Saturday, October 12, 2019


My young womanhood began the day I read Joan Didion’s short essay, “On Self-Respect.” The symbolism of the green light flashed brighter in those early years.

I was at Cornell on a scholarship from my father’s union. It remains the achievement he is most proud of, even now, more than three decades later. That’s how I attained his respect.

It was a decision that took mere seconds to make. His union had sponsored a college fair and he told me to go over to the Cornell table. When asked by the recruiter my intended major, I said history. He was there to promote Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, a school partly subsidized by New York State. When he told me I could take over thirty credits of history in the private College of Arts and Sciences at no additional cost, I decided to apply. I was accepted on that scholarship. It was the pinnacle of my academic achievement in father’s eyes, although I later attained a Master’s in Social Work and a Juris Doctor degree.

The question presented by Joan Didion, however, was whether I attained my own self-respect with that achievement. She lost the notion that the light would always turn green for her when she failed to make Phi Beta Kappa. She acknowledges the triviality of that: she didn’t have the grades. My green light stayed lit until I was twenty-six, the time I expected to have a baby by and didn’t. After that, nothing came according to a pre-determined timeline. Although I wouldn’t be diagnosed with bipolar disorder until I was twenty-nine, my unraveling began in earnest at twenty-six. But, to answer Joan Didion’s question, I did earn my self-respect at Cornell. The rest of my life has been an attempt to keep it.

I did, eventually, become a mother. And, I was able, during the important times, to keep from unraveling.

I remember the first time I couldn’t panic in front of my children, then young boys. We were on an airplane, having planned a Florida vacation. The pilot announced that smoke in the cockpit would necessitate an emergency landing elsewhere. All was normal, I assured my children, as the plane bounced and its lights flickered.

It is because of my bipolar diagnosis that I can successfully manage the difficult times. Coping strategies I learned earlier immediately come back. Having previously unraveled, I have a cure for the unpredictable. I can maintain my self-respect.

Helaine Sanders, LMSW, JD still finds the coping skill of journaling useful during difficult times. She administers this website,, where other articles about mental health may be found.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Knowing Your Limits

The beginning of my bipolar illness was a nightmare, which included a suicide attempt. I willed myself back to life during the charcoal treatment, since the attempt had nothing to do with a desire for death. It was a message to my husband. New York City is a harsh place to begin a career. I had a public sector job which allowed for a normal schedule. He worked for top law firms in the private sector. He was never home and I had no idea how to manage my unraveling. With the aid of medication and therapy, we managed to put together enough of the pieces to allow us to move to Buffalo, my husband’s home town.

Prolonged recovery didn’t begin for another decade, when the drug that would ultimately save me came on the market and prompted my upward climb. I had gotten to the point of not needing to think about my disease … or so I thought.

Feeling better led to a desire to work more. I always had a desire for public service and got involved in my children’s school and with the local Democratic Party. Then, in the Hell of Trump, I wanted to run for office, specifically County legislature. I had an excellent academic background and worked in jobs with tremendous responsibilities. Mental illness did not hold me back either: I had many good years behind me. I made a valiant effort, but in the end, I was too green to be on the ticket. After the fact, I got a lot of, “You wouldn’t have been able to do this, both the campaigning and paid work.” I started to doubt myself, not only in politics, but in any role, including parenting.

I withdrew my name in February. My son had an MRI, detecting a tumor, in March. It was easy to tie my depression to my son’s diagnosis, even if it had started before then. That’s how I made it about me, telling everyone how I couldn’t cope with the stress and my illness. But, it was never about me. Also, my depression ended, even though there was continued bad news for my son.

My husband and I took a trip to Italy in the beginning of August for our 30th Anniversary. It caused me to understand my limitations in a positive way. I couldn’t keep up with his pace. One time, I needed a spa day. Other times he went out in the early morning and I joined him later.

There were limitations in my parenting. My husband took care of the children’s morning routine because he had to leave the house for work. I was with them for the afternoons and evenings, especially when they were younger. Although it would become harder to cook for both together once my sons had different schedules, there was a year when we all cooked together and bonded that way.

I see now I did the best I could. I volunteer for different organizations, but can not handle the rigorous schedule of paid employment. I am here for my children. When they were younger, I enjoyed giving them play dates after school. Most importantly, right now, I can ask friends for help, something I learned because of my own struggles with bipolar disorder.

As published in Buffalo Healthy Living: Caring for a Child when You're Disabled

Caring for a Child with a Prolonged Illness
Take Care of Yourself and Rely on Your Instincts

by Helaine Sanders, LMSW and JD

I lived most of my adult life believing that if I worried enough about a bad outcome, it wouldn’t happen. With my pessimism and low expectations, what actually occurred would always be better than I thought. My son’s malignant tumor and current chemotherapy treatments shattered that belief. While I never had control, I had the illusion of control. That realization has made me more optimistic.

The only constant thing in my son’s treatment is its unpredictability. Following his first chemotherapy treatment, he had two bacterial infections. Three weeks later, after another chemotherapy treatment, his blood levels were off, and he was unable to come home.

You might think caring for a seriously ill child while you’re disabled is doubly challenging. It’s not. I am actually coping better because I know what it is like to have to struggle. Despite feeling like I am living through years, not weeks, I keep going. I’m making sure my own needs get met. After I posted my needs on Facebook, my friends responded offering girls’ nights out, food shopping, and food preparation. I’m was so grateful for this outpouring of love.

Even in these early weeks of a 29-week course of chemotherapy, I’ve learned some lessons that might help others. I particularly want to assure the disabled community that they can handle a child’s serious illness.

First, don’t underestimate your own value. You’ve got this because you’ve already learned to advocate for yourself.

Second, there’s no shame in asking for help. As I learned from a helpful counselor while I was recovering from my first depression, “Your job right now is not to prepare the food. Your job is to eat the food prepared.”

Third, simply be physically present. If 90 percent of life is showing up, being near your child suffices. There’s no need for constant engagement. You can do something you enjoy while he plays a video game.

Fourth, don’t forget about your other children. Let them know the distinction between quality and quantity. You may not be physically present, but they are always in your heart.

Fifth, the hardest part for any parent is an emergency situation. You will need to rely on your instincts. However, it’s no different than daily parenting. You’d know what to do if you had to pick up a child who became sick at school. Emergencies during a prolonged illness are no different. Trust yourself.

All parents, especially disabled ones, should remind themselves they always have more control than they think.

Helaine Sanders has found that her bipolar diagnosis does not limit her ability to parent a child with a prolonged illness and instead benefits her. Check out her website at which focuses on stigma in mental health, the immigrant population, and religious groups.