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Local author Kathy Brandt walks the lines of memoir with her son 

Steady as (s)he goes

Kathy Brandt's eyes sparkle when she tells me that her 34-year-old son, Max Maddox, is getting married in a week. When he and his girlfriend Maria met, they were "in love right away," she says with a smile.

But there's a hesitancy behind that cheer. "The relationship has been really good for him," she adds, her grin lessening. "Hopefully they'll do OK."

Read Walks on the Margins, the memoir Brandt and Maddox have written together, and you'll understand. One day about 15 years ago, Maddox, a student at Grinnell College in central Iowa, was picked up by local police as he was walking barefooted down the middle of a busy street.

When Brandt arrived at the Des Moines psychiatric hospital, she found her son manic and delusional. He'd recently told her over the phone, "I have a severe case of mind-racing insomnia"; the doctors told her he had bipolar disorder.

It's a moment that, naturally, she'll never forget.

"He's doing well," Brandt says now, "but you never know. You just never know. I'm always, just kinda on alert."

Dual narrative

You may recognize Brandt's name from the novels she's written. The 65-year-old Woodland Park resident's "Underwater Investigation" mystery series, featuring a scuba-diving detective, counts four titles so far. It was that writerly background that — about 10 years after Maddox's initial episode, with more that followed — pushed her to ask her son if he would write a memoir with her.

"I really wanted to tell his story because he's such an amazing person. He's so smart, and so creative. And people tend to judge people with mental illness, and in not a good way, obviously ... but I didn't want to write it without him. It just would have felt way too exploitative."

Maddox, a visual artist, says that he had been trying to integrate his memories into his drawings, but wasn't finding that to be what he needed. So when his mom approached him, even though he's never been much of a writer, he was willing to give it a try.

The two tell the story in alternating chapters. Maddox opens the book with that first episode during college and continues through incidents that follow, speaking from the "inside of the disease." His language is vibrant, intense and heart-wrenching.

"When you're manic ... I think because you're hyper-sensitive to what's going on around you, you have kind of a heightened memory," Maddox explains. "The imagery comes back like no other memories in my life. It's so outside the norm of your thinking and behavior that it's something later you dwell on, and you think about a lot. So a lot of it was just putting myself back there and essentially sort of writing a journal years later."

Brandt's "outside" contribution gives a timeline to the book, and arises from the journals she kept at the time.

Conflict resolution

Dealing with his disorder clearly changed Maddox's life; today the Denver-based artist manages his day-to-day with lithium, regular sleep and support.

The illness also has changed Brandt.

"I was pretty angry in the beginning because we couldn't find the help we needed. We found a psychiatrist — he was fine, but you know, wasn't suggesting any other kinds of help for him. Therapy. Anything. There was just, go see him for 10 minutes ...

"So I was — I'm still — angry at the system, at the lack of a system."

And then at a church meeting, she came across the local chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness.

"Someone there handed me a Family-to-Family brochure, so I took Family-to-Family [a workshop for family members of those with mental illness] ... and then I became a teacher, and joined the board of directors. You know, one thing leads to the next. ... I think they're a lifesaver for people."

Between Brandt and Maddox, it seems as if Mom — as moms are wont to do, but also due to her work with NAMI — was more worried about the decision to come forward about his illness in their writing than he was. Even after being the initiator, she says she asked him, "'Are you sure you want to do this? You are putting yourself out there.'

"I don't know if it would ever hurt him in terms of employment — I don't think he'll ever be traditionally employed, anyway, he's worked in art galleries and stuff — but he said, 'Yeah. I'm ready and I want to talk about it.'"

It's not that Maddox didn't have any concerns at all, but he is very clear about how he feels.

"I think everybody that suffers from something severe has a need to share their story," he says, "even if there's all sorts of reasons not to share it. ...

"To try to bring people into that moment in my mind once would be enough, you know, for me to feel like I've accomplished something."

kakens@csindy.com

  • Steady as (s)he goes

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