Kind of funny, using this title so close to Halloween. I have repeated this many times to family and friends. My daughter had to do a genogram for health class. A genogram gives a family health history in a family tree form. Ours is filled with some doozies. Aside from my own health issues, including a stroke, Lupus, chronic anemia, etc. my family’s genogram is fraught with many low-lying issues such as hypertension, diabetes, drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness. The mental illness is the most difficult. I always say there are no skeletons in our closet, they are all out walking around in plain view!
My brother David is a 58 year old man who has lived a very complex life. My mother said she thought he was hyperactive as a kid, but back in the 60s there was no diagnosis for those ‘boisterous’ kids. He was asked to leave (expelled) from Catholic School in 7th grade and went on to the local public school. When our oldest brother was killed in a car accident, David had many issues dealing with the loss. At the tender age of 15 he discovered drugs. He was able to graduate from high school and enlisted in the Navy. He was only there for a short time. He made it through boot camp, but was unable to function after that. He was dishonorably discharged. He came home to work at my dad’s gas station. He was a great worker on his good days, which was maybe once a week. On his bad days, one task could take many hours. He was also spiraling into a realm of drinking and drugs. Self-medicating, I gather. I have one particularly vivid memory of David, in a drug-fueled rage, jumping on my mother’s station wagon with a sledge hammer and shattering the windshield. After the police came an involuntary commitment followed(in PA it is called a 302). I was seven at the time. I had noticed a pattern with David. None of my family slept well when he was home because we never knew what to expect. We all slept soundly, however, the many times he was in the state hospital or the drug rehab facility. From ages 7 to 10, I was dragged to the hospital several times to visit him. I questioned my mother why the other patients were walking so funny or looked glassy-eyed. She replied that they were probably on Thorazine. When my brother David came out to visit with us, he had the same shuffling gate, muted gestures and glassy eyes. Several years later, I named it the ‘Thorazine Shuffle”. My brother was first diagnosed a schizophrenic, then depressed, then a depressed schizophrenic. When he would return home from his rehab visit I always had this expectation that he would be okay and life would finally settle down. It was always a very short-lived respite from the craziness, though. Combined with my mother’s own obsessive-compulsive hoarding we sure were the talk of the neighborhood. Forget worrying about what the neighbors thought, we were just trying to get through each day without a violent escapade.
David did meet and marry a woman. He lived with her and her parents after they were married. Her father was good to David, but he ruled with an iron fist. David seemed to manage quite well. David and his wife bought a house and shortly after were expecting. After his son was born, David spiraled downward again. His wife left, taking his child. David had a job as a auto body mechanic but was being picked on by his coworkers because of his many issues. He was always very sensitive and did not respond well to bullying, probably why the Navy did not work out for him. He was erratic at work and had many difficulties-showing up late, unable to finish jobs, sometimes being overly fixated on what he was doing so that nothing else got done. He was an extremely gifted mechanic and excelled at auto body work-but only on his own schedule, which had no rhyme or reason to the rest of us. After losing several (10) jobs, he ended up moving back into my family’s home. I was 16 at the time. My mother tried to get him SSI-Social Security Disability so that his son would have some means of support. It took 8 years. I realize many people resent those on disability, but try living with someone with these mental health issues. You would realize the hell that their lives are and the hell that their family members have to endure.
Many times we pressured our mother to kick David out of the house. Her answer was that she had already lost one child, she was not gong to lose another. He would have periods of time where he was relatively stable, but they only would last a week or two. Then our whole lives would be thrown into an uproar because David decided to have a couple of beers or smoke a joint, or God knows what other chemical means of transformation. Did I mention that David was and is an incredibly handsome man? When younger he looked like the actor Matt Dillon. He has aged, but he is still handsome even after living a hard life. His chronic drug and alcohol abuse has left David with chronic hepatitis. My children were always told of what happened to Uncle David because of his drug and alcohol abuse-a cautionary truth that this could easily be one of them because of a strong family history of substance abuse and mental illness.
Time is a great healer. Time has mellowed David. Time has also allowed me to understand that he never asked for his mental illness, that it was just the unlucky cards he was dealt. Zyprexa-an antipsychotic med-has also helped. David at 58 is a nice guy, eager to please, with a great sense of humor, always helpful and looking for approval. There has been at least 20 years since a violent episode, but I think we are always vigilant to make sure that David takes his meds and keeps his stress to a minimum. David and the rest of our family still have a relationship with his ex-wife and son, very luckily. No one could fault her for wanting a drama-less life! David does gets lonely at times and when he does my sisters, brothers and I get phone calls or visits from him, as well as his son and ex-wife. I now look forward to his calls and visits, something I never dreamed would be a possibility given his past. I try to listen to him because he is my brother and a human being who has endured such a hell on earth.
The hell that David put us through was not of his making. He was just trying to deal with the demons in his head the only way he knew how. I am glad that he made it through and that he is still with us. I am also glad that we all survived this journey. It was and is never easy, but seeing the remarkable change in David has been worth it. We will always remember what happened in the past, but love and forgiveness is always much easier for all involved than holding onto a grudge and anger. To those with mentally ill family members, please try to get them help. Mental illness cannot be cured through, diet, exercise, prayer, or vitamins, or by making someone feel guilty because they have a mental illness. A mental illness in most cases requires medications and therapy and the patience and support of all impacted by the mental illness. It does not require keeping it a secret-remember no skeletons in the closet- they are all out in the public view!