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Where's the help for the mentally ill -- and their families?

Original post made by Tyler Hanley, digital editor of Palo Alto Online, on Jul 26, 2006

Here's a moving piece published from an anonymous Palo Altan in last week's Palo Alto Weekly. Please feel free to post your reactions and comments.
Where is my sweet loving mother who used to care for me?"
"That woman is dead. ... You will have to deal with me from now on. Get it?"
The two women screamed at one another, our neighbors aghast.
Our daughter's mother was worse than dead, for this manic replacement did her best to poison the well of good memories, leaving nearly a 20-year trail of personal and financial wreckage with no real help available to her or to us, her family.
Who is this woman? Her two daughters can't turn their backs on her, as she IS their mother. But she is malevolent and won't accept help or responsibility for her behavior. Like a moth to a flame, the children are drawn in to help, then hurt, again and again. She has called them "devil spawn."
Once she called one daughter's office, spewing personal information and attempting to get her fired. She called my sister-in-law-to-be, enumerating reasons she should not marry my brother.
She once threatened to "ruin me, even if it meant ruining herself," and she has nearly succeeded. Anti-depressants have helped with survival.
Similarly, she has systematically alienated her once close friends.
After we separated, while I was repairing her stereo I commented on the tenderness in Lou Rawls' voice. Cursing, she came at me with scissors in hand. The police officer I called said she was drunk and that he didn't get involved in family squabbles. She later threatened a friend with a knife. Drunk again, I was told -- no justification for a 72-hour hold.
It seemed impossible to get anyone to acknowledge that this was a sick woman.
Eventually, she did spend time in the mental ward of a local hospital -- where she organized the other patients to rebel. She was discharged after 72 hours, but that facility will not allow her to return. The staff psychiatrist advised me that my life would be a roller coaster because my wife was extremely resistant to treatment, and was likely to cycle up and down for the rest of her life.
Reluctantly, I filed for divorce.
Even the psychiatrists were in a bind: If they hospitalized her for 72 hours, too short a time to really stabilize her, she might never again trust them to treat her. But if they didn't hospitalize her she might deteriorate further.
They hoped she would improve with outpatient treatment. But she never did.
In 1993, her divorce attorney insisted that she engage a legal guardian, someone who could make binding commitments on her behalf. The guardian helped her to manage her funds, and make decisions on the marriage dissolution. But two years later a judge decided she was competent to handle her own funds, allowing her to shed her guardian. Her attorney protested that "only the lawyers would benefit from prolonging the case." She fired the attorney.
Two years later, the once fiercely independent, self-sufficient woman I married convinced the court, and even herself, that she was incapable of ever providing her own financial support. She prolonged the divorce proceedings to the tune of $160,000 in legal fees, most of which I had to pay. She truly believes that family and society owe her support for the rest of her days.
Though I am of post-retirement age, the income from every third day I work goes to her.
I am presently her sole support, but I will soon stop working and will need to live off my savings, while she has consumed hers. There was no legal way for any of us to prevent her from squandering tens of thousands of dollars on bodyguards, clothing, automobiles and loans to various friends and acquaintances.
By declaring her competent, the court facilitated her decline into complete dependency.
Had the judge recognized that she could not manage her own finances, which once would have enabled her to enjoy a comfortable retirement, her dependence on friends and family might have been reduced, or unnecessary. Instead, we are forced to watch as she consumes herself and sabotages relationships with those closest to her.
"I should never have bred those evil genes!" she raged at one daughter. "You and your sister are dead to me."
Often remorseful in her depressive phase, she pleads for people to stop her before she next becomes manic. But when she is manic she won't take her medication. Although she's talked about it, she has never quite managed to give her daughter power of attorney or to appoint a legal guardian. We remain powerless until she hurts herself or someone else.
There is a clear difference between those who can manage their illness through medication or therapy and those who cannot, who spiral out of control. They may come up momentarily, sparking hope that this time things will be different -- but it rarely is. Those who can manage their illness build up self-esteem. Those who cannot will continue to slip further until they become profoundly impaired, commit suicide or hurt somebody else.
There must be a better way of caring for them.
Unfortunately, our courts and our social institutions have abandoned the mentally ill, tossing the problem back onto exhausted and exasperated, desperate families.
In the end, the costs to society may be greater. Witness the numbers of mentally ill pushing shopping carts. Many of them probably have family who just gave up.
Some say this is a civil liberties issue, but what kind of liberty lies in the prison of mental illness?
Why wait until our loved ones have no money, no family, no friends, no hope? Why allow them to kill the good people they once were? Where is the help that they -- and we -- so badly need?

Comments (4)

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Posted by Very Tas
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 26, 2006 at 5:46 pm

There is a stunning lack of political and social will necessary to treat the issue of mental illness for the serious human problem that it is, and the social and economic mayhem that it creates.

Our ignorance lies at the center of this malady; it's a sickness all its own.

The heartbreaking story above is one of millions like it, repeated over and over and over again in a culture that has stigmatized and criminalized a host of mental diseases that represent some of the most horrofic things that can happen to a human being.

Just today I read about a Houston woman who was found not guilt by reason of insanity for drowning her 5 children in a bathtub. She was found to have been suffering from a severe post partum psychosis at the time of the crime. In spite of this finding, the district attorney in the case did ieverything possible to have the woman - herself a victim - prosecuted as a common criminal, with the death penalty requested. This is the kind of ignorance that we're dealing with.

We witness the tragedy of mental illness every day - street people; co-workers on the edge of breakdowns; violent and self-destructive behaviors committed by persons who have little or no control over their actions, etc.

The tragic irony surrounding mental illness is that it often results in aberrant *behavior*, unlike most other illnesses that physicall debilitate and render people physically helpless (or challenged).

The mentally ill person is ill in a way that causes him/her to break deep social contracts, and often do it in a way that doesn't appear on the surface to differ from the *occasional* add behavior that most so-called normal people engage from time-to-time.

Most of us express anger every once in a while, or become mildly depressed, or "bummed out". Imagine what it would be like to not be able to consciously control an impulse to anger, or become so depressed that no seeming rationale or "pep talk" could pull you out.

Imagine hearing things that are as real as anything most of us hear when we're talking with friends, only in this case the friends are not there, but the voices are still triggering audio centers in the brain, and telling the listener to committ a horrific act of self destruction, or violence on others.

Imagine living with something like that for years. Hell on earth' would be a descriptive understatement.

The lack of political will to aggressively engage the proper prevention and treatment of mental illness mostly exists because most seriously mentally ill people can't speak for themselves - unlike a caner patient, or someone suffering from diabetes.

Perhaps in some far future we'll be able to select out combinations of genes and other congenital factors that cause mental illness. Until then, we're challenged to do what we can to enlighten policy makers, or elect more empathic policy makers, so that we can begin to treat a person who is mentally ill - and their families - with a comprehensive course of treatment that is far more humane than the sad, lacking, and franly shameful situation that exists today.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Very Tas
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 30, 2006 at 7:43 pm

I find it interesting that people will spend a lot of time debating whether a Home Depot will be built near their neighborhood, but spend no time debating the sorry state of the treatment and prevention of mental health in our society. Mental health just isn't "sexy" enough, and is still a "secret" disease.

Here's another example of the harm that can be caused by someone not getting enough help, or getting helpp to late. Clearly, the perpetrator of this crime shuold be punished, but I would like to see someone try to soundly make the case that he wasn't pretty severely depressed when he acted.
Web Link


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Very Tas
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 30, 2006 at 7:43 pm

I find it interesting that people will spend a lot of time debating whether a Home Depot will be built near their neighborhood, but spend no time debating the sorry state of the treatment and prevention of mental health in our society. Mental health just isn't "sexy" enough, and is still a "secret" disease.

Here's another example of the harm that can be caused by someone not getting enough help, or getting helpp to late. Clearly, the perpetrator of this crime shuold be punished, but I would like to see someone try to soundly make the case that he wasn't pretty severely depressed when he acted.
Web Link


 +   Like this comment
Posted by A.J.
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 1, 2006 at 10:13 am

I agree, Very Tas, but just look at how mean-spirited and nasty the discussion about Home Depot got -- when it comes to money at stake AND vulnerable populations, the sad reality is that things can get much, much worse.

When people live with the reality of mental illness, or of a loved one with mental illness, they are so much more susceptible to attacks when trying to get help or assert their rights (for example, with insurance coverage) -- just the daily meannesses can be devastating. Speaking personally, you have to choose your battles to survive, and a public forum like this is unlikely to result in significant change, but the potential for engendering meanness from strangers is far more likely. Speaking personally, one risks those kinds of blows for Congressional hearings, or insurance coverage to prevent bankruptcy, or appeals to the board of an institution that is keeping a family member with mental illness overly drugged and thus nonfunctional, or important family meetings, but not for a Town Square forum like this.

The stigma attached to mental illness is still very real. I wouldn't read too much into the lack of discussion, except for that, and that it's hard to be casually vocal when there is so much hurt.


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