Where's the help for the mentally ill -- and their families?
Original post made by Tyler Hanley, digital editor of Palo Alto Online, on Jul 26, 2006
Where is my sweet loving mother who used to care for me?"
"That woman is dead. ... You will have to deal with me from now on. Get it?"
The two women screamed at one another, our neighbors aghast.
Our daughter's mother was worse than dead, for this manic replacement did her best to poison the well of good memories, leaving nearly a 20-year trail of personal and financial wreckage with no real help available to her or to us, her family.
Who is this woman? Her two daughters can't turn their backs on her, as she IS their mother. But she is malevolent and won't accept help or responsibility for her behavior. Like a moth to a flame, the children are drawn in to help, then hurt, again and again. She has called them "devil spawn."
Once she called one daughter's office, spewing personal information and attempting to get her fired. She called my sister-in-law-to-be, enumerating reasons she should not marry my brother.
She once threatened to "ruin me, even if it meant ruining herself," and she has nearly succeeded. Anti-depressants have helped with survival.
Similarly, she has systematically alienated her once close friends.
After we separated, while I was repairing her stereo I commented on the tenderness in Lou Rawls' voice. Cursing, she came at me with scissors in hand. The police officer I called said she was drunk and that he didn't get involved in family squabbles. She later threatened a friend with a knife. Drunk again, I was told -- no justification for a 72-hour hold.
It seemed impossible to get anyone to acknowledge that this was a sick woman.
Eventually, she did spend time in the mental ward of a local hospital -- where she organized the other patients to rebel. She was discharged after 72 hours, but that facility will not allow her to return. The staff psychiatrist advised me that my life would be a roller coaster because my wife was extremely resistant to treatment, and was likely to cycle up and down for the rest of her life.
Reluctantly, I filed for divorce.
Even the psychiatrists were in a bind: If they hospitalized her for 72 hours, too short a time to really stabilize her, she might never again trust them to treat her. But if they didn't hospitalize her she might deteriorate further.
They hoped she would improve with outpatient treatment. But she never did.
In 1993, her divorce attorney insisted that she engage a legal guardian, someone who could make binding commitments on her behalf. The guardian helped her to manage her funds, and make decisions on the marriage dissolution. But two years later a judge decided she was competent to handle her own funds, allowing her to shed her guardian. Her attorney protested that "only the lawyers would benefit from prolonging the case." She fired the attorney.
Two years later, the once fiercely independent, self-sufficient woman I married convinced the court, and even herself, that she was incapable of ever providing her own financial support. She prolonged the divorce proceedings to the tune of $160,000 in legal fees, most of which I had to pay. She truly believes that family and society owe her support for the rest of her days.
Though I am of post-retirement age, the income from every third day I work goes to her.
I am presently her sole support, but I will soon stop working and will need to live off my savings, while she has consumed hers. There was no legal way for any of us to prevent her from squandering tens of thousands of dollars on bodyguards, clothing, automobiles and loans to various friends and acquaintances.
By declaring her competent, the court facilitated her decline into complete dependency.
Had the judge recognized that she could not manage her own finances, which once would have enabled her to enjoy a comfortable retirement, her dependence on friends and family might have been reduced, or unnecessary. Instead, we are forced to watch as she consumes herself and sabotages relationships with those closest to her.
"I should never have bred those evil genes!" she raged at one daughter. "You and your sister are dead to me."
Often remorseful in her depressive phase, she pleads for people to stop her before she next becomes manic. But when she is manic she won't take her medication. Although she's talked about it, she has never quite managed to give her daughter power of attorney or to appoint a legal guardian. We remain powerless until she hurts herself or someone else.
There is a clear difference between those who can manage their illness through medication or therapy and those who cannot, who spiral out of control. They may come up momentarily, sparking hope that this time things will be different -- but it rarely is. Those who can manage their illness build up self-esteem. Those who cannot will continue to slip further until they become profoundly impaired, commit suicide or hurt somebody else.
There must be a better way of caring for them.
Unfortunately, our courts and our social institutions have abandoned the mentally ill, tossing the problem back onto exhausted and exasperated, desperate families.
In the end, the costs to society may be greater. Witness the numbers of mentally ill pushing shopping carts. Many of them probably have family who just gave up.
Some say this is a civil liberties issue, but what kind of liberty lies in the prison of mental illness?
Why wait until our loved ones have no money, no family, no friends, no hope? Why allow them to kill the good people they once were? Where is the help that they -- and we -- so badly need?