First off, let me tell you that it only took me about five minutes to become a huge fan of the show. Mental illness in America is quite literally the crazy aunt in the attic that we don’t talk about, and I’m glad that you have decided to start bringing it up.
I have never had mental illness myself, but I still think of myself as a victim of it. My mother is a bipolar who hears voices, and my older brother is a bipolar who suffers from paranoid delusions.
It goes without saying that my mother’s voices never said things like “Wow! You’re doing a great job! You’re awesome!” Her voices said things like “All of your children are sick and dying,” or “We have pictures of you molesting children.”
That’s the thing about the mental illnesses in my family. They are not quiet, discrete mental illnesses. They are loud and aggressive. Everybody’s parents embarrass them when they are teenagers, but my mom embarrassed me for legitimate reasons and not overdramatized teenaged ones. She would do things like stand up and start screaming at school board meetings, or accuse my teachers of selling me drugs at parent teacher conferences. The “up” part of my mom’s bipolar disorder wasn’t fueled by happiness and optimism. It was angry, and paranoid, and fueled by the conviction that someone was actively hurting her or her family. The “down” cycle was pretty standard, I guess. She would burst into wracking sobs at random moments, or wake me up crying because she was convinced that everyone was “going away forever.”
My brother’s delusions were similarly poisonous. He believed that a man in Richmond, Virginia was pulling strings to ruin his life. The part that scared the shit out of me about that was that this man in Richmond was a real person, and, well, this is Virginia. It’s not like you can buy guns at the CVS, but they don’t put a hell of a lot of inconveniences between people and the Second Amendment. When he was “up” he would go out and max out his credit card, and when he was down he would sit in a room for months and literally cover himself in garbage. He would not clean up after himself, and would get enraged if anyone tried. The rest of the time was spent searching the internet for clues about this man who was ruining his life, and thanks to his illness, he was finding them everywhere. In articles online, in the newspaper, in the tone of voice of the bill collectors who would call day and night.
I managed to not get mental illness. My brother and I have different fathers, and I’m assuming that my Dad’s DNA kept that particular pack of wolves at bay. But I can’t be sure that if I ever have children that they will be safe. I don’t want to bestow that cursed fucking existence onto anyone, and also, if I am honest with myself, I am pretty goddamned sick and tired of crazy people. I think if I had a son or daughter who became my brother or my mom, and if I had to go through all of it again, I think I’d probably fucking kill myself.
Living like this has left me bitter and suspicious and cynical, because I not only saw the worst of my own flesh and blood, but I also saw the worst of our society in how we deal with the mentally ill. I was a teenager with a mom who was clearly buggy ding dong fucking crazy, and I got no help from anyone. Everybody knew my mom was crazy. Teachers, neighbors, friend’s parents, fucking EVERYONE, and nobody did shit. I got a lot of sympathy, but no help, and neither did mom. You can’t just commit somebody. They have to be a danger to themselves or others, and my mom never was. And as far as my mom was concerned, she was the only sane one on the planet. It was everybody else that was crazy.
When I turned around 15 I ran out of fear of her. And I also ran out of sympathy for her illness. Too much had happened, and I had realized that no help was coming from anybody. I just started telling her to go fuck herself. In the middle of her rages, in the middle of her crying jags, whatever, my answer was always “Go fuck yourself. Kill yourself. I don’t give a shit about you, you crazy psychotic bitch. Die already.”
I know that sounds terrible, particularly since you are a victim of mental illness yourself, but this wasn’t just a depressed person that I was dealing with. My life was chaotic, and it was humiliating, and here’s also what it was: entirely my mother’s fucking fault.
My mom stopped taking her lithium when she knew damn well that she had a mental illness. In fact, one of my first memories was my dad taking me to visit my mom at “the hospital,” and I remember the hospital not being like what I had seen on TV. In fact, it reminded me of my kindergarten class. Lots of construction paper and crayon drawings on the walls. I remember that there was an old woman who I got introduced to, and she said hello in a funny voice, and then she started drooling, and then she was led off, and that’s all I remember of visiting my mom in the hospital when I was about 4. I guess when I turned 12 or so she started doing the mental gymnastics that every mentally ill person does eventually. “I don’t need these pills. I’ll be fine.”
When I was 13, she demanded a divorce from my father. My dad didn’t have a full understanding of what was going on. In the first place, my dad was a lot older than my mom, and his thinking was different. As far as her mental illness went, he had that old school mentality of “I thought we fixed that!” I think he thought that she just turned out mean. I know that’s what I thought at first too. He moved to a house across town and left me alone with her, and shortly after that the crying jags and screaming paranoia began in earnest. All those early hospital visits began to be remembered and started to make sense. My dad eventually figured it out and moved back in after about ten months. Ten really long and terrifying months.
One night after a psychosis induced fist fight between me, my dad, and her, she disappeared. Woke up the next morning and she was gone, and she stayed that way for about 18 months. My dad knew where she was, as he was paying the credit card bills, but he didn’t tell me, and I didn’t ask, because I was just glad she was gone. I’d get the occasional phone call from a panicked hotel clerk somewhere, who was calling me, because there was this sobbing woman in the lobby of the hotel who was convinced that her children were all dying, and could I do something please? I’d say “She’s crazy. Call the police.” And I would hang up.
She ended up getting arrested in Pennsylvania, and finally committed. I’m not sure what caused her to get arrested. I have never asked. I don’t want to know.
She’s ok now. Relatively. She hears voices, but is able to keep the volume low. I know it seems strange to say that I have “forgiven” her for being sick, but again, she was the one who stopped taking her pills. I love her, but that love is conditional. If she stops taking her pills to the point where she becomes crazy again (which is ALWAYS a possibility) I will instantly go back to hating her. And make no mistake about it, man, I fucking HATED her.
This has affected me in a lot of ways. I have bailed on more than a few relationships with women who were probably fine, but something would happen, maybe a yelling match that got a little too strident, maybe a bit of behavior that struck me as odd, and I would leave them. The idea of being with someone who might turn crazy is terrifying to me. I’m pretty much resigned to living my life alone by now.
My brother is just now crawling out of the hole that he has dumped himself into. It’s been more difficult for him. My mom had the benefit of being the wife of a military officer, and that health insurance is taken everywhere without question, but my brother had only the soulless, sociopathic clusterfuck that is private health insurance.
This latest episode was the third time that my brother decided that the pills were optional, despite proven evidence to the contrary, and I am still fucking furious with him for that.
I’m also furious at our system. My brother’s shitheel of a psychiatrist saw him for about three weeks, and then insisted that he check himself into the mental hospital, which is fine, except he insisted that he check himself into the really expensive private mental hospital where he practiced, and he did so without bothering to do a cursory glance to see if my brothers health insurance covered such things, and of course it didn’t. 6 days in the mental hospital where nothing was accomplished except $13,000 worth of debt for my brother, who had of course by then lost his job due to his erratic behavior. Said shitheel psychiatrist then stopped seeing my brother because of his inability to pay.
In his paranoid mania, my brother managed to burn every bridge available to him. He was living in a room in my mom’s house (and the stress of having him there was making her condition even more tenuous,) not bathing, pawning everything that wasn’t nailed down so he could buy cigarettes and chewing tobacco and Taco Bell, and searching the internet and newspapers for more and more evidence of this nefarious bastard down in Richmond.
As an aside, the ridiculousness of this delusion could not be understated. Everything about it was ludicrous. My brother was convinced that this man, who is some sort of tycoon, was ruining his life because he would not marry this man’s daughter. My brother, who weighed 300 pounds, could not clean up after himself, and was about 27,000 in debt. That’s who the millionaire must have for his son in law.
Even this guy’s name was ridiculous. Old rich Southern men are given perfectly ludicrous nicknames. Like, if you look at the names of the Crimson Tide booster club you’ll see a lot of guys named “Shuggie” and “Wiggie” and “Coopie.” I will spare you this guy’s actual name, but imagine someone telling you in all seriousness that the person ruining his life is named “Cuddlebear McSnugglepie” and you can imagine the level of frustration that my brother’s delusions caused my family.
We actually had to manipulate the system to get him help. We called the police and told them that my brother was talking about killing himself, and then and only then did they come and get him. They had a hearing, in which he swore up and down that he had never, and we swore up and down that he did, and miraculously, they put him in the county psych ward. Ironically enough, once the pills kicked in, and he stopped focusing on Snugglebear McCuddlePie, and he surveyed the fucking wreckage that was his life, he actually was put on suicide watch.
He lives in a homeless shelter now, and works in a Walgreens. He can’t stay at my moms. That will end up killing her, I know it. My brother says he is on his pills, and he might be. I mean, he’s holding down a job. But he’s been losing weight lately, and that makes me nervous. That could be a sign he isn’t on his pills. There are several, and I know them all pretty well by now.
· Weight Loss
· Putting tape over peepholes on doors or on any available webcam on any computer
· Assigning significance to the trivial. “Hey man, did you leave this cup near the sink?”
· Sudden religiosity. Intense bible study. Wearing a cross.
From here it’s only a few weeks before he’s back to hunting for more evidence of the Cuddlebear conspiracy to the exclusion of everything else. And it would not surprise me if he did get off his pills. Even after seeing what not taking his medication has done to him, I bet somewhere in his brain is a little wind up cymbal monkey, just clanging those cymbals together again and again and again, and those cymbals sound like “You’ll be fine! You don’t need them! It’ll be ok this time!”
I recently caught my mom succumbing to that same cymbal monkey recently. She’s going through chemotherapy, and convinced herself that the lithium would make things worse. Do you get that? After knowing goddamn well what happened to her, and after seeing what happened to her son, and even though she still has auditory hallucinations, she still managed to get to the point where she thought that MAYBE IT WOULD BE OK THIS TIME.
I’m sure there are things that I don’t get. I’m not them. I’m not mentally ill. But after someone has taken their shoes and used them to beat the living shit out of you, the last thing you want to do is put them on and walk a mile in them. My sympathy reservoir is pretty much empty at this point. I’m know I’m not really a victim, but I’m just worn out. In fact, I’m a fucking absolutist in how I think we should treat the mentally ill. I say we bring back the guys in the white coats with the butterfly nets. I say we start enforcing treatment. To me, a vagrant on a street corner crying into a trashcan is no different than a guy lying on the street with a broken leg, yet for some reason we do nothing for one and call the ambulance for the other. Maybe because there isn’t a quality profit margin in treating crazy, I guess.
My mom made me paranoid about women, and my brother made me furious about paranoia. Every time I see some right wing Cleetus on some political show going on about one conspiracy or another, I don’t laugh it off. I get really angry. I think “Fuck you. What makes YOU so goddamned special? And who’s life are YOU destroying with this delusion, you selfish, non-pill taking son of a bitch?”
I don’t know if I’ll ever get over this. I’m almost 40. I’m shell shocked, and I don’t know how to relate to people. I’m lonely but am afraid everyone is going to become crazy, so I keep my distance. Pretty much every relationship that I have developed over the past fifteen years or so has been superficial. Guys I drink with at bars. Women I have flings with that go nowhere.
My friends are all married with kids. I can’t do that, so I’m the weird guy. I get invited over for Sunday football less and less. I understand why. I get it.
Anyway, I just wanted to bring to your attention the plight of those who aren’t mentally ill, but get fucked completely by it anyway. Not that you have neglected the subject or anything, or been dismissive of it, but there is a whole peripheral group of people who suffer due to mental illness, and suffer pretty hard.
Thank you for your podcast. It makes me feel better. And thank you for tolerating the ramblethon that was this e-mail, if indeed you have gotten this far.