Tuesday, July 9, 2024

When Mental Illness Shows Up In The Family


Most of us who have undergone mental health challenges, or who have had a loved one confront the demon, know that it can be the worst thing in the world to grapple by ourselves. In our digital age some find it easier to lose themselves online, and try to forget about their depression, anxiety, or runaway symptoms that have no name. But avoidance and neglect of symptoms may worsen the situation.

When mental illness shows up in the family, what can be done about it? My story relates to two earlier time periods of discovery when the stigma of mental illness was so profound that it needed to be hidden from sight or treated outside the family circle in institutions that were rarely effective for dual diagnosis patients.

           I have been a caregiver for two loved ones, a sister, Sharon, with schizophrenia and a son, Michael, with bipolar disease. Both experienced major mental breakdowns that required intervention.

My sister’s story is tragic, since her mental breakdown occurred in 1963, when the men in white coats stealthily took you away in a straitjacket with sirens blaring from your home. Sharon’s excruciating experience of hospitalization had nothing to do with love and support. It was about our father stepping in and arranging for enforced hospitalization, for isolation, for restraint and punishment. Any future trips to any hospital over her entire lifetime left her traumatized and sicker than when she entered the facility.

           My son, Michael, had a different story. His mental breakdown had a variety of symptoms that I began to identify as some real issues, although he shrugged them off as “no problem, Mom.” In his last year of high school Mike began to use drugs, sleep in late, associate with “stoners,” neglect his hygiene, and act out violently, if provoked. I knew something was wrong, dreadfully wrong.

           After months of wringing our hands, my husband, Jim, and I decided we needed to seek help. When we reached out to a highly recommended psychiatrist, I thought our problems were over. Taking Mike into the doctor’s office twice weekly provided  solutions, or so we hoped. Talk therapy alone did not work. Instead, Mike was taught about “contracts” with parents, written agreements about changing his behavior that would allow him to stay in the home. One week the contract worked on Mike’s slovenly behavior—refusing to shower, brush his teeth or wear clean clothes. Another week the contract focused on his shouting at us and defying house rules. Another week, the psychiatrist set up a contract that restricted his stoner friends from coming into the home. It went on and on for months to little avail.

The weekly contracts exhausted all of us: Mike and parents alike. We often left the office feeling even more powerless over Mike’s behavior. Rather than drawing clear limits, these contracts allowed Mike to shred up the written agreement and act out more defiantly than before, often with the doctor’s tacit approval. “Well, he’s an adolescent, Mom and Dad. He just needs more space.”   

Although we had five other children, all of whom were aghast at Mike’s behavior, none of them could grasp why he behaved this way or what could be done about it. Growing up, Mike had always enjoyed loving support from his siblings, but not in these aberrant circumstances. I noticed that as my children began to retreat from his care, Jim and I had to provide whatever family backing Mike seemed to need. We were never given guidelines from this psychiatrist about what to do when Mike went berserk, and ignored our entreaties to calm down. The mental health thinking at the time did not offer peer therapy for the acting-out adolescent, or family therapy for the whole family, or even educational support for overwhelmed parents. It was a private affair among parents, psychiatrist, and mental patient.

In a one-on-one conversation with the psychiatrist about Mike’s drug use, the psychiatrist laughed off my concerns, saying “I can give him medications that will override the street drugs.” What medications were those? I thought. Of course, these were a mirage.

 In that moment I determined to place our son in recovery, and 14 different institutions later, and throughout his twenties, Michael jumped from home to hanging out with friends to homelessness, and institutionalization. Mike knew he was in trouble. We talked with him about limits. He knew those limits. When he defied them, the cycle would begin, departure from home and ending up in a recovery facility and finally a half-way house. We continued to support Mike financially and lovingly throughout this period, including throughout his marriage, which lasted five years. Mike was given limited custody with his son, and they developed a strong bond that persists today.

My adult son, Mike, has taken joy in those periods where he has sober mental health in between his only-too-frequent relapses. In such cases he is on his own today with a year of recovery behind him. With a shrinking support structure, though, we can only hope for the best.

When do parents stop caring for their severely mentally disturbed child? Answer: Never. When do parents move to protect themselves and other members of their family from outrageous behavior. Answer: Immediately. But not without first finding the resources that work for both you and your loved one. I always add the proviso: as long as it is possible for parents to shoulder the care responsibility. **     


** Check out my memoir, “Raging Currents: Mental Illness and Family” that expands on this story and offers a range of resources for bipolar disease.

Monday, June 24, 2024

Radio Interview

Here's a link to my recent radio show. Thanks for checking it out.


Friday, June 21, 2024

Close Up Radio Interview

I recently had a radio interview with Jim Masters from CUTV News in New Haven, CT. Jim was a great interviewer and we were able to explore a number of mental health issues during the interview.


Thursday, May 16, 2024

Erased, Disgraced, Displaced, Misplaced: The Homeless Mentally Ill

     Any discussion of treatment for the mentally ill begins with location. Where can they live? Is the environment habitable? Friendly? Supportive? Therapeutic? Are services nearby? What kind of services are needed? Why, then, is the treatment for the mentally ill homeless population so horrendously dreadful, counter-productive of healing, and unable to provide this vulnerable population physical and mental restoration?

         I describe the lack of treatment and understanding as being erased disgraced, displaced, and misplaced: four distinct steps that severely undercut the well-being of this vulnerable group of people.

         A homeless person faces erasure—not quite human, unworthy, and despicable. Disgraced—no place at any inn to take them in. The housed ignore them, their chapped hands out for money standing on street corners. The authorities round them up, pushing them to another place, still one more place. Forever maligned and displaced. Some end up in prison. In fact, 40% of American prisons and jails are filled with the mentally ill, while thousands more are simply left homeless, wandering from place to place, riding buses or finding public library seats to keep warm, pushed along by police from one homeless camp to another.

         Christian missions and private charities have opened their doors to these labeled misfits—those who are homeless and mentally ill—but such facilities lack the resources to intervene in any meaningful way. Where are the psychiatrists, the medications, the secure lodging on a 24-hour basis, the meals, the daily care plan? Such facilities have none of these, despite their doing the best with limited funds.

         My son, Michael, suffering from bipolar disease and panic attacks, confronted this four-tiered stigma when he was home invaded and forced out of his apartment by thugs. Although he was never arrested, he endured each of these. He was effectively erased from the human race, and allowed to sink into the depths of homelessness for over a year. His identity as a responsible renter evaporated as landlords and even mental health staff treated him as incompetent, discredited and humiliated.

         As Michael wandered the streets seeking assistance—food, medicine, rest, a friendly face—he was constantly rebuffed. No room in the overcrowded mission, no food in the pantries, no medical care on the premises. Empty. The missions tried but accommodating Michael with his dual diagnosis of drug dependency and severe bipolar condition, made worse by cold, hunger, and loneliness, added to his sense of being totally misplaced.

         When Michael experienced a mental health crisis, and increasingly a number of physical health crises—pneumonia, kidney failure, or other medical catastrophe—he was often in for only an overnight and shunted out the next morning with prescription in hand, but no transportation to get to the pharmacy to have the prescription filled. Hospital visits became one more misplaced accommodation.

         Still, my homeless son persisted, seeking help, being cooperative, and even sharing his limited food or cigarettes with others, Mike humbled himself to find an opening in the mental health system to squeeze into. And that help opened up in a two-fold process. The first facility offered a regular bed and meals program; primarily a place to recoup mentally and physically. Mike needed to be resocialized, take directions, and learn to live in a congregate setting.

         Succeeding in this facility meant he could graduate to a full intensive recovery program available with a separate, shared bedroom, work program, therapists, classes, and a reward system. After the candidate had completed the program, he could apply for independent living. Mike had reached the pinnacle: Securing an apartment to live drug free and with mental health assistance.

         I suspect my son’s two-year journey through the stigma maze is a miracle. Many of our society’s mentally ill face a lifetime of rejection and stigma. In the wealthiest country of the world, how is it possible that our mentally ill population continues to grow; a festering wound at the heart of every American city and town.



Thank You Chanticleer Team

 Thank you to the Chanticleer Book Reviews & Media team for congratulating me on winning Journey Category First Place Winner. I am honored to be a part of the Chanticleer community and a member of The Roost, a perch for writers to share their ideas.

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

New Book Awards Achieved

 I was delighted to receive three book awards for "Raging Currents: Mental Illness and Family" at the Chanticleer International Author’s Conference held on April 20, 2024, in Bellingham, Washington. These include two finalist awards and a first-place award for Journey, a Narrative Non-Fiction, Memoir.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Have You Considered This?

The articles below look at mental illness from two distinct perspectives. The first reminds us that severe mental illness has a genetic connection. The second emphasizes that not all relapses in mental illness are equal. Street drugs play a major role in mental health setbacks. 

Mental Illness Is A Family Affair

   "No matter your situation, keep in mind that you don't need to know what you need to start getting care." National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, March 2024.       

                                       Mental Illness Is A Family Affair

    This quote from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill reminded me that mental illness is a family affair. It doesn’t mercifully stop with one generation but randomly chooses its victims in generations to come. This means that parents and guardians, as well as the afflicted young person, need to be on the alert for behavioral challenges that could indicate the need to receive care.

           I was shocked and surprised to realize that among my 10 grandchildren, over half suffer from some form of mental health or brain challenge: bipolar disease, anxiety disorder, depression, autism, and addiction. The appearance of these maladies did not erupt into view until the young person reached out for independence somewhere in their early to mid-twenties. Adulthood is tough enough, but try making it when you’re saddled with the demon of mental disorder.

           I recall a grandson making a poignant statement when he was 25 years old, “I’m not sure I want to be an adult; it’s too f____ hard.” Aside from his poor choice of language, at my urging, this grandson sought mental health care. It was only during the treatment that he discovered the reasons for his disordered mind and spirit: he was experiencing deep depression and ADHD. Although he did not share his specific type of medications, I know he was on physician prescriptions. I also know that he found talk therapy very helpful. Above all, he no longer felt alone in battling his symptoms. After months of treatment, he now works full-time and lives happily with his partner and daughter.

           Isn’t it amazing how mental health care actually works when we allow ourselves the time and patience to heal.



Not Just Another Relapse


When the mentally ill fail to stay on their antipsychotic medication, all hell breaks loose. Their lives become unmanageable. They are left empty and broken. A sad state of affairs that I have witnessed many times with my son Michael. His severe form of bipolar disease allows for little deviation. Without his medication, he unravels only too swiftly.

           I’ve collected dozens of stories about his downfalls, but the one I found that best summarizes the predicament of a mentally disordered person who has lost his way is the following. Anyone participating in Twelve Step programs will hear this kind of story repeated over and over.

           Mike is still in Texas in 1985, having secured a sober lifestyle, but after a misplaced visit by his father, who insisted he needed a car, my son began unraveling. The boy could not cope with his co-dependent parent, who thought Mike should be looked after, but only projected his own anxiety onto his already anxiety-ridden son. After a few weeks of this unsolicited help, Mike stopped taking his medication, and after all his progress, began his rapid disintegration: sobriety, a job, friends, a place to live—all gone.

           First, the car broke down. Michael drove it into the ground and ruined the engine. Mike shared the larger story of his undoing.

           “I was irresponsible. I didn’t follow the rules of the road, so the engine broke down. The car had over 150,000 miles on it and was getting too old to take the punishment. So, I walked back to work and asked a coworker if he’d take a look at it. Not only didn’t he fix it right, but he also damaged it more. It kept backfiring out the tailpipe. So, I got Dad, who had returned home, on the phone, and he paid for Bob’s Mechanic to fix the problem.

           I had a bad attitude, so I got kicked out of the Program, which meant I didn’t have a place to live anymore. When I went back to the townhouse, I pushed my way in by verbally abusing the gatekeeper, keeping me out. After all the name-calling, he punched me in the face, broke my sunglasses, and, grabbing the broken lens, cut me on my upper nose right between my eyes. I staggered out of the house, totally disoriented, my face cut up, and a black eye. I bumped into a black lady while walking the street, and she tended to my wounds.

           I had a couple of jobs in landscaping but goofed up. I started to lose track of the time, didn’t even know what day it was. I didn’t have any money; I just lived in my car. I sold my high school graduation watch and my best LP records and stereo to a woman for some pot. I had nothing. I was totally washed up. Of course, I called my Dad, and he took another plane to Texas to take me home.”

           Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this relapse is how much progress Michael had accomplished but how swiftly he returned to ground zero: returning to his childhood home, where he viewed himself as a failure.