By Julie Beaulieu
In the recent death of Robin Williams, I reflected on the people I’ve known in my life who have suffered from mental illness, including my mother and a close friend. All forms of mental illness are serious diseases that have drastic effects on not only an individual, but his or her families and loved ones.
As mentioned in a previous blog of mine, I was raised as an only child, growing up with a schizophrenic mother, and a father who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from his experiences in the Vietnam War. I have an older half-sister from my father’s first marriage who grew up in a different household. I’m also the only grandchild of Polish immigrants.
Although my mother sought treatment in her thirties for depression, she was misdiagnosed. At age 40, she suffered a psychotic break and was first hospitalized. I was in high school. Frightened and ashamed, I did my best to hide her illness from my friends.
While in college, I received a call from my mother’s job stating that she had been sent to the emergency room. What I recall most from that psychiatric hospitalization was my grandfather saying, “I hope I die before I see her go into the hospital again.” His wish came true. My grandfather passed away from heart disease in the fall of 1992. The point is for my readers to realize the extreme pain and devastation these illnesses bring not only to an individual, but to the entire family.
My grandparents generation, that of World War II, viewed mental illness as a shameful embarrassment, that was to be kept a secrete at all costs. Both of my grandparents constantly agonized over the haunting thoughts of what they had done wrong as parents to have such an ill child. Still, prior to my grandmother falling ill with vascular dementia in 2007, she would walk half a mile to the hospital to visit her daughter into her mid-eighties saying, “She is my flesh and blood.”
In 2007, my mother had several hospitalizations which consumed six months of her life out of that year. I knew that something needed to be done to keep her on her medication while she was at home, so I sought a Community Roger’s Order and Medical Guardianship of her. My mother is now under a court order to be medicated against her will and has not been hospitalized since the fall of 2009.
However, my experience with suicide goes back to my childhood, knowing that my godmother’s father had suffered a horrific death before I was born. This man was, like my grandfather, a veteran of the Polish army from World War II, who had relocated to American in the early 1950’s. I can only speculate that he suffered from PTSD and depression. He was a husband and father of two adult children when one day, in the late 1960’s, the poured gasoline all over his bedroom, tied himself to the bed, and lit the room on fire.
Men suffer from depression as much as women do, but are less likely to get help and more likely to succeed at a suicide attempt. (The Mask of Male Depression http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=major_depression&template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=79265)
My father, a Vietnam veteran, also suffers from PTDS related anxiety and depression, which he self-medicated for years with alcohol and drugs. In 2006, he completed an in-patient program at the Veteran’s Hospital in Leeds and now takes prescription medication.
An incident that still remains in my mind was the tragic loss of a male friend, P, who committed suicide by hanging in 2000. I remember P as, “the life of the party,” and as someone who always clowned around. Yet, he had a sensitive side.
Something dark had lived inside of him. At the age of 10, P’s mother lost her battle with cancer. She died in bed while sleeping next to her son. P carried this pain and sorrow with him through out his life, and often self-medicated with alcohol and drugs.
As time went on, P began to use heavier drugs and had been in and out of rehab. He developed serious financial problems. He had relationship problems. After a brief failed marriage, another serious relationship had ended. He was asked to leave a house he shared with roommates and had to stay with a relative.
Shortly before his death, he abandoned an in-house rehab program and began using again. I kept asking his other male friends what was wrong. They felt that P’s problems, at the time, were private. Soon after, he was found dead. People closest to him felt that he wouldn’t commit suicide because he had a young son. Regrets ran rampant among his circle of friends, including myself. I wrote this poem about P, trying to imagine what he may have been feeling.
I am not strong enough to face anymore tomorrows.
I am not strong enough to look at myself in the mirror.
I am not strong enough to stop.
I am not strong enough to continue failing.
I am not strong enough to be a father, a lover, a worker, a friend.
I am not strong enough to be who I once was.
I am not strong enough to be who all of you expect me to be.
I am not strong enough to even realize who I am anymore.
I am not strong enough to get better, to get well.
I was strong enough to make one last choice.
I was not strong enough to realize how much I was loved.
Be strong, all of you.
Be strong enough to forgive me.
Be strong enough to let me go.
Be strong for each other, and remember me always.
Help is always available to those who need it. Perhaps P had an underlying depressive illness that may not have been diagnosed during detoxification. Drugs and alcohol far too often mask mental illnesses.
Over a year ago, I did a story on local activist and volunteer for the Western Massachusetts NAMI chapter (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Ted Dunn, a former professor and football coach at Springfield College. Now in his 90’s, Dunn spoke openly about his own battle with depression.
Dunn is also author of the book, “Living with Depressive Illness and Finding Joy Again: A Holistic Approach.”
Luckily, my mother never has attempted suicide, although she has mentioned it on occasion. Never take a threat of suicide lightly and seek help immediately, either for yourself, or a loved one. For more information go to http://www.nami.org
Photos courtesy of Catholic News Service.