my feelings daily. Writing in my journal became an obsession and a balm. It gave me a way to organize my fears, pain, and thoughts. I had used journaling during an earlier stressful period of my life to rant. So I felt that writing would help me again during what turned out to be the most stressful time of my life.
Writing was healing because it helped me put my pain on the page. Instead of carrying it with me every moment of the day and night, I found a place where I could have a little relief. There was so much I couldn’t say out loud to anyone. My husband worried I was having a breakdown even if I cried too much. And since there was so much anger and grief in me, I needed a place to put it. Writing in those days was like repeating a mantra. I just kept moving my pen across the page or my fingers moving on the keyboard. And I wouldn’t let anything get in my way.
12. What advice do you have for families that have been affected by mental illness or suicide?
First, I recommend families find out as much about bipolar disorder as you can—the best doctors, hospitals, medications available, and how to get to them. Also know about suicide prevention. What I didn’t know when our son was diagnosed is that bipolar is a killer disease—especially in young men. Then try to give your loved one with the disease the facts. That way he/she will feel less stigmatized and will be more likely to accept help.
Second, I would want people affected by bipolar disorder and suicide to know that it is possible to survive and be productive after the death of a child. I would advise them to:
- Take your time—don’t let anyone tell you that the time for grief should be over
- Take good care of your health: workout, eat healthy, get enough rest, meditate, travel, and be open to new friends and new experiences
- Pamper yourself: stay in shape physically, get massages, facials, and manicures and pedicures
- Pretend you’re feeling better by putting on a smiley face and pretty soon you will feel better (I call it playacting).
- Find an artistic outlet and other diversions to take your mind off of it.
Madeline Sharples studied journalism in high school and college and wrote for the high school newspaper, but only started to fulfill her dream to work as a creative writer and journalist late in life. Her memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide, was released in a hardback edition in 2011 and has just been released in paperback and eBook editions by Dream of Things. It tells the steps she took in living with the loss of her oldest son, first and foremost that she chose to live and take care of herself as a woman, wife, mother, and writer. She hopes that her story will inspire others to find ways to survive their own tragic experiences.
She also co-authored Blue-Collar Women: Trailblazing Women Take on Men-Only Jobs (New Horizon Press, 1994), co-edited the poetry anthology, The Great American Poetry Show, Volumes 1 and 2, and wrote the poems for two photography books, The Emerging Goddess and Intimacy (Paul Blieden, photographer). Her poems have also appeared online and in print magazines.
Madeline’s articles appear regularly in the Naturally Savvy, PsychAlive, and Open to Hope. She also posts at her blogs, Choices and at Red Room and is currently writing a novel. Madeline’s mission since the death of her son is to raise awareness, educate, and erase the stigma of mental illness and suicide in hopes of saving lives.
Madeline and her husband of forty plus years live in Manhattan Beach, California, a small beach community south of Los Angeles. Her younger son Ben lives in Santa Monica, California with his wife Marissa.
To purchase my memoir, go to