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Mental Illness
Walk with me for a moment on the dark side of life, as life is not all about pretty yellow birds and soft pink flowers.
The complete title to this column is Toree’s Stories: On Science and Nature…..and Life. Today we’ll be reaching into the shadows.

Andrew Whyman’s column in the Tahoe Bonanza on June 19, his compassionate look at mental illness, opened a door in my mind and got me to thinking about how mental illness has played such a huge role in my life.

I am not a doctor, simply a student of life and my comments should be taken as those of a non-professional; however, from someone with a vast amount of experience.

Mental illness runs in my family, in the males. My father had his first breakdown at age 12, after having spent a summer with his father and apparently abusive step-mother. 

He recovered from that episode and went on to lead a relatively normal life, marrying my mother and bringing forth six children in rapid succession, of which I am the oldest.

As a child, I wasn’t really aware of the fact that my father was mentally ill but at some point he was diagnosed as manic-depressive, which is now known as being bi-polar.

The first time I remember being aware of anything out-of-the-ordinary, was when I was six and I awoke to the sound of adults yelling and my father crying. He was sobbing piteously, “I don’t want to die!”

It seemed to me a very adult thing happening outside of my bedroom, so I stayed in bed, terrified. I remember my bed had sheets with yellow and orange flowers, with dark centers that looked like spiders. I was always afraid of those sheets, I still have spider nightmares, and now this, a scary thing was happening, too large for a child to comprehend.

The next episode I remember was my father going up on the roof and shouting crazy things. The rest of the neighborhood looked upon us as “different” after that. My younger brother, Danny, was tormented and teased.

I, as the big sister, decided one day to put an end to the bullying and I confronted one of the perpetrators. He was younger than I so I felt confident in my power but somehow we got into a physical scuffle and the little brat head-butted me in the stomach! I think that was the first time I had the wind knocked out of me. 

Danny eventually began to manifest with mental illness. It came on slowly—he began using drugs, drinking, committing crimes, he did some time. All the while he carried on a reasonably successful life—he was a mechanic, had his own shop and a steady clientele.

But the crazy crept up on him and he began scaring people with his words that made no sense. He had a rich life in his mind: he was a Prophet, in direct communication with God. He was wealthy—he just couldn’t remember where he hid all his money. His girlfriend was Brooke Shields, alternatively Paula Abdul.

He was very important in his mind. In fact, one time the Secret Service called my mother to inquire about him. Apparently he’d been calling the White House, saying who-knows-what, but he caught the attention of people there and they called our house, just to make sure he wasn’t a threat.

My brother wasn’t violent, for that I am very grateful, his fantasies were delusions of grandeur. He also experienced deep pain. He maintained himself for a while, but he eventually became homeless and drifted in and out of our mother’s care.

On the occasions he lived with her, life with him was never boring. One time he burst into her bedroom, sure that she was hiding Paula Abdul from him.

Other times she would hear him sobbing in his bed, embroiled in the pain in his mind. He eventually took his own life, as did my father, in their mid-forties, both of them. That’s as long as they could deal with the emotional toll of being mentally ill.

I think about these things when I see the homeless man on the street, sometimes they are drunk, sometimes they are holding up signs, asking for money or work.

It’s easy to look on the homeless as lazy or shiftless but truthfully, they may very well be mentally ill, incapable of carrying on life as we know it.
When I have time, I’ll buy a man a cheeseburger or give him a little money. True, he may spend the money on booze, but I can’t begrudge him that. For my brother, the substances were a way to quiet the voices in his head, to put himself back on top of the world again, if only for a short while.

And then, given my intimate knowledge of the mental anguish these people can suffer, I remind myself, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”