Lost and never found so often describes the life of the chronically mentally ill. It can apply to their lives as well as to their personal belongings. One of the hallmarks of the mentally ill is that they seem to be unable to hang onto their possessions and are incapable of “thinking” in logical terms the way a “normal” person would. They are unable to think past the day, not thinking of the consequences of their actions. They drift from situation to situation, on or off their meds, sometimes homeless, sometimes working, sometimes in jail. There is no predicting what their situation will be from week to week, or day to day, and sometimes moment to moment. It is agonizing and infuriating all at once for the person who desperately loves someone in the throes of mental illness. I’m not talking about garden-variety neurosis (many of us are neurotic, in some fashion) but the gut wrenching, all consuming, disease of psychosis, such as schizophrenia, where rational thinking is impossible. It is a never-ending merry-go-round where you are always waiting to exhale; where when the phone rings, and you see the area code, you hold your breath and say a silent prayer before answering—wondering out loud, “What Now?” It is a world where no matter how many clothes or personal items you buy or send them, these meager possessions will disappear into thin air eventually. It is a world where they live in fleabag motels, and when they end up back incarcerated, they don’t think to ask anyone to store their belongings, so everything they had acquired (when you thought they were making progress) is lost, yet again. It is a world where there is no monetary limit to what is lost—be it clothes, phones, and even cars. When I remember that a diagnosis of mental illness does not define a person and that mental illnesses are brain disorders, I am more tolerant. But, often it is so hard not to be angry when your life is continually disrupted and have the anger turn to guilt at even being angry. We are all human and must give ourselves the grace to be so, which means accepting the emotions that are elicited from the constant stress of either waiting for the “other shoe to drop” or dealing with a current crisis. The definition of “insanity” is “doing the same things over and over and expecting different results.” The average person learns (eventually) that banging your head against the wall over and over will give you a concussion and maybe they should not do it anymore. But the chronically mentally ill have short-term memory and seem to be doomed to repeat the same destructive patterns over and over. It is just so frustrating to see this happening, and be powerless to change it, just waiting around for the next crisis. It is a never-ending battle that just cannot be won and it is so heart breaking because you see the train wreck coming but you can’t get out of the way.
Labels; humans have a need to put these on people to categorize and make assumptions about them. I know it is so hurtful yet I have been the perpetrator as well as the recipient. It is so prevalent that most people don’t even realize that they are guilty. I think it is so very common in families, and can form your personality; often affecting the choices in your occupation, school, spouse, financial decisions, your level of happiness, and virtually every aspect of your life. We all know that family dynamics dictate that everybody in a family has a specific “role” even though it is not officially assigned. Among siblings, there is usually the “smart one” or “studious one”, the “athlete”, the “lazy one,” the “trouble maker”, the “fat one”, the “pretty one”, “the drinker”, etc. Whatever the role we play in our family, it often sticks with us, so that if as a child, we were not expected to excel in anything, whereby our sibling was the “golden child”, we often live up or down to that label. Never mind that life and people change as they grow, and the label may not fit someone anymore or the “roles” have been reversed. It is no wonder that so many people dread family gatherings because no matter how hard they have worked to shed their “role” in the family, they still feel like time has stood still and the same old childhood insecurities come to the surface. But outside of the family, the mentally ill, disabled, physically ill, older person, or anyone that is not “perfect” (young and able) has a label stamped on them too. I used to see an ad for a hospital that said something like, “We treat John like John, not “cancer.” As soon as we find out that someone is “paranoid schizophrenic”, or “borderline personality” or “autistic”, we immediately make a judgment about them; that they are violent, or out of it, or that they are not even a person anymore. I’ve heard it said that “your illness does not define you”, much like the ad I saw so many years ago. The same holds true for age as well. I know people assume you are a doddering old fool, with no goals, or dreams or anything to contribute to society once you reach a certain age. I know when I fill out forms at the doctor’s office, listing my age, the staff get a mental picture of what I will look like so when they call me they are surprised at how “young” I look. You get an invisible label stamped on you which affects how people treat you and unfortunately too often how you view yourself too. This “label” can apply to race too, thinking that all black men are violent, or all Asians are “smart” or whatever preconceived notions you may have. Labels are a way to perpetuate assumptions, which are usually just prejudices in disguise. In this celebrity worshipping society, focused on youth, perfection, wealth, beauty, and glamour, people who don’t fall into those categories get lumped together with a “label” and are deemed throwaways–less worthy and valuable in this world.
Mass killing; I watched the News with horror about yet another rampage from a severely mentally ill young man. A father of one of the victims gave an emotionally charged interview and said, “When will this stop? When will we say enough is enough?” My answer to him was, “Probably never.” Welcome to the 21st Century, where mass killing has become almost commonplace; where we barely blink an eye when we hear; where once the dead are mourned, it becomes business as usual. It seems that every other week there is another mass killing. Then the News agencies have a field day, trying to come up with a motive, and rehashing it over and over. Yet, nothing changes, regarding gun laws or the available treatment for the mentally ill. I don’t know what the answer is because unless you can keep someone in a hospital for a period of time, against their will, they will not get the help they need. In this case, this 22 year old was a child of privilege, who had been receiving mental health care since age 8. But I know that unless someone is actually self-aware and admits that they are mentally ill (which most people will not) and is compliant, they will not take their meds, or even seek treatment, which is key. When someone is an adult, they are not obliged to continue their treatment and so often refuse and go off their meds. In all the recent cases of mass shootings, the news media always plays Monday morning quarterback, analyzing over and over how all the “warning signs” were missed. Then they all discuss how the mental health care system is broken, and needs to be fixed by identifying when someone is in trouble and potentially violent. But, since mental health care is a low priority in our society, violent people often fall through the cracks. The problem with the mental health care system is such that when a severely disturbed person is sent to the ER and “evaluated” by an overworked psychiatrist, the “red flags” are often missed because they are often very adept at “acting” their way out of staying. They know all the right words to say in order to appear “normal”, and voila, they are magically sent back out in the world. I know that if they don’t appear out of it, or disoriented, they will be released within an hour. It is a shame when a disturbed individual is a danger to themselves, but even worse when they are potentially violent. I know that deputies interviewed this young man and without real proper training or checking his house, deemed him not to be a threat. Yet, the fact that his parents were so alarmed to even call the police should have been reason enough to take him in. But, true to form, he put on the “act” and seemed contrite, polite, and even shy. It is a shame that family members’ hands are tied because of the HIPPA laws. Once your child is an adult, you may know for sure that he is in trouble, or even headed for a violent outburst, but you cannot do anything about it other than send the cops out, who are not trained in that capacity. I do know for sure that there is so much prejudice and misinformation out there, and maybe education is the answer. People equate violence with mental illness, when the fact remains that most mentally ill people are NOT violent and more often than not, they are the victims. The tragic fact remains that this young man, who had a powder keg working, fell through the cracks and 26 innocent lives were snuffed from this earth. However, I feel such sympathy for this young man’s parents who I know are totally devastated and probably did everything possible to help him. But, the problem is that you can only do so much for an adult child and anyone with a mentally ill loved one can relate to the anguish of his parents.