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How I Feel About The Problem

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Posted by Paul R. Martin on December 22, 2003 16:50:50 UTC

Hi Harv,

I have a little time this morning so I'll give you a more complete response to your post.

"It is posts like these that say to me that the mental illness in this country and other countries will never be treated."

Don't be discouraged, Harv. If it is posts like these (or posters like me) that are standing in the way of "treating" the "mentally ill" it is because we doubt that 'mental illness' is the correct characterization of the person's condition. If they are not ill, then "treatment" is likely to do more harm than good. If, on the other hand, they can be shown to be ill, then posters like me will gladly support treatment of them.

"Just like the fella I knew, mental illness will continue to be swept under the rug. The death penalty will continue to be applied to schizophrenic patients, homeless people will continue to be made of the mostly mentally ill, and people like you Paul will feel alright about themselves as you ignore the problem."

Since you have been pretty categorical in telling people how I feel, I think I better round out the picture by explaining how I feel myself.

I do feel alright about myself, but I feel terrible for the homeless and for schizophrenic patients. I do what I can to help them, but I don't feel that the responsibility to fix the problem for the world rests solely on my shoulders. I don't ignore the problem, but I have not devoted my life to solving it either.

You didn't go into detail about the fella you knew, but since you have put me on the spot to explain myself, I thought I would tell you about the two instances of "mental illness" in my family and which have colored my view of the subject.

Some 30 years ago, I took in a teen-age niece of mine who had been diagnosed as a paranoid-schizophrenic and who had been hospitalized several times for treatment, including electro-shock and whatever else they do. The girl's history was one of extreme defiance, drug use, running with a bad crowd, truancy, running away, etc. She lived with me and my family for about 3 years if I remember right. I know that we succeeded in getting her through high school and she proudly went through the graduation exercises.

But her behavior was still bad enough that I finally decided that she was a bad enough influence on my 5 young children that she could no longer stay in my house. She was homeless, in trouble with the police, there was a social worker assigned to her case, and she bounced from one place to another, including my home, so that no one person really knew everything she was involved in.

To get to the point, at one point her social worker invited me to a meeting of about 6 or 8 people, including psychologists, cops, maybe a psychiatrist, and I don't know who else. I was the only family member. My niece was not told about the meeting and she was not there. The purpose of the meeting was to come up with a plan to commit her to a mental institution, which of course would be against her will. In those days, it was explained to me, involuntary commitment could only be done if the person were deemed to be a danger to herself or others.

Early in the meeting, after hearing about her diagnosis of paranoid-schizophrenia, I innocently and sincerely asked for a definition of paranoid-schizophrenia. They told me that a paranoid-schizophrenic imagined, and actually believed, that people were, for example, holding secret meetings in which they were planning to capture her and take her to some place where they would confine her, take away her liberties, and maybe do things like torture her.

To find out if I understood, I asked, "Do you mean like this meeting we are having now?" They all seemed to think about what I asked, but nobody said a word. After a chilly silence, the subject was changed and they continued plotting the capture.

They did capture and confine her. She has been living in a halfway house ever since. I'm still not sure what makes her so different and dysfunctional in our society, and, I'm not sure anyone else does either.

The other person who was diagnosed as mentally ill in my family, was my maternal grandmother when I was 10 years old or so. I remember my dad trying to explain to me how mental illness worked. Since my dad and I both liked to carve wood, he used a woodcarving metaphor to explain it to me. He said that normally, the brain runs in sort of a groove just like you might be carving a long groove in a piece of wood. The deeper the groove gets, the more likely it is that the knife will follow the groove. But, on some occasions, the knife might slip out of the groove and cut across where it shouldn't. That will increase the chance that on the next cut, the knife will slip out of the groove at the same point, so you have to do something extra to try to keep it in the groove at that point.

So, they took my grandma off to the mental hospital (in those days they were commonly refered to as the "snake pit") so that they could get her mind back in the groove.

I don't remember exactly, but it seems that she came home, suffered a relapse, and was sent back for another stint at least two or three times. But at least she came back home for good before I graduated from high school.

I should mention here that my grandpa, her husband, was the pharmacist for our small town, he was a pillar of the community, highly respected, and admired for taking such good care of his wife in her distress.

Fast forward nearly 20 years. My grandpa had just died a year or so earlier, and on a rare visit with one of my two sisters (4 years older than me), she told me that my grandpa had not only fathered a child out of wedlock, about the time my grandma "went crazy", but that he had systematically sexually abused my mother and her sisters all the while they were growing up, and that he had sexually abused both of my sisters all the while they had been growing up. The women had all dealt with this abuse in their separate ways, but none had disclosed it to anyone but among themselves. My grandpa died with his honor and respect intact. Of course his behavior has exacted, and does to this day, an awful toll on the mental health of my family members, including me and my hapless "schizophrenic" niece.

So, now I ask you, Harv, who was "mentally ill": my grandma who was officially diagnosed, involuntarily confined, and who endured horrible electro-shock treatments? or my grandpa, the respected pillar of his community?

Warm regards,


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