Watch "My Dad's Illness" on Friday, Sept. 9th at 7 p.m. Central and 10 p.m. Central on NET Television's NET-1 and NET-HD, followed by a 30-minute discussion show, "Chronic Mental Illness and the Family."
Megan Plouzek describes her father's mental illness as a roller coaster. Her family is never sure if Jim is feeling well enough to go to work or whether he is entering a downward spiral that may result in hospitalization. In her film, My Dad's Illness, Plouzek shares candid discussions with family members about the difficult the ups and downs of dealing with depression. In this Signature Story, Grant Gerlock of NET News talks with Megan and her mother, Nan, about her dad, Jim's illness.
In an old family photo, Megan Plouzek sits next to her mother, Nan.
MEGAN PLOUZEK: Since I was little my Dad has struggled with a mental illness. And when we were younger I understood that illness to be Seasonal Affective Disorder. So in the wintertime he would be a little blue and had a hard time getting motivated and would lay on the couch a little bit more. And in the summertime he was doing better and active. And then as time went on he got a little more depressed and it wasn't just in wintertime. It was kind of throughout the year. So then they thought maybe it's just depression. Then he started having episodes of psychosis. So he'd be a little more manic at times and it seemed like bipolar and they thought maybe he was bipolar at one time. So it's just kind of been interesting following this and the doctors diagnosing his illness as several different things. And I think recently he's (been diagnosed) with ...
NAN PLOUZEK: Psychotic depression.
MEGAN: Psychotic depression. Which is sad, being a family member and not knowing exactly, pinpointing what it is. And it changes often.
GRANT GERLOCK, NET News: It hasn't even been the same diagnosis over time.
MEGAN AND NAN: No.
GERLOCK: It's changed as he's had different doctors?
NAN: That's the whole bugaboo, I guess. Often times when he's treating outside the hospital, he has a physician, a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist. But once he is to the point where he needs hospitalization, often times those doctors do not go into the hospital. So then you have the doctor that's on staff. You really start all over again.
GERLOCK: So it's kind of this cycle. He'll be okay for a while with a treatment. Then it sort of devolves and then he's hospitalized
MEGAN: And then you have to start from scratch when you're in the hospital and explain what's been going on in the past, and that's kind of frustrating because the psychiatrist he's been seeing knows a little bit more about his history.
NAN: Right. Within one calendar year ... he had three hospitalizations last year. He made it through the summer without one this year, but he was off work, also.
MEGAN: And it's just progressed. I mean, it wasn't always the case.
GERLOCK: Nan, how long have you and Jim been married?
NAN: We just celebrated our 33rd year of marriage.
GERLOCK: And how long had you been married when you kind of knew that he was struggling and needed some help?
NAN: About 28 years ago.
GERLOCK: And that's how long he's been going through different treatments.
GERLOCK: Megan, when did you realize that your Dad had an illness and that sort of explained what you had been experiencing?
A more recent photo of Jim, Jason, Brad, Megan, Marcus, and Nan Plouzek.
MEGAN: Elementary school. I remember my Dad would be hospitalized, and at the time I didn't completely understand what was going on. My grandparents would come and hang out and make us food, and my grandma is an excellent cook, so at the time it was, "My grandparents are going to come stay with us!" But I knew my Dad was sick and I didn't know quite for sure why or what was going on. I guess being at that age, I didn't quite understand why my Dad couldn't get motivated, you know? Why he would lay on the couch. Why he was sad.
GERLOCK: There have been a few scary times that we learn about in the film where he's had a psychotic episode or has been suicidal. You talk to your brothers about a time when your Dad was trying to be hit by a car. There were situations like this. What was it like hearing those stories? Were those stories you had known about or were you hearing them for the first time?
MEGAN: Some of them I had heard for the first time. My grandpa talked about how my dad went out in the garage and turned on the car and tried to commit suicide that way. I also didn't know that my dad had tried to get hit by a train at one time. My mom talks a little bit about that. I did hear the story once before about my dad going down to the highway and trying to get hit by a car. I knew he was sick at the time, but I wasn't home. I think I was in Omaha, and my family called me and explained what happened and that they were going to take him to the hospital. So I think everyone kind of has a story. I learned through making this film some of those stories and how it affected them. We don't always openly talk about that stuff, so I guess that was some of the things I learned through doing it.
GERLOCK: Nan, did you ever at any time consider taking the kids and leaving because maybe it would be easier or maybe it would be safer?
NAN: Yes. As far as safety. There were a couple times that was a factor. Probably not so much when things were just sad. It is an illness. It's like if he had cancer or a heart situation. You don't just pick up and leave them. On the other hand, if it would have been to a point where the kids were in danger or myself, yes, we would have left. We have good support here. Jim's folks. My mom. Especially at that time. I just never did that. And Jim was also our main breadwinner. Our insurance is through Jim. That's also another situation that's unfortunate, too. If he doesn't work, we don't have insurance for Jim to pay his medical bills or take his medication. So it's kind of a no man's land if you don't work. If you do work, it's a struggle to go each and every day.
GERLOCK: People talk about the stigma of mental illness. Is that something that you've experienced?
MEGAN: I don't think I've experienced it directly with my dad being ill. It's a small community where I grew up, and people were generally supportive. And at school, they would ask how my dad's doing. If anyone ever talked about it in a negative light, I didn't hear about it.
GERLOCK: Nan, have people changed over time how they relate to you, how they relate to Jim?
NAN: People have been very kind in the community. Supportive, like Megan said. But pretty soon people invite you to do things and you can't go because Jim's not up to it. Well, then pretty soon they quit calling. Or you can't reciprocate because you just can't plan ahead because you never know what it's going to be like in a month, in a week, even tomorrow. So that's always a factor. And then pretty soon those people start to kind of, just gradually aren't in your life anymore. So it is kind of isolating. I don't think they mean to do that. It's hard to always say Jim's sick or he's just not in that place where he can socialize or anything like that. And you get tired making excuses. Because he doesn't want to be in this place any more than we want him to. He would like to be able to do these things also. And his mental health just prevents him from doing so. But he also can act very irrational. It's been a tough go with friends and lost friendships.
GERLOCK: Making this film, has it changed how all of you talk about Jim's illness?
MEGAN: I don't really think that it has changed it a whole lot. It has always been an ongoing conversation within our family. We might not sit down and talk about the worst situations that have happened in the past like I do in the film, but it's always a topic of conversation, like if we're at a family gathering. The first thing I usually ask on my way home is, "How's Dad doing?" I think the other family members would agree it's kind of an elephant in the room, too. Sometimes we're not openly talking about it, but we're usually always thinking about it.
NAN: The kids are fantastic about checking in and seeing how he's doing. So there's always the conversation of Jim's health. That is always the first and foremost thing in our immediate family, and probably some of my extended family. Not everybody. And it is hard. The elephant in the room. Some people don't want to address it. If we ignore it, it will be fine. Or we don't want to deal with him. That happens. But in our immediate family that's not the case. I think the conversation is good.
MEGAN: And sometimes if we're going through a rough period and we're all at home for a family gathering, sometimes after everyone leaves, we'll sit around and kind of have a conversation about it. And if Dad's there we'll talk to him and ask him questions, like, "How you doing?" And he's not always in a place where he's really able to respond elaborately, and you kind of get a one-word answer, but we will have those conversations.
GERLOCK: In the film you talk about how psychotherapy combined with the medication has really made a big difference for Jim. Is it still working? How is he doing now?
NAN: He continues to see a psychotherapist. It's an amazing relationship. Sometimes she's able to draw out when he's starting to go to that dark place and really get him thinking about where he's headed. I think he really leans on her for support, where oftentimes at home he just wants to please us and he says what he thinks we want to hear, not always what he really feels. So in that benefit, it's an amazing relationship. And I believe if we would have done the psychotherapy along with medication 28 years ago, we would not be where we are right now.
MEGAN: And I think it's also a good tool to help with coping skills for the family. I actually went and saw a psychotherapist, too, because I was just angry at my father growing up and not understanding, like I said before, why he couldn't get up off the couch and do things and why he couldn't go out and mow the lawn sometimes. I just grew up with quite a bit of anger. So I decided it would be healthy for me to go and talk about it and try to understand that it's an illness, and not attribute it to my dad just being a lazy person. She really equipped me with some great tools to cope with his illness.
GERLOCK: Another thing you mention in the film is that you just have to be ready for the treatment of mental illness to be unpredictable. Can you talk about that?
NAN: I believe that mainly you can't prepare for anything, because in Jim's situation, it can change with the wind. You can manage some things when you're depressed or not quite so depressed. But when the psychosis hits, it's not manageable. So yes, it's very, very unpredictable.
MEGAN: It's like a rollercoaster. Some days he's doing all right, but we're all just kind of holding our breath, wondering what's going to happen next. And the frustrating thing about that is that there's not a magic pill just to fix it. So they try different things, and I think sometimes I think they're not for sure whether it's going to work or not. We just have tried a variety of methods. So his illness is unpredictable, the treatment is unpredictable. As a child growing up in that environment, you just are kind of always a little more stressed out and anxious about what's going to happen next. And to see a father figure like that, too, wasn't easy, because they're supposed to be like the stable person in your family.
NAN: When you get to a place where you realize a medication change needs to be made, it will take 6 to 8 weeks for that medication to kick into gear. So you have 6 to 8 weeks of who knows what's going to happen - if it works. If it's not the right one or the right dosage, you've got another 6 to 8 weeks, and then you have to build up medication that he's beginning to take while you taper off of possibly one you want to eliminate. So the medication in itself is a huge rollercoaster, plus all the turmoil that goes with that because you don't know what each and every day is going to bring. Work is a huge issue oftentimes, because you don't know if he can go to work. So you wake up with a start in the morning, thinking, "Is he going to work today?" If he does, that means he's getting stronger and doing better. If he's not, then that's definitely a worry. So, yes. Each and every day is a huge rollercoaster.
GERLOCK: Megan, I can imagine that some of these conversations are hard enough to have just privately within your own family. Why did you want to put them in a film and really make them public?
MEGAN: I just think I wanted to help people understand mental illness, because I grew up with a mentally ill father and didn't really hear much about it. And so I just felt like, you know, if I can maybe get the word out about how hard it is, and the struggles a family goes through, that maybe it will start a conversation and maybe it will get people to start talking about it. To my surprise, actually, I think about 90 percent of the people I've shown this to have responded to it by saying, 'I have someone in my own family that has a mental illness.' And it's been shocking, because I grew up not really knowing anyone else that dealt with it. So I think it's already done a lot for me, just in seeing that other people are out there, and it is starting a conversation and so hopefully it will continue to do so.
GERLOCK: Do you feel like the film has helped to bring about some healing within your family?
NAN: This is our life.
MEGAN: It's so complicated, yeah.
NAN: This is our life. We deal with this all the time. So I think in terms of awareness, I think the kids have all learned something from it, like Megan said, a perspective from each other that maybe they hadn't shared. But healing-wise? I think we're an incredibly strong family and close. My kids are just remarkable, and I think the strength of that has come somewhat from dealing with their dad and being there for each other. They're amazing people, and the amount of compassion they have for other people is heartwarming for me as a parent, because I don't think they'd be the people they are without going through this all these years.
MEGAN: I agree with my Mom. I think that we all kind of learned something from each other. Like, I didn't know my brothers had gone through some of that, and I know that when they saw it that they experienced some things that they didn't know went on. But I think we could probably all agree that my dad was super-courageous to do what he did, because he's the person with the illness and is really putting himself out there. And I just feel like we all learned something from him when he was talking. Because I honestly have never seen my dad talk like that before, about his illness, and how it affects him personally. Yeah, we talk about the daily struggles, like, 'Dad, why are you down? What's going on?' But I've never gotten to the core of, 'How has this affected you?' And so when I was sitting there doing this with him, I was just taken aback. I was floored.
So I think going through with that with him, I think I started to have a better understanding about the illness and how he doesn't want to be this way. And I think it kind of helped let go some of that anger a little bit, watching him talk. And I think my brothers and my mom might be able to relate, just that we've never seen him talk that honestly about his illness. So I think that's one thing that the film definitely did for me. Hopefully, I think it did for my family members. Jason ended up texting me later on, 'Megan, that really moved me.' I think he just had never seen my dad talk so candidly about it.
NAN: And I had seen him like that, but the kids had never seen him like that, and they didn't really know him before this became such a predominant thing in our lives. I think it was so beneficial for us, also. It moved Jim quite a bit. He was amazed at the relationship he wants to have with his kids, and I think it made him hopeful that he can still have that relationship. And how much they do love him. He is very courageous, and he does not like this any more than anyone else. It is a very tough illness to live with.
GERLOCK: Megan and Nan Plouzek, thanks for sharing your story.
MEGAN and NAN: Thank you.