Sorting Out Eliana

One family's journey to understand their daughter's mental illness

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When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was both upset and relieved,” writes 20-year-old Eliana Silbermann. “Relieved that I finally had an answer; a name for the terrible lows and the devastating highs. Upset because there I was, at age 16, hit with a label and the confirmation of a life-long illness. I would never again be ‘healthy.’ And because bipolar is a mental illness, there is a stigma. I’m now crazy, insane, wacko, mental, psycho, screwy, and more. “Except that I’m not. I have goals and dreams…”

Eliana Silbermann, a junior at the University of Memphis, was describing in an essay what it was like to be a teenager with bipolar disorder. She submitted her thoughts as part of an application to the JC Runyon Foundation, and won a college scholarship worth $3,000 per semester until she graduates. The coed was recently honored at a dinner hosted by the Runyon Foundation.

Eliana is not alone in her struggle. Each year, Lakeside Hospital treats about 2,000 adolescents ages 12 to 18, for emotional disturbances, mental illness, or drug addiction. Niki Shaheen understands their plight. That’s why she established the local foundation in 2010, in memory of her father, John Charles “Jack” Runyon, a psychologist who spent his life tirelessly helping people who showed their dedication to get better. The foundation provides college scholarships to encourage students who have been through psychiatric or addiction in-patient treatment to get an education and strive for their dreams.

“Unfortunately, once the psychological treatment is over and symptoms are managed, there are precious few resources to help them get back on track,” says Shaheen. “Psychiatric care is expensive and the expenses can last a lifetime, leaving little for college tuition and expenses. We have the financial resources to help them achieve their hopes and dreams,” she says.

Eliana and her mother spoke at the dinner, giving Runyon Foundation friends and donors a glimpse into their lives. Eliana candidly shared more with me when we met at Starbucks a few weeks later.


From seizures to depression  

As a baby, Eliana had a rare seizure disorder and doctors told Jan and Frank Silbermann, that their daughter would never walk or talk and would be severely mentally challenged. Unwilling to accept that prognosis, the Silbermanns put their daughter on the ultrahigh-fat ketogenic diet that has proven beneficial for patients with epilepsy. After two years, she was cured.

Hurricane Katrina uprooted Eliana and her family from New Orleans. They found refuge in Memphis. As As an eighth grader, Eliana adjusted well to her new environment and flourished, for a while.

In tenth grade, she began having episodes of depression. “It made me withdraw from people and not interact,” but, says Eliana, “I didn’t realize anything was wrong.” Thankfully, her parents, friends and teachers did. After consulting a doctor, the 15-year-old was misdiagnosed with major depression. She received medication and counseling but it didn’t eliminate her symptoms. “She would seem to get better only to fall back into depression again,” explains Jan Silbermann. “Eventually her manias became more and more obvious.”

“One day, my 16-year-old daughter told me she could fly. Not only could she fly but she was going to go to the top of the I-Bank and show us.” Silbermann recalls. “I suggested to her gently that before she did all that, maybe she’d like to come with me to the hospital. She was so manic at the time that she agreed.”


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