When I was in my twenties, I had a friend go missing. Penny* had married younger then the rest of us and had a two-year-old daughter, Allie*. One Tuesday, she missed picking Allie up from daycare. The next day, Penny’s husband Jim called her parents, saying he didn’t know where she was.
“She didn’t come home last night?” Penny’s mom demanded.
“She hasn’t lived here in over two months,” Jim said.
Turns out, Penny had kept up the pretense of domestic bliss when her parents came to visit. The couple lived with Jim’s mom, but Penny had gotten her own apartment and taken Allie with her. Jim and his mother kept her secret.
But now Penny was gone and they had no idea where. Nor did they seem too eager to help look for her. Under any other circumstances, my Dateline-obsessed mind might’ve suspected foul play.
But, sadly, there were more likely scenarios.
Scenario One: Penny flaked.
Yes, Penny was a devoted mom. But she was also bipolar. She always started new ventures with so much enthusiasm, dedication and determination – and then she “flaked.” She’d get fired right after a big promotion, go on a spending spree, break promises, pick fights. She’d had a long run of good days after Allie was born but she was due for a flake out. And moving out of her mother-in-law’s house without telling anyone may have been the first step on a very slippery slope.
Scenario Two: Penny was in trouble.
Penny’s high highs were always followed by low lows and though she’d never hurt herself before, we feared the worst. Her lies had been so carefully crafted. The things she said she cooked for dinner, movie nights with Jim and Allie, a present her mother-in-law had given her – none of these things had happened, we later learned. And with no accurate barometer of her emotions, our imaginations were making some dramatic leaps.
Penny’s parents lived several hours to the south of Penny’s home. I lived a little more than 45 minutes north. I made it in thirty. Jim told us where she and Allie had been staying, some crappy apartments where people loitered in doorways and kept dogs chained to their front stoops. I had no trouble breaking in.
Penny was usually OCD about cleanliness, but the apartment was largely unfurnished and messy. There was a TV on the floor and couch cushions but no couch. The battered breakfast table was covered in fast food bags and wrappers. Stubbed out cigarettes overflowed little bowls all around the room as if Penny had set up little emergency smoking stations. The air was stale with smoke and greasy food, but nothing else. I hadn’t realized how scared I’d been to smell something else.
A once-around the apartment took two minutes. The sleeping bag Penny used was empty. Allies was a crumpled mess right next to it. Their clothes were neatly hung up. I searched every inch of the place, even the trash, looking for clues to Penny’s whereabouts. I drove around to her usual hangouts looking for her.
I happened to have Dido’s No Angel in my CD player and played “Here With Me” over and over.
And I won’t go, I won’t sleep, I can’t breathe
Until you’re resting here with me
As I drove, my emotions oscillated between breathless terror and shaking anger. If you love someone with mental illness, you know what I’m talking about. But until I found Penny, I couldn’t stop to deal with my own emotions. Caregivers know that feeling too.
Back at her apartment, I started calling every number on every scrap of paper I could find. The voices on the other end were often angry about the trouble Penny left in her wake – some money owed or promise broken – but some people were helpful with a new suggestion or another number to try. One woman, when I repeated my spiel about looking for Penny, said “Hold on,” and handed Penny the phone.
For a moment, I couldn’t speak. I was shaking so hard I could barely hold the phone. “Come home,” I managed. “Your apartment, right now!”
When she showed up fifteen minutes later, she had such an ugly, defiant look on her face, I wanted to slap her. Instead I burst into tears. I cried the whole time she told me she’d just been hanging out with friends and had a bad cold and had just been sleeping it off and that she meant to call but lost track of time. For almost three days.
We went and picked up daughter from daycare. Allie was overjoyed to see her. “You scared me, Mommy! You scared everybody!”
I wept on my steering wheel then took her home to her parents’ house. They wept too.
No one said it, but our tears weren’t only our of relief for her safe return or sorrow for what Allie had been through or would go through as the daughter of someone with mental illness.
We cried because we might not get so lucky next time. And because the clock had already started ticking on that next time.
If you have a friend or loved one go missing:
- Contact law enforcement
I didn’t question Penny’s parents when they said they wanted to look for her before contacting the authorities. They worried about custody of Allie and suspected a flake-out more than foul play. (That euphemism hid varying degrees of exasperation, anger, pity and patience and weariness.) In this case, they were right but that’s not always the case when someone goes missing. Don’t lose precious time waiting. If you have any doubts about someone’s safety, call the police.
- Don’t keep their secrets:
If you know something about why the missing person is upset, or if they’ve been talking to someone online or you know anything, tell! Even if they’ve asked you not to. Sometimes several people might have a piece of the puzzle and by pooling information, you may be able to bring someone home.
- Contact nearby hospitals including psychiatric wards, drug rehab centers, and emergency clinics
- Don’t put yourself in any dangerous situations
- If possible, track their car, phone, fitness tracker, bank accounts or credit cards
- Go to their favorite places
- Reach out to social media – but do not use your personal contact information on missing persons posters or social posts.
If you know or love someone with a mental illness, here are some ways to take care of them and yourself:
The National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, offers support, both online and in many communities to those of us giving emotional, financial or practical support to a person with a mental health condition. They also have a page with information about a loved one going missing.
Bipolar Lives has great resources and support for the nearly 2 million Americans living with the disorder.
Only 60% of people with a mental illness get mental health care. Advocate for better understanding and care for those affected.
Have you been the caregiver for someone with a mental illness or had a friend go missing? How do you cope?
Disclaimer: *All names changed. Oh and that’s not Penny in the picture either. Also, this is one story about one family’s experience with mental illness, not a generalization about how everyone with bipolar disorder manages their mood disorder. When properly treated, having a mental illness is just one aspect of a rich and productive life. “It’s possible to have bipolar disorder and lead a happy life.” – Demi Lovato