Des Moines Register reporter Daniel Finney highlights a family's struggle to get their daughter help. Thank you to the Hall family for sharing their story.
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Kindergartener Marian Hall climbed atop her desk with a staple remover in her hand and threatened to pinch anyone who came near her.
The incident was about 13 years ago. Some of the students had teased her. A rush of emotion overwhelmed her. She felt wild and out of control. She wasn’t dangerous, but her teachers suggested she needed help.
Her parents, attorney Andy Hall and fitness instructor Julie Hall, had wrestled with their daughter’s mental illness since she was about 3 years old, soon after her younger brother was born.
Marian was a gregarious toddler, but she could become sullen and withdrawn. Sometimes emotions just erupted from her. It was a cycle of manic episodes followed by deep depression.
The Halls sought help for their daughter, but the therapists and psychiatrists never could seem to get the right combination of treatments.
Eventually Marian was diagnosed with bipolar and borderline personality disorders, both mood disorders characterized by extreme sways in temperament.
By middle school, Marian would fall into deep depressions and withdrew from all social activity for days. She sat alone in her room with the lights off. She snapped at her parents for trying to draw her out for chores or church. Verbal fights often ensued.
It sounds like normal youthful rebellion. But there’s the rub. It was far more than that. The Halls’ daughter was in real emotional pain and the family felt largely helpless to help her.
Marian started contemplating suicide in her early teens. Her parents admitted her to the former Mercy Franklin Center for treatment multiple times.
The last time came in September 2013. The doctors suggested Marian be admitted to the residential treatment facility at Orchard Place, a Des Moines institution that helps children with mood disorders and other mental health struggles.
The thought of sending Marian away for treatment broke the Halls’ heart. But the strain of Marian’s mood disorders threatened to fracture the family. Practically all their attention was consumed by dealing with Marian’s highs and lows.
“We needed to heal the family without Marian so we could heal with her,” Julie Hall said.
Julie Hall still can’t talk about the day she and her husband took Marian to Orchard Place. Her eyes glaze over with tears.
Marian begged not to go. She screamed. She promised to do better. But the Halls found the resolve. They packed her bag and committed her.
The early weeks were awful. Marian was angry and petulant in joint sessions with her therapist and parents. She found Orchard Place’s behavior restrictions stifling.
She wasn’t allowed pens or pencils – no sharp objects. She took notes and wrote for school with soft-tipped markers. Her clothes had no strings. The dress code was strict. No tank tops or midriffs or overly tight shirts and pants.
One of the ways borderline personality disorder manifests is through a tendency to manipulate people. Marian would often trick new volunteers or inexperienced staff members into letting her break the rules.
So Orchard Place staff made a new rule: Marian wasn’t allowed to ask new people for help, only the veterans.
Marian was allowed only two phone calls home per week. After some time, she was allowed one overnight visit with her parents. In letters and cards written in marker she begged for her parents to come take her home. It was all Julie and Andy could do not to, but they stayed the course.
About three months into her stay, one of the residents took his own life while on an overnight visit home. It shook the other youth at Orchard Place, Marian especially so.
Earlier in the day, one of the teachers at the Orchard Place school had used a Slinky toy in a classroom demonstration. Marian stole it. She snuck it to her room. Normally, residents were searched before returning to the residential area to avoid contraband, but Marian avoided detection.
Marian bent the toy and made one end sharp. She dug it into her wrist. She was 16 years old and in such emotional pain that the pain from that cut actually felt good.
Marian stopped after a short scrape. The moment could have ended there. She could have hidden the cut under her clothing and escaped any consequences.
But Marian reported herself to staff. She still isn’t sure why. But that moment proved a major turning point in her recovery. She recognized the thing she was doing to feel better was wrong and she stopped herself.
When a resident attempts self-harm or has a manic episode, Orchard Place staff isolate the child in a quiet room. They can’t leave until they’ve calmed down.
A therapist visited Marian in the quiet room. The therapist told her this would be the last time she cut herself. All Marian needed to do was decide that it was never going to happen again.
There were going to be good days and bad days, of course, but today was the last day she hurt herself if she wanted it to be, the therapist said.
This resonated with Marian. From that day forward, slowly but steadily, Marian started getting better.
At Orchard Place, Marion found fellowship with a group of peers who struggled through battles with their own brain chemistry.
For the first time in her life, she felt like she wasn’t alone in the world. She found fellow travelers.
Visits home became more pleasant and happy, though the return to Orchard Place was always sad. On one visit home, Marian cleaned her grandfather’s home without being asked.
That was when Julie Hall knew her daughter was finding her true self.
Marian was released to return home in September 2014 after a full year at Orchard Place.
Most of her friends from school before Orchard Place had moved on with their lives. But Marian remained close with her Orchard Place friends and still hangs out with most of them today.
Marian was shopping at Jordan Creek with one of her Orchard Place friends. The friend stopped them and asked what was wrong with their clothes.
Marian thought they looked fine. Her friend noted, however, that Marian had a hoodie on with the string in – a no-no at Orchard Place. And her friend was wearing a tank top, also banned garb.
The pair laughed and reveled in their freedom.
Marian is enrolled in an online school. She will earn her high school diploma in about a year. Her childhood dream was to attend the University of Iowa and then Yale University Law School.
Marian wants to be a sex crime prosecutor similar to her TV hero, Olivia Benson from “Law & Order: SVU.”
She still has some bad days, but not as intense as before. She’s better at recognizing when her mental status is wavering.
Marian recently started medicine for attention deficit disorder. The formula for good mental health is a tricky equation. Adjustments are constant. The mind is always a work in progress.
Marian tells her story without holding back. She wants to remove the stigma from mental health issues.
And she’s also worried about Gov. Terry Branstad’s assault on mental health care in the state.
State funding is drying up. Facilities are closing in moves that favor frugality over humanity.
Orchard Place has already closed one of its five residential houses because of funding problems. Stays for chronically ill youth are getting shorter.
The facility runs the risk of becoming less of a long-term treatment center and more of an emergency shelter.
Marian is better, but she is not content to leave behind her fellow travelers on the journey to mental health.
“Orchard Place saved my life,” Marian said. “We need it to be there to save the other people who are like me, too.”
Daniel P. Finney, the Register's Metro Voice columnist, is a Drake University alumnus who grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @newsmanone.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To learn more about Orchard Place and its programs or to make a donation, visitwww.orchardplace.org.