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The power of amends

Excerpt from the Winter 2009 issue of bp Magazine

Grant “Skip” Treaster remembers his hand trembling the day he sat down to write a long-overdue letter to his son.

bp Magazine Winter 2009 CoverIt was his son’s 39th birthday. And Treaster, diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1995, hadn’t seen his son since he was a 9-year-old boy.

“I wish I could just say sorry, that this card is a couple days late,” Treaster wrote his son. “But it’s been more like a couple decades. I don’t know where to even begin to say I’m sorry, but I truly am.

“I’m sorry I just up and disappeared from your life,” his card message continued. “I never really intended to do that. But I turned out to be one of those men who leave. Leave jobs when they get too hard. Leave relationships when they get too complicated. Leave town when things get hot. I’m sorry I left you and I’ll never be able to forgive myself for that.”

Treaster, a former advertising executive who lives in Arizona with his fourth wife, has spent the past several years rebuilding his world after battling bipolar disorder for decades without a diagnosis. As part of the process, he’s beginning to try to make amends to those he hurt, including his three adult sons from his first marriage—whom he all but abandoned—as well as two adult daughters from his second marriage.

“I’ve left quite a wake of ruined relationships and destruction in my path because it took so long to get diagnosed,” says Treaster, now 59. “And even the diagnosis doesn’t change things, necessarily. It takes time. And a diagnosis doesn’t undo all the past mistakes.”

Indeed, we have all been hurt, or have hurt others in relationships. Whether unintentional or purposeful, it happens. But when bipolar disorder is at the source of the wound inflicted on another, things such as out-of-control spending, infidelity, anger outbursts, or long periods of isolation brought on by depression can amplify and confuse those hurts. The pain is real, but how can we hold a grudge against someone who has a mental illness? On the other hand, if we have a mental illness, how do we begin to make amends for things we did when we were ill?

While medication and therapy are the building blocks to recovery from mental illness, making amends and seeking forgiveness play a role as well. As Treaster has discovered, asking for forgiveness—and forgiving himself—have been the hardest part of his climb to wellness.

“Wanting to forgive yourself is the key,” says Treaster. “It’s not just an apology. It’s demonstrating to yourself and to others that you’re a different person. You can’t go back and do anything over, but you can start from this day forward. I call it ‘getting past your past.’”

Today, Treaster has made amends with his daughters and one of his three sons. The son to whom he sent the card and letter, “wrote me a wonderful letter. He said I was the lastperson in the world he expected to hear from and he was so glad I’d written.” The other two sons “simply aren’t interested,” he says. Treaster adds that he does keep track of his sons and admires the men they’ve become via family Web sites.

Experts agree that making amends is much more complicated than simply saying “I’m sorry.”

“Forgiveness is a process, not an event, whether one has bipolar illness or not,” says Daniel L. Buccino, a clinical supervisor for the Adult Outpatient Community Psychiatry Program at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and assistant professor at the
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “In order to make amends, one must redouble one’s efforts to do the right things in order to show that the incidents requiring forgiveness are the exception, not the rule, about one’s character and illness.”

For people with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses, Buccino says the best way to garner someone’s forgiveness is to prevent episodes that may cause you to act in ways you normally wouldn’t. “Forgiveness is earned as one continues to work toward stability in treatment by maintaining compliance with medications and therapy,” he says. “Just as stability begets stability in illness management, stability begets making amends, which begets forgiveness.”

Cindy Woodruff, 47, of Gainesville, Florida, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1990 after three hospitalizations. “My illness was a contributing factor to my divorce and to my guilt for my personal actions,” she says. “After many years, I learned how to forgive and make amends and now have peace and more happiness in my life.”

The religious aspect of forgiveness also helped Woodruff move on. “It’s a process,” she says. “What’s really taken me through is that I have a strong belief in God. And knowing that I’m forgiven helps. I go to church, and being around people who forgive me, care about me, and accept me helps me accept and forgive myself.”

Steps to forgiveness

Making amends can be a confusing journey dotted with potential pitfalls. But Everett L. Worthington Jr., PhD, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and former chair of Virginia’s Mental Health Planning Council, says there are concrete steps one can take to increase the chances of success in resolving issues with those you may have hurt…

Click here to read Tips for Healing

bp Magazine's Winter 2009 issue also includes:

Symptoms of bipolar disorder can wreak havoc on relationships. Have you found it helpful to repair relationships by making amends? If so, describe how you tackled the issue and if it worked. Our readers reply.

Kay Redfield Jamison: A profile in courage
By Jacqueline L. Salmon
One of the foremost experts on bipolar disorder speaks out about her work and her journey.

More than skin deep
By Michelle Roberts
With her father’s help, a makeup artist discovers  her inner strength.

Fast talk: The dating dilemma
By Julie A. Fast
When it’s time to take a time-out from romance.

Mind over mood: Bless that stress
By Stephen Propst
Are you ready to make tension work to your advantage?

Body brio: Your habit...Up in smoke
By Donna Jackel
Nicotine and bp don’t mix. Here’s how to quit smoking for good.

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