Today my husband noticed his nurse, Sharice, wearing a green band bracelet. "May is Mental Illness Awareness Month", she responded. Being on the Neuro floor of the hospital, I didn't think that was odd. I told her of our writing group and my intention of writing about mental illness in my family. She continued, "50% of mental illness is undiagnosed---people say 'He acts up' or 'She's just quirky' or 'That's the way she is'. There's such a stigma to putting a name on it. My son is bi-polar. We thought it was just him until we really looked around at the family. I am upfront about it because I'm always searching for ideas on how to treat it and someone may know something I don't know."
Yes, I know that feeling. I had grown up with mental illness in my extended family, but one night while studying in my sorority house, I realized that we had mental illness on both sides of the family. I freaked out! I knew my Aunt M was mentally ill. The only time I ever saw my father sob was the day he had to testify in court for her to be committed to the Insane Asylum (now St. Louis Psychiatric Hospital) on Arsenal Street. I had lived on Arsenal Street as a young child and people would say, "Do you live in the "crazy house?". So having my father's sister going there was horrifying. After shock treatments and medications, she was eventually released and continued raising her family, but. .. .I can remember when I was a teenager and she confided in me that "someone" told her she was going to be ex-communicated from the Catholic Church. I tried to reassure her that she wouldn't be. But now I wonder if she was still hearing voices.
Aunt M wasn't the first or the last in that line to be mentally ill. My great-grandmother Mary Reiter had one brother who was committed to Farmington Insane Asylum for depression where he hung himself with his bed sheet. (click here for more information) She also had a sister who was "just odd" (click here). My aunt was not Mary Reiter's only grandchild who was mentally ill. There were at least two more who committed suicide. "It runs in the family" was often mentioned as a warning.
I didn't know my Aunt M was mentally ill until I was about 8 or 9 years old. But, I'd always know that my great-grandmother, Mattie, on my mother's side had been mentally ill. Mom and Grandma talked about her freely. She was committed to Farmington Insane Asylum when Grandma was 12 or 13, leaving Grandma in foster care because her father had died. When Mom was about 10, Grandma and Grandpa petitioned to have Mattie released to their care after being in an asylum for 20 years. Mom remembers her just sitting on the front porch, rocking---never saying much. She (and my grandmother) did read tea leaves. Now I wonder how much was "reading " tea leaves and how much was listening to voices.
When my mother's nephew (my cousin) B turned 21, he started acting "odd". Mom thought he must have
|Mattie Sollis on the left|
been doing drugs. Eventually, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He is very bright having grown up with Harvard students living with his family, but he's never held a full-time job. Mom became a little obsessed with wondering what her grandmother had. Eventually, we got a court order to have her records released. Mattie had had schizophrenia as had her 2 brothers. I later found one of her brothers also at Farmington Insane Asylum where he died of tuberculosis. I still have not located her other brother. But meanwhile found a cousin of hers in an asylum in Tennessee.
I thought it was odd that with so much insanity in Mother's family that it had skipped two generations. Mother believed drugs triggered B's, but I believe his mother (my mother's sister) was also mentally ill but used alcohol to silence the voices.
Today, I have two cousins (one on each side) who are mentally ill. Thankfully neither is in an institution and with medication, they lead fairly normal lives. When B is off his meds we get a lot of phone calls and e-mails on all sorts of topics like "I was watching the Red Sox game and heard the crowd chanting my poetry" Recently, he has been in assisted living and the phone calls are more like,"Hey, I need more underwear" or "My computer isn't working."
So, back to Sharice's comments. Yes, it runs in families. Yes, it is sometime undiagnosed and often disguised by alcohol or drug use. Yes, there's a stigma which is why I've used initials rather than full names for many. I am fortunate that I've never had to deal with a mentally ill close family relative. I don't mean to make light of the condition, but it's something we've learned to live with like diabetes or a hereditary heart condition.
When I asked Mom if as a child she was embarrassed to have her mentally ill grandmother sit on the front porch. She said, "no, never. She was so gentle, never said much. Besides, in the South, everyone had a grandparent that was that way."I laughed when I first saw a painted sign that said, "Here in the South, we don't hide CRAZY, we parade it on the porch and give it sweet tea". Yup, that's my family.