I read this post today after I had posted the referenced article yesterday. Maybe I’m a hopeless compromiser, but I understand the position of both. I hate the idea of trivializing the mentally ill, and I know for sure that the nearly all of the people with mental illness are not the future murderers of our time.
Something I almost never talk about is the history of mental illness in my family. And I almost never talk about it because we were all hopeless and it was the scariest thing that ever happened to us. The author of the article “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” very accurately explained the way I felt when I lived at home with a person who was mentally ill.
Because the person who was ill has completely recovered, for reasons I cannot understand, I will publicly refer to this person as “my family member” in order to protect their privacy. And I have spoken with this person in the past about having permission to write about our shared past. I have been struggling with the words and timing, but now seems like the right time.
When I was a young adult, the years just before and just after meeting Rob, my family member was dangerously mentally ill. It began as what was diagnosed as bi-polar disorder, and my family member was prescribed prozac, my family member was a minor at the time. We now talk about the increased risk for suicide with the use of anti-depressants, but at the time we didn’t know. When my family member called me at work after taking two bottles of pills, things got scary, with repeated stays in the mental ward of our local hospital.
The eventual medicine cocktail given to my family member, intended to treat their mental symptoms of schizophrenia, suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety did not help. Instead my family member went into cardiac arrest in the halls of our highschool. My family member was threatened with expulsion for drug use on campus before my mom was called in to share my family member’s medical history. My mom chose to stop giving my family members any medication because she was worried my family member may die, and was becoming increasingly unstable. Besides collapsing in hallways, they were hearing voices which instructed my family member to kill my grandmother who lived with us at the time. We had no idea what to think or do to help my family member, we just hoped nothing bad would happen.
While my family member struggled to live with their mental illness, they won a $40,000 scholarship to college, and graduated with a higher than 4.0 gpa. After graduation, my family member got in their car and drove out to the west coast. We worried we would never see them again… and lo and behold they didn’t come home in time for college and lost their scholarship. The only reason my family member came home is because on their circuit through to the east coast they crashed their car 80 miles from our home.
There is so much more I can say about the minutia of incidents. And if I did, people could accuse me of trivializing my family member, reducing them to a stereotype of a mentally ill person. I loved this person so intensely, and I knew that every beautiful thing about them was being strangled by disease. For those intense years, this is what defined our family. I feared that my family member would hurt themself, hurt someone else, or disappear all together. And the medical system caused our family more hurt than help. We shared our struggle with nearly no one because we didn’t know what to say. We were hopeless, and my mom was pushed so far, I think she shut down completely.
Today my family member is completely functioning. They are well, they are productive, they have meaningful relationships, they are unmedicated. But what was that? What happened? The system has not even given us the framework to understand what happened so we are left with stereotypes and misunderstandings. Or we just ignore it and don’t talk about it, which is what my family chooses to do most of the time.
It is disturbing. The way we marginalise people with mental illness is disturbing. The way we scapegoat them is disturbing. The way we medicate them is disturbing. Even if 99.9% of mentally ill people are not murderers, it doesn’t change the fact that we need to fix this. We need to understand what is happening within them, and we need to discover how to help them. And we need to support the family members who love the mentally ill, because they are suffering just as much as the one who is ill, and they have no idea what to do about it. We need to fix that. The whole thing is broken.
I spoke with my family member about posting this, just in case they wanted me to remove it. This is what they responded with (and then gave me permission to post):
Keep it up, please. I know a lot of parents read your blog, and I think it is important to discuss these things in an open way. No one shames people when they say, “my stomach/ arm/ head hurts,” but mental health problems are often ignored for various reasons by the mentally ill, as well as those around them, until they reach a critical level. I often wonder what would have happened to me had someone noticed sooner, and had I gotten the right help. I remember being depressed in preschool! There was an elephant-shaped chair I would sit on and cry for no reason. I told my teachers that I missed home because it was the only reason I could think of to be sad, even though I wasn’t sad about it.
We as families and a society need to start taking these things seriously, but also need to realize that the ‘mentally ill’ are not just homeless people talking to themselves. They are our sisters, brothers, parents, friends, etc. They (we) are smart, loving people capable of so much more than the illness allows. And we should not shame the ill, nor should we trivialize the illness any more than we shame and trivialize the diabetic.
Thanks for being respectful and offering to remove the post. I hope, however, that by leaving it up someone may read it and think a little differently about mental illness, and how we deal with it as a country and as people. I love you too!