David Lauderdale

THATS: Soap Box Derby win 'for Carol Anne' sheds light on deadly bipolar disorder

Sean Brown won the All-American Soap Box Derby on July 24 over a field of 556 racers.

The victory was a special thrill for his grandfather, Dan Brown of Hilton Head Island, because he'd tried to do the same thing in 1948. "I told him it took our family 62 years to get to the bottom of the hill," Dan Brown said.

But a greater victory can come from this race than an ecstatic 14-year-old boy from Spotsylvania, Va., being hugged by his father at the finish line.

Sean won the race in his sister's car.

Carol Anne Brown's name was painted on the side, just like his, among the licking red flames that made the white car appear so dashing. Carol Anne's picture was taped inside the car.

And her mother had sprinkled some of Carol Anne's ashes in it as well.

Carol Anne Brown was 18 when she took her life at Easter, a little more than a year ago.

She had just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which pushes its victims to unhealthy, manic behaviors and sudden crashes into depression. When Carol Anne's death was discovered by her mother in their lovely home, it ended a 3 1/2-year struggle within their model child who had it all.

Todd and Michelle Brown wrote in her obituary:

"Carol Anne was vivacious, outgoing and genuine. Her hugs were extraordinary and her smile was boundless. Her quick wit took many by surprise and she accepted people for who they were. She never met a stranger. She was an accomplished equestrian, cheerleader, lacrosse player, actress and avid Soap Box Derby racer. She enjoyed playing guitar and piano. She loved all animals and loved serving the handicapped. She had more than 300 community service hours before beginning college at James Madison University."

They also had the courage to put this in the hometown newspaper before about 1,000 people attended both her wake and the funeral:

"Despite her incredible attributes, Carol Anne suffered from the destructive illness of depression and bipolarism.

"The Brown family encourages everyone who recognizes that their loved ones are suffering from this dreaded illness, especially teenagers during these most fragile years, to seek medical and consultative attention immediately."

The greater victory in the fabled Akron, Ohio, soap box derby will come as it helps the Brown family's experience save the lives of others.


Carol Anne's heart gave new life to someone else, and four other organs live on in others.

But a greater legacy may be that Todd and Michelle Brown are speaking up, reaching out and pleading in every way they can for other parents to understand bipolar disorder and get the help they need.

They've created a website: www.bipolaraware.org. On it, they tell their wrenching story in a video, and use interactive technology to help others recognize symptoms and maneuver the hell bipolar disorder will put them through. Before the website went up in June, Todd Brown had already spoken to 20 groups about bipolar disorder.

On Hilton Head, her grandparents Dan and Betsy Brown also speak openly about the hush-hush issues of suicide and mental illness -- hardships that many think would never affect such a bright and successful family. But it does, and more people are starting to recognize that mental illness should have no stigma.

When Dan Brown stepped down after eight years on the board of the Hilton Head Boys & Girls Club, his colleagues dedicated the club's Performing Arts Center to the memory of Carol Anne. A plaque by the door bears her name and reads: "May we always be sensitive to the mental health of our children."


Todd Brown started coming to Hilton Head with his parents when he was 8 years old. He's now a 47-year-old investment adviser whose wife and three children have all loved the Lowcountry.

"We turned Carol Anne on to Gregg Russell, just as we were turned on to Gregg Russell many years ago," Todd said, of the Harbour Town entertainer. "She loved the Salty Dog. She'd get on the web camera and call her friends on her cell phone so they'd watch."

As a high school freshman, Carol Anne started acting differently, but her parents thought it was normal teenage behavior. By 16, she was a completely different person.

"We didn't know which person we'd see each day," Todd said, "the one who was an overachiever or the one with risky behaviors -- drinking, self-medicating, missing curfew or not coming home at all. She would argue and not stop arguing."

Midway through her junior year, the Browns tried a boarding school in Maine known to help turn around troubled teens. Carol Anne had a pretty good experience there and also did well in her senior year at a boarding school in Virginia that specialized in the arts. She played Marian the Librarian in the school play and got early acceptance into James Madison University.

But at the same time, when she came home, Carol Anne's behavior was bizarre. She was bulimic and she cut herself, usually on the forearm, with knives.

"I would ask, 'Why on earth would you do this, honey?' and she said, 'To relieve the pain,' " Todd said. "You cannot understand the illogical nature of this disease."

The Browns warn others to watch for changes in personality, ultra-high energy, lack of sleep, risky behaviors, self-medication, erratic spending or the inability to get out of bed.

The Browns had their daughter tested. She saw many counselors and got a diagnosis they believe was wrong. She took medication, but probably not the right kind.

Things went downhill fast at college. Carol Anne lasted a semester and eventually was unable to live at home. She learned that life on her own was tough and asked to come back home. She was welcomed warmly.

Then a local psychologist assured the family of what they suspected, that Carol Anne was bipolar. During these sessions, the Browns learned Carol Anne had already tried twice to kill herself.

During the second week of a six-week wait it would take to see a psychiatrist and get a treatment plan in place, Carol Anne took her life. It was Easter weekend, and her upbeat personality was in full bloom. She had a bright yellow dress and wanted pictures taken with her friends. She organized an Easter egg hunt with her brother and sister.

Just as quickly, the beautiful 4-foot-11 bundle of energy plunged deep into depression.


Under the bed in her pink bedroom, Carol Anne's parents found books on mental health. The family had come to grips with bipolar disorder only weeks before she died, but the voracious young reader was apparently trying to learn all about it.

"One of her most common statements was, 'I'm so frustrated,' " Todd said.

It showed in a diary her parents found. Todd said reading it was as hard as the death.

"She couldn't be the person she was or wanted to be," Todd said. "She said nobody loved her anymore, which is so far from the truth."

On the video at their website, the Browns talk bluntly about the experience.

Tough love was not a good response, they say, and taking things away from her was not as appropriate as a hug would've been.

"Of course, if I could rewind the clock, knowing what I now know, would I do things differently? You better believe I would," Todd says to the camera. "Maybe that's the message we really want to get out to those families who have loved ones suffering from this horrible illness. You do have to treat them differently."


The Browns cling to the overwhelmingly positive times of Carol Anne's life.

"I have to work hard on Earth, so I may be worthy enough to join my daughter in heaven," Michelle says on the video. "That brings me peace."

Michelle feels especially close to Carol Anne when a butterfly visits.

Before the first of five heats in Sean Brown's Rally Super Stock Division of the 73rd annual Soap Box Derby, a white butterfly flew up to Michelle and her other daughter, Erin, before flitting over to the large contingent of their supporters from Culpeper, Va.

Eight hours later, with Sean lined up in Lane 3 for the final, championship race, a white butterfly and a second butterfly circled Michelle and Erin, then landed in Lane 3.

After the race, Carol Anne's story went national, and their new website got 3,000 hits last week.

"Carol Anne really needs to get this message out and she knows it, and what better way to do it," her father said.

In all the hubbub of the winner's circle, young Sean told a reporter: "When they called my name (as the winner), I didn't know what to think -- except that this one was for Carol Anne."