“R” and I sat glued to our conversation, astonished and excited that, by some amazing coincidence, we both had a passionate interest in what we were talking about: how mental distress tends to be handled by the psychiatric or medical professions – not to mention friends and neighbours — with sometimes tragic results. In her case, the result has been the suicide of three people in her life. She believes that all could have been prevented with good therapy. Instead all were prescribed pills.
Her cousin Grayson* was 19 years old when he ended his own life. A budding poet, six months earlier, he had miraculously extracted himself from a serious motor cycle accident “by jackknifing himself up and into a bush” she said . He dazzled people with his gymnastic and diving skills. But her feeling was that in his family, he felt unheard, his father was a “withholder”. At one point earlier in his teens Grayson had decided not to speak for a week – and “no one noticed”. He must have felt very powerless. He was only about 16 at the time.
He had been hospitalized for depression. In the end, he took an overdose of his pills. Within a short time, in grief, his girlfriend also took her own life. His mother was hospitalized for awhile, with a ‘psychotic breakdown’. Decades later, after being told by her doctor that she was a bother to her family, she also took her own life. He apparently told her this, even knowing that she was “manic-depressive”. Would most of us not, at a minimum, find this insensitive? A doctor…?
R and I, it turns out, both feel strongly that there is such a thing as effective therapy, that it should be easily accessed. We both also felt that all of the aforementioned events, as well as most depression and mental illness, are a product of ‘environmental factors’. Regardless of what ‘experts’ say.
I can hear it now: “You can’t say for sure therapy would have helped.” “Maybe different pills would have worked.” “It was probably in their genes.” But to me, her description of the relationships in the family, the “communication styles”, all sound like a certain type of family culture that seems so familiar – a kind of destructive sub-culture: A family in which people don’t talk about feelings. And not only don’t acknowledge feelings, but barely acknowledge each other.
Similar in certain ways to to the writer’s family in ‘What Disturbs Our Blood’ (by James Fitzgerald). The family members don’t even come close to fulfilling basic needs that all family members have: to feel acknowledged, openly loved and accepted, and hopefully some affection thrown in. Instead, there’s an atmosphere of judgmental silence, physical and emotional distance.
Six months after Grayson’s death, his younger brother Jeremy (17) was using marijuana, which appeared to trigger a breakdown (possibly repressed grief, she thought) and was hospitalized, where he received electro-shock therapy. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and has been coping with that for decades. His last hospitalization was 13 years ago. His ‘excellent health and balance’ since that time, R credits to “Feldenkrais ‘body movement’, journal writing, art therapy, accupuncture, homeopathic medicine and a psychiatric nurse and doctor, all of whom act, through him, as a team.” He has also used reflexology, massage and directs his own care. In your dreams, as they say. In my dreams, certainly.
And so the story goes. Who knows when or where it will change, or end. This tragic narrative was one of many I’ve heard since I started talking about my uncle who was hospitalized for twenty years with a diagnosis of “schizophrenia”. When people hear our own story, they often open up. It seems most families have had to deal with some form of mental illness. And the more we talk about it, the more we contribute to reducing stigma.
A few weeks ago, another woman I’ve known for 40 years told me about her niece having a psychotic breakdown and being hospitalized. She would not have mentioned it if I had not shared my thinking. Why? “What would people think!?” Stigma is as simple as that. Stigma. “…a distinguishing mark of social disgrace: the stigma of having been in prison”. And ironically, as a society, are we not imprisoned by our ignorance? People dare not admit to any kind of emotional or mental distress for fear of others’ silent judgments. Doesn’t that just add to the tragedy?
How do we change it? As a society — or as individuals — what changes are we willing to make?
A collection of Grayson’s poetry was put together by his sister and a cousin after his death. Here is one of them as a reminder of his lost potential….
Only a flower in a crystal vase,
But sweet spring freshness fills the air.
Drifting and searching always to give
Steal a breath and feel its strength.
Only the distant pulse of a song,
Beating its echoes on the soul:
A flowing power that seems alive,
Be the music and know its depth.
Only a candle splashing its life
In bounding colour and radiant warmth
Seeking then resting, always aglow
Live the sight and touch its beauty.
*names have been changed to protect the innocent!