Sorting Out Eliana

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

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.”




Behind the symptoms

They went straight to Lakeside and Eliana began 14 weeks of treatment. “It was a time of upheaval and terror for our family as we struggled to sort out Eliana’s bewildering array of symptoms and get her the correct diagnosis,” says Silbermann. Eliana was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic manias and deep suicidal depressions. “It was devastating,” Silbermann remembers, “but in a strange way it also brought us some relief; a correct diagnosis meant we could deal with what we had been handed.”

At around the same time, Eliana was also diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy, which was causing her to have blackouts. She was hospitalized six times from the age of 16 to 19, including the week before her graduation from Margolin Hebrew Academy/Feinstone Yeshiva of the South. She started to panic about what lay ahead of her after high school. “I didn’t know how to handle it. I was scared about college, about being a grownup,” she explains.

She quickly learned that her fears were no different from most other high school graduates’ and that she would have to take life “one step at a time,” she says. She was discharged from the hospital on her graduation day and delivered a stirring speech that evening about her unique high school challenges and what she had learned from the experience.

Eliana learned as much about others as she did about herself in treatment. “The whole experience made me much more empathetic,” she says. “I’m more tolerant and less quick to judge others’ behavior. I met people who were so different. It opened my eyes to everything out there.”

In addition, her experience has helped her put “everything in perspective.” She wants teens currently being treated for behavioral disorders to know that life does get better. During high school she thought she was missing out on so much.

“Now I realize that’s just a small part of life.”


Moving forward

Eliana lives at home with three of her four siblings and says they get along well now that she is doing better and has overcome the guilt that she felt about the hardships they endured due to her illness.     

“I am in a much better place now,” says the psychology honors program student. She has many friends, loves college and is enjoying her independence. She plays racquetball, reads, and is learning to cook. Eliana is especially fond of writing short, “absurd” stories that express her newfound ability to love life and not be so serious.

Eliana has worked as a tutor for the University of Memphis educational support program and as a volunteer in the psychology lab. She says the college environment has helped her “because it’s more focused on independent learning. There’s more freedom and less stress.” She expects to graduate in fall 2015 and is considering going for a master’s and possibly a Ph.D. in psychology. She would like to help others in need.

Eliana is grateful to the JC Runyon Foundation for helping her complete her college education. “Because of how my diagnosis affected me in my high school years, it was difficult to qualify for the usual [college] scholarships.

Furthermore, all the money needed for my care made it hard for my family to fund college, especially with four other siblings to consider,” she says.

Beyond the financial support, the scholarship has given Eliana a priceless emotional benefit, the validation that her illness “wasn’t my fault,” she explains.

“I realize that I didn’t plan for this. It’s not something I need to feel ashamed about.”


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