Sometime in the darkest hours of May 14, after putting away the groceries from WinCo and watching some old episodes of the X-Files, Jessica Dolin descended the creaky staircase into the basement of her North Portland bungalow, lit a candle and arranged nine Tarot cards in an upside-down cross, with the card of Justice at the intersection. Then she swallowed a handful of sleeping pills, slit her wrists with a paring knife and tied a plastic bag over her head. Her girlfriend discovered her crumpled, lifeless body by the washing machine the following afternoon. She was 29 years old.
Some suicides are acts of desperation; others, gestures of defiance. Either way, it's hard to see the justice in Jessica's death. She was young, intelligent and attractive, and although exceedingly petite (she stood 4 foot 9), she was also exceedingly fit--she ran marathons and could bench-press 90 pounds. She grew up in a stable, middle-class household with supportive parents. She had a warm and loving relationship with her girlfriend. She made a successful--if unconventional--living as a professional dominatrix under the name of Goddess Athena.
Those things melted into insignificance before a single, radioactive fact. Jessica Dolin suffered from bipolar disorder, better known as manic depression--a disease so devastating that approximately 10 percent of its victims kill themselves, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
Jessica's suicide has torn a gaping wound in the lives of all the people she left behind, particularly her girlfriend, her mother and her brother, each of whom broke into tears when they talked to WW about her. But none of her survivors has suffered more than her father, Dr. Leigh Dolin.
Perched in an office cluttered with medical journals and patient files, Leigh sinks into his swivelback chair and sighs. A short, scrappy 56-year-old from the Bronx, he favors owlish eyeglasses and a handlebar moustache that, together with ruffled eyebrows and a hawkish nose, give him an endearing, birdlike expression.
Ever since he was 6 years old, a scrawny Jewish kid on the streets of the Bronx, Leigh wanted to be a doctor. His entire career is based on the premise that Medicine Works.
Jessica's disease demolished that proposition like a steamroller flattening a tin can.
And I know this book of My Scriptures will be beneficial to everyone. My only fear is the fear of myself, I've got the life force that only the True Martyrs of Emotions Shall Possess: IT! ...I DO NOT DENY MY POWER!! ...The stronger I get, the more helpless others become, and the more impossible it is to deny Power.... Please, anybody--destroy my personal space, prove me wrong, wreck my truth, degrade me, hug me, love me, stalk me, use me, kiss me, hate me, want me, lust after me, worship me.
--from the Revelation of
Jessica Jezebel Joplin
Jessica was a dynamo from the get-go. Born two months premature, she was always small--and compensated by acting big. In middle school, as her classmates sprouted up around her, she joined the track team and ran cross-country. She could do more chin-ups than anyone else in the school--male or female. She used to love to challenge guys to arm-wrestling matches. She was stubborn as hell.
"As a little girl, there was no question who was in charge of the family," Leigh chuckles. "It was her."
At Lincoln High School, she lurched through a procession of adolescent woes--boy trouble, cliques, sleeplessness, self-esteem issues. She was a flirt. She smoked pot. Like most parents, the Dolins see-sawed between the hope that she just had a bad case of teenage rebellion and the nagging doubt that something was seriously wrong.
For a while, their optimism seemed well-grounded. Jessica graduated from Lincoln and got through her freshman year at Evergreen State College without major incident. But in February 1994, during her sophomore year, Jessica's world imploded. She suffered a complete psychotic break and went wandering through the woods at night, babbling incoherently to the trees. Her puzzled friends took her to the psychiatric ward of St. Peter Hospital in Olympia, Wash., where she was diagnosed with manic depression.
We all have good days and bad days; compared to manic depression, they're like ant hills next to the Himalayas. The disease disrupts the fundamental mechanisms of the mind, battering the psyche like a wrecking ball. "The brain chemistry is amiss," says Dr. Joseph Bloom, professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University. "There's something wrong with the neurotransmitters."
Paradoxically, the first symptom of the disease is a surge of elation. Although no two cases are identical, victims typically feel self-confident, creative and powerful. They're on the go--they hardly sleep--they feel good. They talk a mile a minute in a nonstop flight of ideas that is almost impossible to interrupt. They hatch grandiose schemes--and fly off the handle at anyone who contradicts them.
They become delusional. They believe they have special powers. They go on wild shopping sprees, make outlandish investments, embark on sexual indiscretions. In severe cases, they hallucinate.
The tidal wave of mania may last for days, weeks or even months. When it finally crashes, the victim typically plunges into deep depression. After the depression lifts, the victim may be stable for an extended period--sometimes years--before the nightmare begins anew.
Manic depression afflicts approximately 2.3 million Americans, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, or 1 percent of the adult population. The numbers vary, but a typical untreated patient may suffer approximately 10 bouts of mania during his or her lifetime, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
For the Dolins--particularly Leigh--Jessica's diagnosis was a breakthrough. In the physician's creed, diagnosis is next to godliness. Diagnosis imposes order on the chaos, transforms the confusing babble of symptoms into a coherent pattern. Diagnosis means scholarly articles, double-blind studies, combination therapies. And while the diagnosis of manic depression is hardly cause for celebration--there is, after all, no cure--with a combination of drugs and counseling, most victims can lead happy, productive lives.
"The diagnosis was in a way something of a relief to her and those who cared about her," Leigh wrote later, "since it provided an explanation for several years of maladaptive behavior as well as a hope for successful treatment."
Jessica was treated with lithium and seemed to make a full recovery. She returned to Evergreen in the fall of 1994. By the following spring, however, the phone calls from Olympia grew confusing. Jessica wasn't sleeping. Jessica was breaking things. She was constantly talking about Janis Joplin, whose music she played full-blast at all hours of the day and night. She was writing "the other half of the Bible." She was getting married--no, she wasn't getting married. In July 1995, she lit a fire on her terrace and was hauled off to the psych ward again.
One of the most maddening aspects of manic depression is that patients often refuse to take their medication. There are reasons for this: The pills can trigger side effects like drowsiness, weight gain and hair loss. But with Jessica, the problem ran deeper. At times she seemed almost addicted to her own mania--and the lithium was a buzz-killer.
After a few days in the hospital, Jessica's mania cooled down. Her psychiatrist had prescribed different medications, which seemed to help. Hopeful that the worst was over, her parents brought her back home to their little bungalow on a quiet street in Northeast Portland.
The change of scenery did little good. Within days, Jessica quit taking her pills. As her mania gathered momentum, she built a "love altar" to Janis Joplin and concocted rituals with candles and Tarot cards. She blasted music at all hours of the night.
Jessica's relapse was a stunning blow to her parents, especially Leigh. They had played everything by the book--the medication, the counseling, the love and support--but it wasn't working. "It was like being stuck on the world's scariest roller coaster, begging to get off but nobody hearing you," Leigh wrote in his diary.
Medical science had produced drugs that could hold the demon at bay--but his daughter wouldn't take them.
Advertisement: Manic Depression is Powerful! It confuses and no one can rest from ITS energy! Fear, Mania, Run from me, and run from God!!... Manic Depression is like shootin up speed, the only problem is I don't have much say in when it happens.
--From the Revelation of
Jessica Jezebel Joplin
Over the next few weeks, Jessica's mania grew steadily worse. She held yard sales on the front lawn. She wandered through the streets at night with a beat-up guitar. She climbed a statue of George Washington and put a whistle, a warning sign and a broken address book in his outstretched palm. She spoke to airplanes. She interviewed dogs. She tried to mail her hospital gown to President Clinton.
"This wasn't the sister I grew up with," says her younger brother, Boris, then a sophomore at Grant High School. "It was very scary."
Leigh insisted she start taking her pills. Jessica said she'd rather kill herself.
Finally, something inside him snapped. Maybe her refusal was part of the disease, maybe it was her underlying personality. It didn't matter. Without the pills, she had no hope of recovery.
"So I give up," he wrote in his diary on Sept. 1, 1995. "As far as I'm concerned, she's dead. A lost cause. Hopeless. I have no more strength to fight. I had a daughter that I loved and dreamed about and had hopes for, but I don't any longer. It's over. May Jessica rest in peace."
Two weeks later, Portland police officers spotted Jessica wandering through the park in her nightgown, screaming at the birds. They took her to Adventist Hospital, where, at her parent's request, she was committed--which finally gave her doctors the power to force her to take her pills. A week later, the mania finally burnt itself out, and Jessica crashed back to earth.
Jessica spent three weeks in the hospital before coming back home. Within days, the mania took hold again--she believed she was in a concentration camp; she was talking to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. She wanted to kill herself. Leigh and Boris dragged her back to the hospital, kicking and screaming.
While Jessica was riding the manic high, Leigh was hitting an all-time low. "So, when was the last time I felt really happy?" he wrote in his diary. "I don't remember. Seems like a long time ago. Oh sure, I feel pleasure at times. Food, sex, an occasional good day at work, a good talk before a group, a good run or racquetball game. But happiness? What does that mean anyway? Not worrying about anything? Leaning back and laughing and saying to myself or even out loud, 'it's great to be alive'? I don't know."
And then, just when the Dolin family had abandoned hope, they got a reprieve.
No one knows why, but that particular episode finally brought Jessica face-to-face with the destructive power of the disease--it "scared me straight," she later wrote. For the first time, she had insight into her own condition. She could look back and see how the mania had torn through the tissue of her life like a hurricane.
With insight came determination. She took her medications religiously--eight to 10 pills at a time--swallowed them even though they made her gain the pounds she had run so far to lose, stiffened the muscles she had worked so hard to build, sallowed her face and made her hair fall out. She swallowed them even though they walled her off from the mania, the beautiful crystalline high that had once sparked through her brain and made her feel like the center of the universe.
It was hell--but it worked. By the spring of 1996, Jessica was stable enough to take a typing class at Portland Community College. Eventually she transferred to Portland State University and majored in psychology, with the goal of becoming a counselor.
Step by step, pill by pill, Jessica rebuilt her life--though she never lost her offbeat personality. She worked out at the gym four to six days a week. She went running once a week with her dad. She started dating a 30-year-old homeless woman named April Welles, who was then living in an '81 Ford Mustang. "Basically, it was love at first sight," says April. "She was nice, kind, wonderful--she loved me unconditionally."
The two made a striking couple--Jessica, the diminutive body-builder, and April, the statuesque Goth chick. They moved in together and explored a mutual interest in Tarot, Wicca, the occult and sci-fi. Meanwhile, Jessica graduated from PSU in September 2000 and got a job at Renaissance, a drop-in center for the mentally ill located at Southeast 40th Avenue and Division Street. It was, in many ways, her dream job--a chance to help others recover from mental illness.
But at the same time, the fragile recovery she had painstakingly constructed was beginning to crumble. For four long years, thanks to medication, counseling and sheer force of will, Jessica had kept the demon under control. Then she stumbled across something that seemed to be the answer to her prayers--but turned out to hold the key to her nightmares.
The basement dungeon is a room full of terrors floating on a sea of bright red carpet, dominated by a seven-foot-high St. Andrew's cross studded with hooks and girdled with ropes. The walls groan with instruments of torture: whips, chains, collars, leashes, lead weights, gags, clothespins, an astonishing variety of rope--smooth white cotton, luxurious red nylon, cruel thick sisal--and a "parachute" (a weighted leather collar strapped around a man's toolbox, not his back).
This is where the slaves of Goddess Athena begged for mercy, at $160 per session.
Jessica and April first started exploring Portland's bondage scene in 2000. April, who briefly tried to earn some money as a professional slave, quickly lost interest. But domination fit Jessica like a leather glove. It was the perfect revenge for being short. It was a way to show off her weightlifter's body. It was fun--and profitable.
Perverse as it may seem, domination is actually a growth industry in Portland--just turn to our Wild Encounters section if you want proof. Hard numbers are almost by definition impossible to come by, but the city now supports approximately a dozen professional dominatrices, or "pro-dommes," as they're known in the biz, who specialize in humiliating their clients.
But for Jessica, domination also held a darker allure. "I have to think it was part of the mania," says Leigh.
Jessica had always been hungry for adulation--now she had devotees who paid for the privilege of debasing themselves. She had always been hypersexual--now she had a quasi-legitimate way to express that energy.
"I am Goddess Athena," read an advertisement she placed in WW. "WORSHIP ME!"
On the surface, everything seemed fine. Jessica still went running with her father every week. She seemed happy and excited about her life. She and Leigh were working on a book about her mania, which consisted of diaries they kept during the worst parts of her illness.
But her parents could not shake off an uneasy feeling. "That's one of the awful things," says Leigh. "Every time Jessica would seem happy, we worried, 'Gosh, is she going to go manic again?' ...We never really felt secure about her. We were always worried something bad was going to happen."
Their uneasiness only deepened when Jessica told her parents she was doing domination in her spare time. "What are you supposed to do when your daughter is advertising herself like that?" Leigh asks.
In February 2001, Jessica's Jekyll-and-Hyde existence--counselor by day, dominatrix by night--imploded with a sinister crunch. A client at Renaissance accused her of luring him into the dungeon and tying him up against his will. Jessica denied it. While the allegation was never verified, she was fired.
Losing her job at Renaissance plunged Jessica into a black depression. "She took that very poorly," says April. "It caused a major depressive crash. It really tore her apart."
Tossed out of her career--under circumstances that would be difficult to explain to a new employer--Jessica turned to domination full-time. Working 20 to 30 hours a month, she was able to support herself and April. Although she never learned to drive, she bought a Mazda RX-7 with license plates that said ATHENA. She set up a website (www.athenas domain.com) and scheduled professional photo shoots. Her ads grew bolder and more provocative.
Meanwhile, the cracks widened. Unwilling to tell her parents that she had been fired, she told them she had found another counseling job. She started spending time in Internet chat rooms and on telephone date lines. She told April it was all for the sake of drumming up business. But in reality, she was going on dates--and, according to two men interviewed by WW, having sex with them.
In the fall of 2002, Jessica hired a local businessman named Jrob Weber of Avalon Marketing to build her website. What happened next remains unclear, but the upshot was that roughly $40,000 worth of hotel rooms, limousines, and office supplies was charged to her credit cards.
When Jessica found out about the charges, she crashed again. The depression was like falling through a hole in the ice. Jessica could talk of nothing but suicide. She was going to lose the house; she was going to lose her clients. By December, Jessica tried electroshock treatment to jolt her out of depression. It didn't seem to help.
In the spring, Jessica's depression veered into mania. She sat on strangers' laps. She'd lie down to go to sleep, then jump up every 30 seconds: "Oh! I've got to go to the gym! Oh! I've got to clean the house! Oh! I've got to write a letter." Even something as simple as a hug could send her into a tailspin of rage and accusation. She constantly worried about the mountain of debt, about losing her clients, about losing the house.
On the evening of Tuesday, May 13, Jessica and April went shopping at WinCo Foods. Jessica seemed to have cooled off. She told a friend she had a dream about being reincarnated as Goddess Athena. That night, as April went to bed, Jessica went down into her dungeon for the
Her suicide note was as puzzling as it was short:
My Dearest April,
I am truly sorry but I had to do it. To my truest slaves I love you more than Jesus! This world is too sad for me I am going to reincarnate to a goddess. Fuck you all who hate me for being gay and a dominatrix.
Jessica didn't even sign it with her name--just two pentagrams and a symbol for woman.
Leigh Dolin still goes into the office five days a week. He still has patients, after all, and they need him. The pictures of Jessica still line his wall. Ask him how he feels, and there's a long pause. "It's like being pushed off a cliff," he says finally.
The journals on his wall carry no description of his condition. The X-ray machines can't detect his wounds. No surgery can replace a daughter. If there's going to be any healing, it lies outside his scope of practice. Pharmaceutical advances, cutting-edge technology, professional conferences--those are medical solutions for medical problems. Medicine has its limits--and no one knows that better than he does.
Leigh Dolin was president of the Oregon Medical Association in 1994.
Friends and family of a person with mental illness can contact the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. See www.nami.org or call (503) 228-5692.
The book Jessica Dolin wrote with her father, The Holy Book of Illusion: A Journey Through Mania, was self-published last year and
is available from Trafford Publishing at www.trafford.com .
Boris Dolin's photo essay about his sister's mania is available at www.catchingadarkness.com .
The Multnomah County 24-Hour Mental-Health Crisis Hotline is (503) 988-4888.
According to Kay Jamison's Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, famous people with bipolar disorder have included Samuel Johnson, Christopher Smart, William Blake, Robert Burns, William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
More famous manic depressives: Thomas More, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Thomas Hood, Robert Schumann, Herman Melville, Virginia Wolff, Ernest Hemingway and Vincent Van Gogh.