It seems that the onset of a loved one’s illness may occur more rapidly than our willingness to accept that they have a mental illness. Initially it is easy to look for alternative explanations for changes in behaviors, or even ignore what is happening, hoping for the best. One would think that at some point seeking help would be a no-brainer for family members, but in our case there was an element of shock and bewilderment along with the denial that prevented us from taking action until there was an extreme crisis. We were a middle class family living in the suburbs, and this wasn’t supposed to happen to people like us. This was compounded by limited access to good treatment options.
Since my mom’s illness was present by the time I was born, I have had many discussions with my dad about what it was like for him in those early years. Initially he began to notice her paranoid thinking whenever they were in social situations. When attending family or work gatherings, my mom would believe everyone was plotting against her and accuse my dad of being in on it. I recall that our plans for outings to the circus, vacations, gatherings with family or friends were often cancelled at the last minute, but the explanations for why came later as I became aware that she had some significant issues. We soon became estranged from our relatives and isolated from friends, because it was just easier to avoid situations that could trigger her symptoms.
By the time my youngest sister was born, my mom’s symptoms had progressed, and I’ll never forget my father telling us that she believed the babies had been switched at birth and that my sister wasn’t really hers. She maintained that belief until the day she died, and even sat my sister down in high school to let her know that she loved her, even though she wasn’t really her child. When she came home from the hospital, she was angry and distressed, and over the next few years she began spiraling further into her illness.
Still, I didn’t want to believe my mom was sick, and became indignant when my brother came into my room when I was about 12 and told me she was “crazy”. Even though at that point it was hard to ignore her illness based on all of her symptoms, I preferred to believe that I was causing her stress and just needed to behave better.
The summer of my 8th grade year was one I will never forget. My mom spent many hours riding her bike or driving slowly around the neighborhood with tinfoil on her head and a whistle around her neck in order to keep others from beaming into her thoughts. I remember her trying to push my sister out of the car once, before she drove off slowly because she thought there were some kind of cans following her. Shortly after that my dad took her car keys away, and she never drove again.
Some times my mom would become quite angry because she thought she was dragging around dead bodies, handicapped people, or many other scary delusions. She was obsessed with the devil and would back me into a corner and accuse me of being the devil on many occasions. Though I spent many of my meal times separated from the family in the kitchen, these were a source of great stress too. Sometimes there was no food because she thought it had talked to her and threw it away, or she would leave a cart full of groceries at the store because she thought the check-out person was “evil”. She unplugged most of our appliances including the refrigerator and wall air conditioning unit, unscrewed light bulbs, and kept the radio and t.v. blaring static loudly in between channels in order to keep “them” from getting into her head. This went on night and day, and soon everyone in our neighborhood became aware of her behavior, much to my embarrassment.
I spent as much time as possible outside or at a friend’s house, sometimes by choice, and some times because my mom locked me out of the house. It felt like my dad was not standing up for me, but now I realize he may have preferred that I was in a safer environment, as she some times became quite physical.
He was still at a loss about how to find help. He spoke to our doctor and other professionals, who told him to bring her in and they would be happy to see her. He knew this wasn’t an alternative since she didn’t believe she was sick and would refuse to go. He was told that his only other choice was to have her committed, and this broke his heart. It was only after a particularly difficult evening, when she had locked me out of the house and I’d tried to force my way in leading to an altercation with her, that he knew he needed to do something drastic.
It was the beginning of the school year, and as I was getting off the bus I saw my brother running towards me so that I didn’t see the sheriff’s car in our driveway taking my mom away. He led me to the woods behind our house, where we stood until the sheriff’s car drove off with my mom in it. After the car was out of sight and we were back in the house, my brother went out front and saw my dad leaning over the open hood of the car, sobbing because he had to have her committed. What distressed him the most that day was that she was sleeping peacefully on the couch when they showed up. I blamed myself because of the altercation we had the prior evening. I was most upset because for the first time in my life I had told her I hated her and called her a bitch. I thought I’d never see her again.
I hate to admit the relief I felt not having her in our household for the next few months. Our visits to the hospital were stressful, and she was extremely angry, especially at me for “causing this”, and my dad for placing her in a psychiatric facility. As with so many others, this was our introduction to the mental health care system, and there were many other such experiences to follow. More than once, I was called home from school because my mom was having a frightening hallucination, and this often led to a trip back to the hospital so that she would get back on her medication.
It is still difficult to talk about these experiences for several reasons. First, it evokes many unpleasant memories, and second, I fear that it will bring people down to talk about it. I don’t share many stories because it does make others uncomfortable and I don’t like to dwell on the past. The only thing I can do is to move forward and do the best I can now. That time in my life may have contributed to the person I am today, but it does not define me.
It is only after all of these years that I can see a clear reason to write about these experiences. I believe that I, like so many others who have family members with mental illness, need some kind of outlet and source of direction and hope for the future. I wanted to open the door and allow a peek, in order to provide the context of why it is so important to continue pushing for good mental health care and family support.
If you are dealing with a family member or friend with a mental illness, do not be discouraged and stop seeking help. It is important to make the needs and impact of these illnesses known in order to ensure access to good mental health care now and in the future. Improvements in the system can only be achieved when we believe we deserve it just as much as someone with any other medical illness.