Confronting the Harsh Reality of Mental Illness
In the Beginning
As a young girl I looked up to her. She had a beautiful face, gentle and loving eyes, a soothing voice, and gave the best hugs when we read together, and placed the softest kisses on my forehead when tucking me in at night. I was proud of her and thought she was the smartest person in the world. There wasn’t a question she could not answer when I asked. Many times, she guided me to formulate answers to my own questions without my realization. I recall her taking me to the local public library and enrolling me in the Reading is Fundamental program. She played with me at the park and made sure I participated in after school activities as well as summer day camp. At each parent-teacher conference up through high school, she was there. My champion is what I’d like to remember her as and how I wish she could understand how much my formative years meant to me with her always by my side.
During adolescence and later in my teens, my once picture-perfect image of a family began to crumble. We didn’t live in the best of neighborhoods. We actually lived in the worst—where violence, drugs, and crime were rampant. In addition to the harsh realities of the outside world, my siblings and I frequently dealt with virtual madness. Yelling. Shoving. Alcohol abuse. Crying. Outbursts. Bruises. Dented walls. Slammed doors. Fear. Silence that penetrated your very core. Shattered glass. Intimidation. Odd behavior. Pacing. Rocking. Muttering of sentences that just did not make sense. 911. Uniformed officers interviewing the family. Ambulances with sirens blaring pulling up to the front of the house to take her away, again, and again.
The Reality of Mental Illness
As the eldest in my family, I tried to comfort my younger siblings in the best way I could just as she did for me when I was frightened. At a very young age, I became the woman in charge when she was absent. He worked shifts so from time to time during her various hospitalizations, we bounced from family members’ homes to the next. It pains me quite a bit when I reflect on the milestones accomplished or the activities that occurred in my life with her not there. First menstrual period. First dance at junior high—this event I missed because I accompanied him to court to obtain a mental hygiene warrant for involuntary commitment. Not very easy to swallow as a 12-year-old. Particularly, when everyone at school is asking why you missed it on the next day. In time I got “over it” or at least I thought I did; you know, swept it under the rug and kept it moving, so to speak, just for the sake of not dwelling on it. He always told me these experiences built character and that nothing in life was easy.
The experience of mental illness impacted my family greatly. It still does. There are so many phases of the disease. Diagnosis. Denial. Hate. Confusion. Guilt. Shame. Frustration. Medication. Failed treatment. Voices. Hallucinations. Poor hygiene. Smoking. Weight gain. Sleeping in (a lot). Disability. Run-a-round. Finding a psychiatrist. Getting a therapist. Uncomfortable visits to the psych ward. It is incredibly overwhelming to see a dramatic shift in behavior of a person you love so much. She grew irritable. She was manic. She did not sleep. She had incredible bursts of energy and cleaned the house from top to bottom. Crying spells. Catatonic expressions. Unique style of dress (that is putting it mildly). Devastation. Finally, acceptance.
The latter has been quite challenging for me. Earlier, I referenced milestones. Allow me to highlight a few more. Selecting a dress for senior prom, getting ready on the night of, and later applying all the last touches on the morning of graduation…on my own. I should add that it was equally challenging, if not more, for my younger siblings. However, I always tried my best to make their events special. Just like she did for me, I took them to parks and dropped them off at school and their extracurricular activities. They accompanied me to friends’ homes (very often my safe havens) and even to my college campus. I was determined, and still am, that mental illness would not destroy our family.
Perhaps what was so hard to comprehend about the disease was the unpredictability of it. Yes, I was able to decipher when she might be getting sick again based on the peculiar behavior and “word salads.” However, like any other person, I often thought this one, last time would be it. She would never get ill again. How could she? She was hospitalized for at least three weeks following the last episode. Upon release, she started looking better and was more engaged. In fact, she was taking her meds regularly and following a regimen. You can say she was on a “real” healthy track. But, no, it wouldn’t be the last time. Alas, recovery is not possible without effective medical treatment that is coupled with an emotionally stable environment including but not limited to healthy relationships with friends and family as well as supportive employment.
What is so heartbreaking about the disease is that it can make you dislike—strongly dislike—even loathe the individual living with mental illness. The ups and downs are exhausting. You cannot believe “the person can’t just get over it.” Don’t they realize what they’re doing to you? To the family? I have tried, many times, to be there. I’ve begged her to sign the forms so that I could communicate with her doctors. I researched the anti-psychotic and mood stabilizing medications. I read about Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors or SSRIs, as they’re more commonly referred. I came to realize that I didn’t hate her, I hated her illness.
Confronting Mental Illness
At one point in my life during my last year in graduate school, I struggled and could not concentrate, had an episode and ended up having to take a few medications myself after a brief, three-day stay at a mental hospital after swallowing pills. Life sucked at that point. It really did. There wasn’t anything anyone could tell me to make me feel otherwise.
Somehow, I pulled through and went on to earn a master’s degree in counseling. However, when it came down to role playing sessions with peers during class or later in the practicum/internship, the transference with clients was raw. Gut wrenching. I found myself in therapy shaking out that rug that I swept so much “stuff” under. Painful memories. Images of scenes and situations I thought I had forgotten about or tried desperately to forget. Although I never went on to practice counseling, I have tried to stay close to the field. I’ve worked at an affiliate of a national grassroots, advocacy organization for individuals and families impacted by mental illness and came to appreciate my family’s struggle and learned that we are not alone in this fight. The disease affects far more people than we may like to think or to put it bluntly, admit. An estimated 1 of every four adults is living with a mental illness today.
According to a recent blog post by Dr. Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health: “…while we have treatments, we lack cures, we lack vaccines, and we lack diagnostic biomarkers. Most of all, we lack a rigorous understanding of the disorders, at least on a par with our understanding of infectious diseases, childhood cancer, or cardiovascular disease. We need better science at every level from molecular biology to social science.” I pray for the day there is a cure.
I am an individual, a daughter, a sister, a niece, who has been impacted by mental illness. Additionally, I am now a mom and cannot help but wonder if my children’s genes are marked by a similar fate. The best that I can do is tell her—my mother—how very much I love her and that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it were not for her.
As The Get-Right! Organization, Inc. (Get-Right!)’s ongoing effort through the National Hispanic Mental Health Professionals Advocacy Network (HMHP) initiative, we are courageously telling the true life stories of mental health and mental illness as experienced by members of our communities. This is in line with HMHP’s mission to promote education, awareness and advocacy for the mental health services needs of U.S. Hispanic communities. These poignant and inspiring stories are part of a collection that will be featured regularly on NEW LATINA and Get-Right!via the HMHP and NEW LATINA National Editorial Initiative. We strive to break down stigma and misinformation about mental health and mental illness in order to promote prevention, intervention and treatment. If you would like to tell your story or get involved with this initiative please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and put “HMHP” on the subject line.