Caroline McCool was out for a walk in October 2010, enjoying one of the last warm days of the year. Fall is her favorite season. She headed over the bridge behind Blaisdell Hall, past the ponds on the “Pitt trail” and beyond the blueberry bushes.
Puppy, her black lab/American Boxer mix, trotted along. When Caroline got to the green metal post at Clarks Lane that marks the end of the trail, she — didn’t turn around. She kept going. Across the road. Through the culvert. Into the brush. Sometime after that, she called her son on her cell phone and said she was lost. A search by her family came up empty. The police were called. When Caroline was finally found at Marilla Reservoir, about four miles from Clarks Lane, she couldn’t tellany one exactly how she got there. She seemed OK, on the outside, and Puppy was still by her side. “He wasn’t going to let anything happen to me,” she says today.
But something had happened to her, and, in reality, she was still verymuch lost.
Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder that causes dramatic shifts in mood and energy, from manic highs to depressive lows. (Some call it manic-depressive illness.)
When Caroline was taken from Marilla to Bradford Regional Medical Center, she was admitted for treatment of this condition, one that affects 5.7 million Americans. Bipolar disorder can be severely debilitating, but it also can be effectively treated with medications and talk therapy.
In severe cases, some people need electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Caroline ended up having four such treatments, and they helped, the fourth one being the key. “Dr. Laroche brought me back to reality. I wouldn’t be sitting here talking without him,” she says.
Lois Sager was working at the hospital and remembers the catatonic state Caroline was in before ECT. “It really was night and day, the difference. She came back to life,” says Lois, who helped prep Caroline for her treatments.
Of course, that wasn’t the end of Caroline’s battle with bipolar disorder. This battle lasts a lifetime. The next challenge was to stay on her medications at home. She couldn’t. “It’s not that I didn’t want to take them,” she says. “I just would forget. It was tough to keep track.”
She took different meds in the morning and at night, meds for different health problems, different doses. It was too much.
While Caroline struggled to stay on her meds throughout 2011, Evergreen Elm’s Mobile Medication program was getting underway with
someone like her in mind.
By Christmastime, she was ready to benefit from the program, and her referral to it marked another turning point in her recovery. Lois, by then Evergreen Elm’s Mobile Medication
supervisor, and registered nurse Heather Reed started going to Caroline’s apartment twice a day to make sure she took her meds.
They gave her educational materials about her meds, placed reminders around the apartment and set up color-coded trays for her pills.
“We taught her that taking medications for bipolar disorder is just like taking medications for any other disease,” says Lois.
The stress of not working complicated things, but throughout 2012, Caroline gradually got better at adhering to her treatment plan. Lois and Heather started going once a day, then three times a week and eventually hardly at all.
When Caroline was ready to be discharged from the program in January 2013, it was not a happy day of graduation. “I was sad. You and Heather were in my life and were my friends,” she tells Lois.
“If something was bothering me, I could bring it up. Heather told me to call her anytime. You guys were there for me.”
Today, the meds are working. She still has the reminders around her apartment. It’s a challenge to stick to the schedule, but she’s managing. “I keep thinking I’m falling back. I had
that feeling last week. But I wouldn’t let it happen. I won’t let it happen,” she says. There’s determination, almost defiance in her hazel eyes.
Caroline is 45 with long, loosely curled strawberry blonde hair. With her openly expressed opinions, bright red finger nails and array of tattoos, she comes off as a bit of a free spirit. A cross on her left arm is bordered by the names of four lost loved ones, including a young niece and nephew. A rose with a tiny hummingbird on her right calf honors her two sons, mom and dad.
The unicorn and Tasmanian devil are just for fun.
Her late mother, also named Caroline, lived with bipolar disorder as well. The illness often runs in families. “Thank you, Mom!” she says with just a hint of sarcasm, pointing skyward. The two weren’t close until later in their relationship. Caroline tears up when she talks about finishing a craft project her mother was working on when she died, needlepoint on canvas with
butterflies and flowers.
She also remembers a Halloween Day 15 years ago when she was driving with her mother and turned to her and said, “Mom, I need help.”
Caroline thinks back on days she would curl up and “sleep my life away,” her dog providing the only motivation to get out of bed. She’s hopeful those times are behind her, and she’s hopeful about the future.
“If I don’t look for my future, what else do I have? Am I waiting for my death? I don’t want to think that way. I’m waiting for the next change in mylife,” she says.
After working for 20 years at Pepperell Braiding in Bradford, she now expresses an interest in becoming a missionary. She also wants to do something to change perceptions about mental illness (for one, “we’re not criminals”). Caroline broke down in tears at the Relay for Life when she thought about how poorly attended the walk for mental illness awareness had been. “We need something bigger for mental health,” she says.
She’s keeping an eye out for the “right guy,” despite some bad experiences in the past. When her mom was dying seven years ago, she said, “Don’t say no to marriage.” Caroline says she won’t.
Someone recently told her she needs to get a life, and that really ticked her off. “I have a life!” she says. She has two adult sons, a close friend in her building and peers in Dickinson’s Mental Health Center’s Partial Hospitalization program whom she considers family. She has Puppy, and now Puppy has a kitten to play with. And she crochets blankets and baby hats for Healthy Beginnings Plus.
Caroline spoke openly, graciously and unselfishly in the gazebo along the trail where things went so wrong on that autumn afternoon three years ago. When the interview was over, she walked past the ponds, facing a gauntlet of gypsy moths that were caterpillars just a few days before. Then she headed back over the bridge, this time making a return trip, on the way to that next change in her own life.