Looking Back: 22 Years Without My Mother

22 years ago, my mother tied a noose in a piece of yellow rope, then ended her life in our garage.

For those left behind, our lives were split into two. Before and after. After was a much darker and more confused world. We spent many of the early anniversaries of her death mourning — wallowing — in grief. Anger. Frustration. Regret. Confusion. Incredulity.

Then on the 20th anniversary of that dark day, my nephew — my mother’s grandson — was born almost to the minute on the same day she left this world. It was a cosmic wake-up call. Let her go. Let the grief go. 20 years is enough time to mourn.

It sounds easier than it is. We are still working on letting go of this day — letting it be only my nephew’s birthday, a celebration — instead of marking another year without my mother.

It takes time. Time doesn’t exactly heal all wounds. But the scars do fade a little more.

Thoughts on Our Culture’s Treatment of Suicide and Mental Illness

Sometimes other people say it best. Today, a local politician talks candidly about his experience at a memorial service for a young man who committed suicide. Definitely worth a read. Here’s a small snapshot:

We are still a long way from a fool-proof medical treatment for depression, but we are even farther away from having the social and cultural understanding necessary to maximize the effectiveness of the treatments we have. For all the breakthroughs we’ve made in the field of mental health, too many of us still tend to believe that if a problem is in your head, it isn’t real.

Yet even the best treatment sometimes fails, and you wind up in a room filled with people each remembering the phone call they meant to make, the e-mail they were going to answer or the invitation they kept planning to extend. It’s unrealistic to believe any of that would have changed the outcome, but it is human to think so and may even spur us to be more thoughtful and attentive to others, at least for a time, and that’s something.

But when those left behind assume too great a burden of guilt, it compounds the suffering and distorts the reality of this terrible illness. By thinking we could have somehow deflected the fatal act, we are granting it a degree of consciousness and deliberation at variance with reality and empowering it with the further capacity to unfairly continue inflicting pain and injury on others. After all, no one blames the empty chambers in a pistol for not coming up in a fatal game of Russian Roulette.

Click here for the full story.

Thank You, David Brooks

For looking beyond the political rhetoric and making this point about the tragic violence in Tucson:

If the evidence continues as it has, the obvious questions are these: How can we more aggressively treat mentally ill people who are becoming increasingly disruptive? How can we prevent them from getting guns? Do we need to make involuntary treatment easier for authorities to invoke?

Torrey’s book describes a nation that has been unable to come up with a humane mental health policy — one that protects the ill from their own demons and society from their rare but deadly outbursts.

Read his column in the New York Times.

Early Detection in Mental Illness — Thoughts about John Lennon’s Death 30 Years Later

Lately I’ve been thinking about early treatment and mental illness. When we talk about cancer, we say, “Early detection is the key.” What about early detection for the mentally ill? I recently heard a psychologist arguing on the radio that the field’s focus should include avoiding initial breakdowns, especially in teenagers. Just as early detection and treatment improves the possibility of survival and allows for less invasive treatment in cancer, so does early detection in mental illness avoid changes in brain chemistry and debilitating treatments. 

This requires that we teach people, particularly young people, how to recognize symptoms of mental illness in themselves. And our system needs to be prepared to help people before they’re in dire straits. People need to be able to say, “I haven’t had a breakdown, but I’m heading that way and I need help,” and then get the help they need.

Today this seems especially poignant. Thirty years ago Mark David Chapman had a psychotic break and murdered John Lennon. Chapman’s history of difficulty with conflict, expressing his feelings, and drug use as a teenager are basic indicators for someone who may struggle with mental illness, although drug use can be a sign of a teenager sensing his or her instability and attempting to self-medicate. If other people had been following him closer, or if Mark Chapman had been taught to monitor himself, to ask for help, would John Lennon be alive today?

Has access to care and self-awareness changed in 30 years? Will it change 30 years from now?

Hoarders, The Television Show. Helpful or Hurtful?

Okay, well, I’m not exactly up on the latest in popular culture. So while Hoarders is nothing new to many of you out there,  it was new to me. I caught a couple of episodes this week for the first time almost by accident while I was working on the computer with the TV on in the background.

The next thing I knew, nearly two hours had passed. Another Hoarders episode was coming on, and I WANTED TO WATCH. It took real strength to turn off the TV and go to bed, which is what I really needed to do.

My first instinct, honestly, was repulsion. Not at the people depicted on TV or their situation, but repulsion that someone out there thought this would be entertaining. And, to be truthful, repulsion at the level of my own interest in the show.

Full Disclosure: I’m not a reality TV watcher. I’ve always thought reality TV simply elevates the old circus freak show to a broader audience. I know people love it  — from Survivor to Jon & Kate to the Bachelor. Eh. Just not for me.

I know hoarders, and I had one in my family. I had a very difficult time letting go of my mother’s belongings after she died, and I can empathize with those people who react with anger and frustration when people start throwing their things out, no matter how much they resemble trash. I was frustrated and saddened that these people and their mental illnesses would be subjected to this level of public humiliation. I was annoyed that the deeper issues behind hoarding weren’t really explored, and I felt like the hard parts were being swept under the rug. Where was the slow, probably agonizing therapy that I knew must occur for these people to actually get help and get better?

And then, I found this lovely site called the Children of Hoarders. And I watched the video of that lovely man, Jason, telling his story about living with a mother who was a hoarder. And I wanted to cry and scream and hug him at the same time. And I realized that, while I still think the show is simplifying a very complicated problem, it is doing something that I admire. It’s bringing attention to mental illness. It’s giving people hope. It’s telling them they are not alone. It’s telling them they can find help. It is supporting the families of the mentally ill — people who need far more support than they typically receive.

So maybe, just maybe, a television show can help hoarders move past the stigma of their illnesses and take the steps to rebuild their lives. I still haven’t made up my mind about the show. Watch this space as I continue to struggle with the clash of mass media and the depiction of mental illness.