As opening sentences go, the one Mary Carmichael wrote for this week's cover is one of the more chilling I can remember: "Max Blake was 7 the first time he tried to kill himself."
Thus begins Mary's account of the Blake family's struggle with Max's bipolar disorder, a serious mental illness typified by recurring bouts of mania and depression. Roughly 6.5 million Americans are affected by it, and of those about 800,000 are under the age of 18. It is a mysterious and stigmatizing disease. As Mary writes in her piece, which was edited by David Noonan, the bipolar brain is miswired, but no one knows why this happens, and while there are many drugs, many do not work well, or at all. And the number of bipolar diagnoses is rising, which means you are going to be hearing more about this disease and its effects in the coming years.
All of which are the kinds of general points you would expect from a piece of journalism about a disease and its sufferers. They are important points. What you are more likely to take away from Mary's story of the Blakes, however, is less about medicine and science and more about the family itself—a family whose story is so raw and so real that I asked Mary why anyone would let a reporter get so close. "They told me right off, the first time I met them, that they felt this kind of story hadn't been told and they wanted to help other parents—to make them realize they're not alone.
"Driving through Peabody, Mass., on my way to meet the Blakes for the first time five months ago, I was struck by their neighborhood: it was so ordinary," Mary says. "There were kids shooting hoops in their driveways, a postman walking from mailbox to mailbox—and the Blakes' own house had a full-height flagpole in the front yard. I've been a journalist long enough to know that appearance often belies reality, but still, this was classic suburbia, a neighborhood just like the one where I grew up. It didn't seem like a place where bizarre or horrible or unpredictable things happened on a daily basis. Then I met Max.
"Over the next five months I spent a lot of time with the Blakes. By a few weeks in, I was pretty sure that at some point Max was going to attack me. I'd already seen him bite his mother on the first full day I spent with the family. The two of us were playing tag. Max is 10, but he weighs more than I do, and he came running at me and almost knocked me over. I knew he was in a good mood, but I also didn't know what would happen if I accidentally shoved him a little while righting myself. He might shove back. I was thinking, 'Oh, my God, I'm terrified of a 10-year-old.'
"Max never did attack me, though, and in fact, the last time I saw him he said 'I love you' to me. That's the main thing I learned: with kids like him, you never know what you're going to get. That's probably why I felt so much sympathy for Amy and Richie Blake. All parents want predictability; all parents want to protect their kids. But parents of mentally ill kids like Max—truly sick kids, with severe disorders—can never know what that kind of safety feels like. They can move to leafy suburbs and enroll their kids in good therapeutic schools, but they can never be sure they have protected their kids, because ultimately, you can't protect a child from himself. Amy Blake told me at one point that everything she has ever predicted for Max has turned out to be wrong. Like her, I worry a lot about what will happen to him. But I'm not going to try to predict anything, either. I'm just going to stay in touch, because as much as Max sometimes scares me, I love him, too."