THE ANGUISH OF MENTAL ILLNESS
by Olivya Faith, PhD
It is important to finish what a person starts.
This factoid of advice is the guiding principle of my deeds in this life.
It is a sentence I spoke once to my son, when he finished his bachelor’s degree. It took quitting his university to marry in his junior year, lots of travel with his new honey, moving five times and setting into a life with two beautiful children who were four and six when he put his hand out to receive that sheepskin. I don’t care what his major was, don’t care if he ever uses the knowledge, or what the university was. He called to tell me he finished. I said, “Max, I am so proud of you for finishing what you start.”
Even when Life began to throw rocks and snowballs at him, he had the strength that comes from knowing that you can finish what you start.
Max’s home ownership (Possibly, he and his wife did not make enough of a down payment likely, so the monthly mortgage was high?) became something he could not manage with family needs and wants in spending. He opted to rent/sell but it was not enough to meet the debt when it finally did sell. His young daughter had been moved six times in seven years with them by then; that was unimportant as long Max was able to give her love, food, and a security of “having a room” (even if shared with her younger brother), I rationalized.
What Max started best when he was young was his cultivation of his humor—humor about everything, not about people but predicaments people face and how they look or feel. “Ma, those hills I biked in Connecticut? Man, way underrated.” And “as I was going through those flat southern states the wind felt like a blow torch on my face–” He plays an acoustic guitar. He can sing. I remember how he loved to dance. I wonder and hope in the still of each morning whether he is still doing these healthy things.
I began to worry about Max’s health, even his belief system; year after year, it seemed he drifted farther and farther from me—I, knowing he could not finish what he started. I could have added, “Know when to cut your losses,” but I did not. He seemed to learn that on his own. I still worry about his health. When a person is physically ill, treatment is far easier to seek: his symptoms could fell him, to go to bed, spike a fever, or with an injury, show limitation in mobility.
When a person’s mental health declines or behaviors and thoughts of a person become aberrant, it is far more difficult to seek or receive treatment. With the loss of homeownership for my son, a depression began to affect his thinking. Synapses were misfiring, and he would not seek help to discover why they were. Prior to the year 2000, experts on depression were not even able to say the truth: there are only two “outs” from depression—treatment or death. Both are slow in addressing the brain’s altered chemistry. Symptoms of mental illness begin with a slight awareness of sleep patterns changing, dietary shifts, a compulsion to do “things differently,” or desperate attempts to “self-medicate” through religion or a drug or drugs. Signs visible to those around the person whose mental illness is creeping toward that dangerous place of “no return,” may include fits of extended laughter or explosions of rage. Often a change in visible appearance to adopt “a new look,” or not caring about activities of daily living can occur.
These are the visible symptoms. Acute inability “to finish what one starts” (whether making the coffee, working around the house, or with mechanical projects) can be characteristics of a person struggling “to keep it together” because of denial of his/her own symptoms or society’s pressure to act OK, “just put your head down and plow through; you’ll be fine.” But things will not be fine: death ensues, just as surely as it will for a person who refuses or cannot obtain anti-biotic treatment for a physical infection. An infection on an infected but untreated toe can result in amputation or death; so too, whether by suicide, murder of another (that will bring total pain to the sufferer and to many others), or psychosis, sociopathy, narcissism, or withdrawal, a person with untreated mental illness of any kind will eventually die a very painful death. The mentally ill who are untreated escape pain by entering alternative realities—obvious to all but themselves. They are not aware that they even started with a goal in mind, much less having the drive to finish some endeavor.
I prepare myself as a mother of an adult child who suffers with his mental illness; I prepare for news of my son’s eventual method of coping. I hope it will be “Door Number One” and not “Door Number Two.” I have offered to pay for mental health assistance. I have explained my own mental changes when I have tried “to go off my meds at different times over my last forty years.” Max is well aware that he has an uncle who shot himself to escape his depression; Max sees friends and perhaps even spouse escaping depression with alcohol and drugs (legal or illegal is not the point). He is a very intelligent man in his forties; I know he loves his children. I just worry that he has lost the ability to love himself, to treat the man who needs help. I worry that he will lose his life to this disease.
Max stays far from contact with me. He has isolated his family: no phone numbers, no address, declared his children (now sixteen and fourteen) homeschooled. By Nature, humans seek pleasure over pain; facing treatment for depression is very painful, but not as painful as not seeking treatment in the long run. I am not the problem for Max but how to communicate with me, a person “who is your mirror” is a huge impediment to facing his truth. My chosen lapses in my own prescribed medication for my depression resulted in inner self-rage (that I learned to carefully mask with my quick wit and smile); I quickly “got back on my meds.” A person with mental illness will implode or explode in time—sometimes both. The news reports of mass shooters who sometimes kill themselves also as the final act. Why all this rather than seek treatment? The answer is that the society of the world still stigmatizes those who are “outside the circle” of normal behaviors of good mental health. (When my brother John shot himself, I admit to having a small voice inside me prayerfully grateful that John had imploded rather than killing all the people at his place of work before turning the gun on himself.)
Everyone encounters some disease in life. Those pathologies under the umbrella of mental disease are most difficult and most dangerous, not only to the stricken individual, but also to the co-workers (if he is able to work), and to family and friends. Like diabetes, the likelihood of having mental illness requiring therapy and drugs, increases with incidence of family history of mental illness. I was fortunate to have an aunt who was a private nurse who nurtured me spiritually and gave me many truths about my family history. One case of family depression manifested itself in the wife of a minister going after her husband with an axe. I was young when I heard that story but it came back with terrifying awareness of “just how sick I am,” when I experienced my first bout with rage because I had spent more than five years in my twenties denying that “something is wrong with me, the way I think lately, the things I am doing—” It is very humbling, I mused, to enter through the door in a hospital that says “Psychiatric Department.” But all of us easily pass through doors marked “Cardiology Department,” “Emergency Room,” or even “Oncology.” Perhaps the only hospital sign that we never want to enter reads “The Morgue.” But untreated depression or any form of mental illness can get people like Max through that door far sooner than expected.