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Abandoning the shame of mental illness

Erik Lamberg's disappearance in May prompts his wife to no longer keep his bipolar diagnosis a secret, on the off chance he'll be found alive.

August 16, 2013|Sandy Banks
  • Erik Lamberg, left, and his wife, Samantha Lamberg, right, pose with their children for a family photograph. Erik Lamberg set out for Oregon in May, but he hasn't been seen or heard from since.
Erik Lamberg, left, and his wife, Samantha Lamberg, right, pose with their…

Her husband had been emotionally unraveling for months; paranoid, delusional, his mind hijacked by stubborn mental illness and dangerous drugs.

So when Erik Lamberg left his family in Hermosa Beach and set out for Oregon — to get sober, he said — his wife, Samantha Lamberg, was concerned about his stability. She also felt an odd sense of relief.

He'd been in and out of treatment for 12 years. Maybe this time he'd find the solace and clarity he needed. Maybe his family would have a respite from years of drama and grief.

But three days after Erik hit the road on May 23, his texts and phone calls home stopped. On June 1, his van was found stuck in the mud on a wilderness road in Mendocino County.

He hasn't been seen or heard from in the 2 1/2 months since. His phone goes straight to voicemail, his credit cards haven't been used, his bank account is untouched.

His wife, who spent so many years trying to keep her husband's illness a secret from outsiders, is now desperately, constantly sharing their story in hopes that someone will spot him.

She doesn't know what to make of his disappearance, and authorities don't seem inclined to invest much effort in finding her husband. There is no Amber Alert for a mentally unbalanced, middle-aged man who vanishes on a trip.

The ambiguity of the absence "is harder than dealing with someone's death," Samantha said.

"How do you deal with not knowing? What do you do? When do you know it's time to switch over?"

Not yet, is all she knows.

Switching over would mean accepting the logic that says Erik might be dead.

::

Erik seemed all sunshine when Samantha met him in April 1988.

She'd just graduated from Yale with an English degree. He'd been a double major — political science and international relations — at USC. She was working for a software company. He was selling copiers. Their first date was a Hockney exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

They moved in together five months later when she started law school at UCLA. They liked the same things: the beach, music, animals, hiking. They got married in 1992, on Leap Year Day.

"He was very smart, very unpredictable, very funny," Samantha recalled. "I was sort of an introvert and he was incredibly social and incredibly charming. Manic qualities I didn't recognize; they were very attractive back then."

That's the way mental illness can be: eccentric becomes odd, interesting becomes alarming, delightfully spontaneous turns dangerously unpredictable.

She remembers realizing several years into their marriage "that something was wrong, but I couldn't put my finger on it. I don't remember thinking then that he had an illness. But everything just affected him more deeply...

"I told him 'You need to talk to someone, something is wrong.' He went willingly and was diagnosed bipolar right away," she said.

By then Erik was also drinking heavily. Substance abuse and mental illness often go hand in hand. It's a way of self-medicating untreated emotional pain.

Erik's doctor sent him to an Arizona treatment center, followed by more treatment in Tennessee. That launched a years-long odyssey of recovery and relapse, chasing sanity and sobriety.

During extended periods of good mental health, the couple had a son and daughter, now 15 and 10.

Erik, now 51, was never able to conquer the demons that ultimately turned a gentle, creative man into a tortured paranoid psychotic.

"I stayed with him for all these years because he was a lovely person and my kids adored him," Samantha explained. "Because behind the disease was this person worth saving."

Still, Erik's ups and downs frustrated and frightened his wife. "I've always been 'OK, problem. How do I solve it? I'll get a book about bipolar, read it and we'll get him well.'"

But no book could corral her husband when he was running barefoot and screaming through the streets of Redondo Beach.

It took her a long time to understand that "with bipolar and addiction, it's not 'If the wife does everything perfectly, the husband will get better.'"

::

Samantha, 48, took a leave from her law practice to spend this summer with her children, support the search-and-rescue teams looking for her husband and spread the family's story on her Facebook page, Help Us Find Erik Lamberg.

She's gone beyond trolling for clues and is trying to draw attention to the plight of families wrestling with the shame of a loved one's mental illness. Talking about it openly has been scary, but it's liberated her from the embarrassment.

"I kept it secret from outsiders," she said. "People wouldn't want to send over the kids for play dates if they knew."

Now her husband's mental issues are common knowledge in their community. "What they see is: 'Here's this nice family in Hermosa Beach; dad from USC, mom from Yale, two beautiful kids, and it happened to them. This can happen to anyone,'" she said.

What's still hard but somehow comforting is talking with her children, whose father's absence has stretched past both their birthdays, Father's Day and her son's middle school graduation. "They are shockingly unashamed," Samantha said. They know that, despite his illness, their father loved them.

"The kids in the beginning were absolutely certain he was going to come back," she said. She was more worried, though she didn't say it then, that their father might not be found alive.

Samantha doesn't want to extinguish her children's hope before they're ready to let go. "But I had to have the conversation: 'It's possible they may not find him. There's a possibility he may be dead.'

"I don't want them looking around every corner for the rest of their lives, wondering if they see their dad."

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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