by Joseph Merlin Bowers
A young lady that I knew slightly committed suicide last Saturday. Her death was caused by metaphorical demons. She suffered from a serious mental illness-bipolar disorder formerly and more accurately refereed to as manic depression. I don’t really know any details, but her death is particularly galling to me. I consider her a casualty of a systemic failing in our society.
In 1964 in a mental hospital, I was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic-probably accurately. I don’t know that I ever suffered to the terrible extent that Natalie did, but I’ve had extensive interactions with the mental health system that fails so many these days.
My first psychotic episode while still a minor resulted in a hospitalization in Middletown State Mental Hospital in lower New York State. There I was treated extensively, became lucid and was released.
A few years later as an adult, I had an episode that resulted in my arrest. This was the late 1960s. I spent a night in jail. In the morning I was taken before a judge who convinced me to agree to signing myself into Middletown again. It was more the nature of my delusions than the judge’s persuasiveness that worked for me in this instance. Again I was treated, became lucid and was released.
I then experienced a long period of time with my symptoms mostly in remission.
In 1979 in Tucson, I was again arrested due to behavior caused by my brain disease. This time I mostly stayed in jail. For the first time, I experienced physical restraints and solitary confinement. Over time probably due to the Thorazine they gave me each night I again became lucid. The charges were dropped without prejudice and I was free again. It was apparent that drastic changes had occurred in the way society responded to mental illness.
Sick people were being turned out of mental hospitals or denied admittance for some reason unknown to me. Tucson parks were filling up with a new population of homeless people. News reports indicated that this was happening in cities everywhere. I knew a lot of these people were sufferers of mental illness who in the sixties would have been in hospitals being treated.
Powerless to do anything and ignorant of the causes, I focused on my own life. I worked on my relationships, college and later jobs. I also struggled for decades with a book about my experiences. I would have more psychotic episodes but I was slowly developing awareness even while psychotic. I stayed out of jail and held down a pretty good job. Still, it was like I was walking around with a cloud over my head.
One day a strong beam of light burst through the cloud. Glancing through my USA Today, I saw a headline to a story, “There are more mentally ill people in jails and prisons than in hospitals.” Someone else knows! The article was attributed to someone from a group called the Treatment Advocacy Center. On line I found a phone number and called them that day.
I sent them my book about my own experiences as it was at that time. They were particularly interested in the part where I discussed problems with the system. We discussed how I might help get the word out and educate the general public about the needless tragedies taking place all around us.
A few months later. I got a call from someone named Doris Fuller. She had just hired on at the TAC as communications director. She had read my feeble attempt at a book and wanted to talk. I would learn that Doris had been a journalist for the Los Angeles Times and was a published author. She had become interested in serious mental illness because her daughter, Natalie, had suddenly become very ill. The injustice of it all. In her attempts at understanding and helping her daughter, Doris had been impressed enough by the TAC to decide to go to work for them.
Doris is a powerhouse. Over time she would be promoted to managing director and the influence of the TAC would grow enormously under her leadership. I’ve had a number of blogs posted on their Facebook page. After the first one, Doris e-mailed me to congratulate me on getting four of five “likes” and a couple “shares.” Now if anything on their site doesn’t get at least 50 “likes” and 30 “shares” you know it just wasn’t very good. That’s how much their following has grown.
Ironically, if there is hope for a better future for people like Natalie, it is due to Doris and a few others like her.
In the TAC eulogy for Natalie, I was struck by her saying that she felt like people with serious mental illnesses should be able to live their lives just like other people. However, treatment makes a big difference for us.
Can I ever relate to that.!I’ve been taking the same medication very effectively for nearly thirty years and I still hate it. Maybe I can explain why.
Those of us with brain diseases look with jealousy at those whose brains always function properly and wonder why we couldn’t be like them. Every time I take a pill I feel like I’m making a concession to my disease. If I were completely free of it there would be no need for pills. To that extent they are still in control. Any treatment I receive is a concession to my hated disease. There is always some doubt as to whether or not the meds are working. For some they are not. Also, all antipsychotics and mood stabilizers come with a laundry list of possible ugly side effects. But for me the main reason I hate my medication is precisely because I need it. Some of this my be because I grew up in an era when brain diseases were widely considered somehow shameful, but that’s not the whole story.
For most serious mental illnesses, complete recovery is very rare. But what I crave is total victory-unconditional surrender. I don’t want my obituary to say that I lived a reasonably rewarding and productive life “all things considered.” This implies a certain amount of victimization. I refuse to think of myself as a victim. I’m calling the shots here. My disease is not. I want my life considered rewarding and productive by any standard.
So I have to battle myself to accept any treatment. This is harder for mental illnesses than other types not just because society tells us we should be ashamed of our diseases, but because we hate them so much. It hurts to adjust our lives or behavior in any way because of these loathsome forces.
I tell myself to lighten up. I would have to make adjustments to my life if I were battling cancer, or heart disease, or diabetes. I tell myself that for someone with a serious brain disease I am one of the very, very lucky ones. Treatment has been effective for me. The only time I ever considered suicide was in my youth due to fear for a very dismal looking future. No voices were telling me I should die. I’ve been feeling down. I’ve been feeling very down. But I have never experienced the intensely painful debilitating depression some experience.
These brain diseases are so diabolical. It’s like we’re engaged in a war with satanic forces. It’s a war we need to win. We need to fight serious mental illness with the intensity and commitment with which we fight aids, cancer, heart disease and the like.