Funny we should be having this conversation about skepticism and mental illness now. I called my mother for her birthday today, and it’s clear she’s on her way to another psychotic break.
We’ve been down this road a thousand times. She’s severely bipolar, and her medications frequently stop working. She ends up anxious and paranoid and confused. It’s painful to watch. There’s nothing you can do except ensure she’s getting treatment. They’ll probably hospitalize her soon to stabilize her, and for a while, she’ll be okay. Then the vicious cycle will begin again.
It’s not this way for every bipolar person. Medication helps many of them stay stable, and I have friends who have managed the disease without any spectacular crises for years. My mother’s not so lucky. But with treatment, she’s able to function. Without treatment, she would be dead. Literally dead. There was a point when she was determined to kill herself, because she believed bad men were going to hurt her family to get to her, and death was the only way she could protect them.
Medication has taken those delusions away, and they rarely come back now. But she still has these times when paranoia starts to return. She fixates on strange ideas, and can’t remember anything else. We go round and round in conversations, circling back to the same simple points, and she’s incapable of remember things as basic as how long mail between Washington and Indiana takes, and where a store is. She’s too paranoid to drive. Luckily, she’s disabled enough that the clinic comes to pick her up for treatment, and keeps a very close eye on her.
So this is my weekend: trying to get in touch with family members who can keep an eye on her until Monday. Calling the clinic to make sure they’re aware of her symptoms, because she’s very good at hiding them even when she’s far gone. Trying to do all of this on the sly, because right now she trusts no one, and if she found out what I was doing, she wouldn’t trust me. Trying to sift reality from her fantasies, so that I know what’s actually happening and just how bad it is. And then we have the delicate task of trying to get her to sign a release form so I can have a more direct hand in her treatment, because we’ve reached that point now where the rest of the family may not be able to help. Not with her believing they’re out to get her. Not with her father in the throes of dementia.
One of the reasons I want to see the stigma of mental illness ended is because when so many people believe it’s all in a person’s head, and they could get well if only they really tried, there’s no push to solve these issues. We need research done that will lead to more effective, science-based treatments. We need to understand how these diseases begin and unfold. We need to know causes. And when we think that people are just imagining things, or not strong-willed enough, or don’t believe in God enough, this doesn’t get treated like a medical problem. It becomes a character problem. It becomes the type of problem no one wants to waste time and research dollars on because hey, isn’t it the fault of the sufferer? And we go haring off in the wrong direction.
Things are better now than they used to be. But they’re still not good enough. And people like my mother suffer.
The thing that enrages me the most is that she didn’t have to suffer this way. But she’d grown up in a society that told her that mental problems were horrible character flaws. She internalized the idea that admitting to being mentally ill meant she was a bad person. She thought she’d be locked away forever in a terrible place, a Thorazine zombie. She thought she was a failure as a wife, mother and human being if she admitted she was crazy. And that kept her from recognizing the disease when it began. It allowed things to progress to the point where medication can’t do more than allow her to function. The longer a person’s left untreated, the worse they get. And she refused treatment for far too long. When a person is in such dire straits that they qualify for involuntary commitment, it might be too late for a little medication and therapy to bring them all the way back.
We’ll hope for good enough again. And for the people who come after her, we’ll work for treatments that turn a catastrophic disease into a manageable annoyance, and a society that understands that mental illness is something you treat, not something you hide in shame.