As a child, Brittany’s eyes sparkled with hope of a great future. Today her eyes are darkened, tired from night after night of couch surfing—wondering which way to go next.
The former Leelanau County woman left home after her 18th birthday and has been in Traverse City for more than a year.
“I told her she’d have to find someplace else to live if she couldn’t follow the rules,” said her mother, whose identity along with that of her daughter are being withheld in this article.
Brittany’s story is that of perhaps the most difficult group of people to treat for mental illness—young adults.
“When she was little, Brittany was bright and sparkled with an outgoing personality,” said her mother, who was a foster mother to the little girl with her husband before adopting her at age 17 months. “But as she got bigger, things began to change.”
Brittany was diagnosed at age 6 with “oppositional defiant disorder”, a mood disorder described as a pattern of negative, hostile and defiant behavior lasting for at least six months. Like others with the same disorder, Brittany’s behavior caused problems socially and academically. People with the disorder don’t see themselves as defiant, but justify their behavior as a response to unreasonable demands or circumstances.
“We saw counselor after counselor and argue. Everything was everyone else’s fault,” his mother said.
At age 16, her parents contacted Northern Family Intervention Services, which over several months made visits to their house and the school in an attempt to keep the family together. Initially, counseling made a bit of a difference with Brittany, but it didn’t last.
“We considered a Christian-based program, but it was in the Dominican Republic and cost $40,000. We just couldn’t do it,” mom said.
In talking with counselors and doing their own research, Brittany was identified as having “histrionic personality disorder.” Often abbreviated as HPD, those affected display a seemingly never-ending pattern of attention-seeking and excessively dramatic behaviors beginning in early adulthood that extends across a broad range of situations. Individuals with HPD are highly emotional, charming, energetic, manipulative, seductive, impulsive, erratic and demanding, according to the Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders.
“She loves to perform … loves to be the center of attention,” her mother said. “I have to be careful not to compliment someone’s hair or outfit, because she gets jealous.”
It was fall of 2009 when Brittany’s parents had all they could take. Their daughter would not get up for school. Efforts to homeschool the troubled young woman fell by the wayside.
“I told her that she needed to follow the house rules or find someplace else to live,” her mother said.
Unfortunately, one of the symptoms of histrionic personality disorder is denial of the diagnosis. Brittany got on the phone and left hours later. She has not lived at home since, at least on a long-term basis. Her parents continue to pay for a cell phone so she can stay in touch with them.
“I worry about her being with people she doesn’t even know,” Brittany’s mother said, adding that she “couch surfs” by staying with different people in a number of different places. Some have taken her in for long periods.
“She puts on a good story. But it doesn’t take long for her to start treating them like she treated us.”
January and February 2010 was not a good time for Brittany. At that point, she had been away from home for five months.
“She called, saying she was cold and hungry. Someone had stolen the coat and boots we had bought for her,” Brittany’s mother said.
After describing where she was — near Northwestern Michigan College — Brittany was directed to a nearby restaurant and told to order something to eat. Her father arrived in time to pay for the meal, but Brittany left the restaurant to continue on her own.
In Brittany’s absence, her mother learned that mental illness runs on both sides of her biological parents’ families.
“We worry about her safety. We try to be supportive and let her know we still love her. But we won’t let her disrupt everyone else’s life,” her mother said. “It’s heart-breaking. She has so much potential. Maybe with age and experience she’ll get better.”