Since I’ve spoken freely about how this move has thrown me for a mental health loop, I’ve received dozens of emails with kind-hearted questions on the topic, with one of the recurring themes being surprise that I feel so open and shameless about what I’m going through. These conversations have left me thinking hard about what has formed my own views on mental health. And predictably, it turns out my views were formed by experience. Two specific experiences really. And I thought I’d write about one today, and one on another day.
The first experience was growing up with my aunt, Mary Lu, who lived with us. If I asked everyone out there who had a Crazy Aunt Mary to raise their hand, I know pretty much everyone would. But some of us had an actual Crazy Aunt Mary. Mary Lu had Paranoid Schizophrenia. She would hear voices constantly. Sometimes the voices said harmlessly crazy things. And other times they said horrible things. These are some of the thoughts and memories that come to mind when I think about her.
When we moved from California to Utah (I was 5 years old at the time), we built a house, and we built an apartment above the garage specifically for Mary Lu. She could live fairly independently, but my family was right there when necessary. She was part of our daily family life. [Side note: Man. I loved that apartment! It was small, but had everything you’d need. Many years later, when Mary Lu moved out, the apartment above the garage would eventually become a newlywed apartment for my sister, then a college apartment for my brother, and then an apartment for the local Mormon missionaries.]
Mary Lu shook. Constantly. Her hands and arms. Kind of her whole body. Her medication made her shake, so I was taught that if she wasn’t shaking, that meant she hadn’t taken her medication and that I should tell my parents. Every Sunday dinner, Mary Lu would join us, and the table shook the whole time. A shaking table was one of the not-normals that was normal for our family.
If you met Mary Lu, you would know immediately something was off. Her condition had no physical earmarks, but if you interacted with her, or even saw her, you would instantly know you weren’t dealing with an average citizen.
Mary Lu didn’t like a big crowd or lots of people, in fact, I’m sure our family of 10 was a challenge for her. But she would still spend time at our house — watching TV with a couple of us kids after school, or visiting with someone in the living room. And she was a fixture during holidays and Sunday dinners. When everyone left the dinner table to chat in the living room, she would find the conversations too intense and would end up back in the kitchen working on the dishes. Of course, everyone felt guilty that she was in there slaving away while the rest of us were enjoying ourselves, so one of us would join her in the kitchen and sometimes she would be up for chatting. But other times she wanted to be alone.
Sometimes her medication would be off, and something would be wrong and she would need to be checked in to a full-time care facility for a couple of weeks. And then she’d move home, to the apartment above the garage.
She wasn’t violent. My only memory of aggression was once when I was practicing hand-stands and it bothered her and she rushed at me to stop me. I was scared and she was strong. But I called out and she didn’t hurt me.
She was a fixture in our neighborhood and church. On the first Sunday of the month, which is sort-of open-mic day at Mormon churches, she would say crazy stuff. Like that she knows she was really adopted (she wasn’t), and that her birth parents were black (they’re not). That she hoped God would forgive her because her brother-in-law saw her in her underwear. (The story there was that My Uncle Pete had knocked on her door and then opened it to say, “Time for Dinner”, catching Mary Lu while she was dressing. But of course, the way Mary Lu told the story over the pulpit had the congregation wondering if my Dad was some sort of peeping tom. Good times!)
Mary Lu always had a bowl of little sugar-free hard candies (I have no idea why they were always sugar free, but they were). And all the neighborhood kids knew they could knock on her door for a treat. Until one Sunday when she innocently mentioned something about candies and poison in the same thought. After that (understandably, but still sadly) kids weren’t allowed to knock on Mary Lu’s door for candy anymore.
One of the things that just stops my heart is that there was no name for her illness when she was young. My grandparents were at a complete loss. And I can’t imagine how terrifying that must have been — not knowing what was wrong or how to help. Just to give you an idea, they lived in L.A., and as a child, Mary Lu once wandered away from school (yes, this was a different era) and walked onto the freeway, and rocked back and forth stopping traffic. But at the same time, she was in mainstream schools with no diagnosis.
Eventually there was a diagnosis. And medication. But the disease was new enough, the reality was that the medication was pretty much an experiment. And it wasn’t necessarily effective. (I’ve heard great strides have been made medication wise in recent years, which is wonderful.)
When I was 16 or 17, I was at my Grandma’s house, and Mary Lu was there. She was really, really, excited to share some good news. She told me there was a new medication! That it was going to stop the voices!! I shared in her joy, then had to go outside where I wept with a new realization. For some reason, no doubt to comfort myself, I had assumed Mary Lu wasn’t really aware of her situation. She didn’t talk about it. She didn’t talk about being sick. In that conversation, for the first time I understood that she was fully aware of what her life was. And that she wanted it to be different. That she heard voices and she wanted that to stop. She must have been about 50 years old at the time. 50 years of hearing voices. (And sadly, the new medication didn’t work.)
When Mary Lu was stable enough, my grandparents bought her a small home in downtown St. George, where she could walk to the library and shops and live even more independently, and she moved out of the apartment above the garage. I went off to college not long after. But I would still see Mary Lu during the holidays and at family gatherings. Sometimes she would wrap up her half-used groceries — like an open box of rice — and bring them as gifts.
She died a few years ago. And I don’t think I even mentioned it here. I think I’m still processing the idea that she’s gone. And I still have a hard time making sense of what her life was. What it meant. Did she get to experience enough joy to make it worthwhile? Or was it a life of confusion and frustration?
Those of you who have seen sickness like this up close know that it influences everything. Where my grandparents could move. How they handled their finances so Mary Lu could be provided for — she lived till she was almost 70. My aunt, Mary Lu’s sister, went into psychology in college, simply because growing up with a sister who had schizophrenia informed her whole childhood. My mother built an apartment for her. It affects you. It affects life. I remember learning about genetics in school, and asking my mother if there was a high likelihood that my children would have schizophrenia.
At some point, I remember seeing a movie called Benny and Joon, featuring Johnny Depp. It’s about two schizophrenics who fall in love. And I remember being sort of angry afterwards. This wasn’t what schizophrenia looked like! It was not charming! It was not Johnny Depp! There was no falling in love!! I later learned that like most mental illness, schizophrenia falls on a spectrum; that Mary Lu’s case was extreme, and that there are others with paranoid schizophrenia who live more typical lives. [Side note: I recently saw Silver Linings Playbook, another movie about mental illness, in this case, bi-polar disease, and I felt those same angry feelings. Is that really what bi-polar disease looks like? Like Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence?]
That’s a tiny bit about Mary Lu.
Obviously, growing up with Mary Lu informed my view of mental health in lots of ways. For example, I learned the fruitlessness of arguing or reasoning with crazy. And honestly, I still try to apply that knowledge any time I encounter someone who’s not making sense. Don’t argue with crazy. I also learned what an extreme mental illness looked like, so I have a reference when I encounter mental illness around me, and in my own head, and have a better understanding of when it’s serious and when it’s less so.
But maybe what I learned most clearly, was that Mary Lu was blameless for her condition. I know my own mental health issues aren’t even a shadow of what Mary Lu experienced, but I suppose understanding her blamelessness, allows me to experience this depression without blaming myself. Without guilt or shame. No one ever said that Mary Lu simply needed to “pull herself together”. She was sick. She wasn’t at fault. And the topic wasn’t taboo.
I know mental illness touches everyone. I would love to hear what has formed your own thoughts and opinions on the subject. And as I mentioned above, another day I’ll share more on what has formed mine.
P.S. — The photo above is the only photo I have in my possession of Mary Lu. It shows my family and all of the cousins on my mom’s side. She’s the one on the stairs wearing glasses, the second of 5 siblings (my mother was number 3). Mary Lu wasn’t around for the cameras-everywhere-instagram-era. If she was alive today, I wonder if she would let me take her picture?
131 thoughts on “Mary Lu”
Thank you for sharing the story of Mary Lu. For those who have never experienced mental illness in a close family member, it provides a small glimpse into a world most folks don’t want to examine too closely.
I have a son who suffers from bi-polar disease. The impact of the disease on him as an individual has been devastating and the ripple effects upon the rest of his siblings and family, traumatic. And yet, we have learned so much. Learned not to be quite so judgmental about the behaviors of others. Learned compassion even as we fought anger and fear. Learned that unconditional love is the toughest choice of all.
Brava, Gabrielle. For speaking out without fear, but calmly and clearly stating the impact of depression upon your life. Perhaps some readers want to think you live in a fairy tale and don’t want to hear about the sad times, but you offer a greater service to your readers when you show that life is complex. That we all struggle to find answers especially when darkness descends. But, in the end, shining a light in the darkness is the only way to really illuminate our lives.
Mary, how did you know your son was bi-polar? I used to think my daughter was when she was little. I am not sure what it wrong for sure, but am interested to know how others know. Our family doc said she was too young to diagnose when she was in 1st grade. we unschool now and she’s a lot happier over the years as she’s gotten a little older, but sometimes she gets overwhelmed by emotion and gets inconsolable. Not sure if it’s just the anxiety/depression genes she’s inherited from both sides of the family, or if it’s something else. I’d like some sources to study to learn more about children with mental illness.
I recommend you check out http://www.thebalancedmind.org/ and read the book The Bipolar Child by Dimitri and Janice Papolos, or, if you feel time is of the essence, get a diagnostic appointment set up with a Psychiatrist. I recommend this as a mom of a child with Pediatric Onset Bipolar Disorder.
Thank you, Gabi, for you openness. It’s great to see.
Thank you for writing such a lovely post. My feelings about mental health are very similar and much informed by my mother’s illness. I think though, that it’s much easier for me because my mother’s psychosis is so OBVIOUS, you have to call it crazy. There’s no hiding. So I always knew there was no blame and nothing to do with me. Friends with depressed or anxious parents though don’t seem to be so comfortable with mental illness, I think because it is easier to hide and normalise. I thankfully do not suffer any serious mental illness, but I still want my own children to know sometimes people are unhappy just because, sometimes we worry about things that aren’t problems – and in mommy’s case she just needs to get some sleep and it goes away!
I think it’s emotional maturity and security that allow you to speak freely and without shame. And so should you! It is shame that keeps people under these things and unable to find relief because they keep it hidden and never ask for help.
I wrote on a similar thing, as in depression and anxiety related to the immense lifestyle change of becoming a stay at home mom. I thought it’d be no big deal, but so many people couldn’t believe how “refreshing” and “honest” it was. I think we need more of that.
Thanks for sharing. My mother has a cocktail of mental illnesses. I always use a similar line ‘I know everyone thinks their mother is crazy. Mine actually is. I have papers to prove it!’
Take care of yourself.
Thank you for sharing your story. I honestly can’t explain how touching your openness is. Every time I try I sound corny and selfish, but I appreciate the sense of friendship and community it builds very much.
Mental illness was not something my family talked about, and my parents seemed to view it as something anyone could pull themselves out of. I have bouts of depression and anxiety from time to time and wonder how much more quickly I would have sought help when I needed had I had a different perception of mental illness.
Dear Gabrielle, As a semi-closeted Francophile, I came across your blog perhaps a year and a half ago. Most blog sites I visit once or twice or a few times, but it is different with yours. I always can’t wait for your next post. I am Jewish in my upbringing, buddhist in my thinking, a retired nurse, and a single mom of one child, a daughter who is now 36, and while I live in San Francisco, she lives in New York City. I say all this just to say that clearly you and I are not in the same demographic, and yet I have found your writing about your family, France, your views on things, your sharing of a variety of posts, the Olive Us videos, Joyful and Absolutely Compelling. And your sharing about your dealing with your own mental health, and how your own perceptions were affected by your life experience, is just another thing on the long list of reasons I find what you write about and how you write about it so inspiring, moving, and helpful. While I have been quite “high functioning” in life, there has always been a deep sadness at my core that I could never understand and only in the last few years came to realize was a fairly serious and chronic case of depression. Aside from seeking various kinds of professional and alternative help from time to time, I went through it alone, and wouldn’t even admit to myself that i was depressed. In my family, it was NOT ok to have mental health problems, so it was hard to even admit to myself. I tried so many things, and finally found the way for me to get out from under it, to be freer to live more fully who I AM, and not who I thought others wanted me to be. So, just two more thoughts. Your writing — about your depression, and everything else you share — shows great humanity, and by that I mean a joyful, openness of spirit willing to embrace life’s gifts/joys and difficulties/sorrows, and show up for yourself and others in the process. The last thing I want to say is that I have lived in San Francisco 46 years, since I was 20, when I came here to be an antiwar and pro-civil rights activist, and a little bit of a hippie ( I worked in a store on Haight Street called “Happiness Unlimited” in 1967.) Over the years I have seen a lot. But my favorite place of all in San Francisco is a place called Creativity Explored, an art studio on 16th Street (near Guerrero), where Monday to Friday approximately 60 artists with developmental disabilities (autism, Downes Syndrome, etc.) come to create art, and sell their art. It is an absolutely Amazing, Awe-inspiring, Joyful place to be. Visitors are welcome to wander through the gallery up front, but also inside the studio, talk with the artists, look at all their work. This coming Thursday evening is an art opening for Day of the Dead, and promises to be a wonderful event. It’s really hard to park around there, but you could take the BART and bring the family if you want. I volunteer at this place on Wed. and Friday mornings; it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. Just wanted to let you know about it. and encourage people to visit. http://www.creativityexplored.org Again, thank you so much for your wonderful writing about Life, the good stuff, the real stuff, all of it. Thank you Gabrielle!
I recommend that you read Andrew Solomon’s wonderful book “Far From the Tree”. It is well written, thoughtful, compassionate – with filled with ideas about mental illness, including a chapter on schizophrenia and on how we treat people who are different. Love to you.
I used to think of mental illness in black and white. Like the flu – you either had it or you didn’t. I had an internship with a community mental health facility and worked in the crisis house. My job was to help residents participate (when they could) in planning and preparing dinner and lead group activities. Some of the residents were former mental health workers, some had PhD’s, and all of them taught me so much. While there are specific disorders, diagnoses, illnesses – really we all have a bit of mental illness – it’s just a matter of to what degree and how we cope. Maybe this is not the most scientifically or medically accurate idea but I think we are all broken in different ways and to different degrees. Seeing the people I met in that house as people first and foremost made my experience there one I will never forget.
You are a lovely custodian of Mary Lu’s story. Thank you for sharing.
SO much of this resonated with me. Thank you for sharing. Mary Lu sounds a lot like my brother (mind you, he has bi-polar), and your shamelessness sounds a lot like mine. And, for the record, I had the same reaction to Silver Lining Playbook and felt like I was alone in the world going: HEY PEOPLE!! The right girl/guy is not going to fix your effing bi-polar and allow you to lead a stable, albeit slightly quirky and adorable, life! There has to be an acceptance of the difficulty without the constant need or expectation that it will be fixed. Thank you for sharing.
Yes, I hear you Lori. My youngest child’s father, my partner in life for the last 9 years, has Borderline Personality ‘disorder’, and you’re right, while everyone’s lives are better when they’re in a loving relationship, there are boundaries that have to be maintained, and it never just disappears into the background. There will always be ‘unwell’ times when everything seems just too difficult. But it is possible to teach ourselves, who are well (most of the time ;-) ), to keep the bigger picture in mind, and love them for who they are, and the journey that they’re on, even though their life is so intensely difficult at times. Arriving at that point, only in the last year or so, has made our lives so much richer. Like Gabrielle, learning not to try to out-reason the illness, does help.
Thank you for your openness. I am struggling with some mental health stuff right now too, for the first time ever that I can think of, and it’s hard to know how to talk about it. Finally I decided the best way for me to process my thoughts/feelings was to write about it–that always helps me figure out how I feel. I wrote a post on my blog about it yesterday, and honestly I feel better already because I was able to really process what was bothering me and get it off my chest a bit. I hope you’re feeling better soon!
Thank you for sharing this story, Gabby. I think my favorite part of the story is that your parents built an apartment for Mary Lu and really tried to involve her in their family. Their goodness and loyalty & concern for Mary Lu just spills off the page. This inspires me to help my children serve and care about each other even more. I look forward to your next post on this topic.
Thanks so much for sharing Mary Lu’s story, Gabrielle. It makes such a difference when we can talk openly about mental illness; it breaks my heart to think of people who don’t reach out or ask for help when they’re hurting, because they’re worried about the social stigma. I can’t tell you how touching and encouraging it is to read about your family’s support for Mary Lu throughout her life…and I’m so glad that the experience made *you* more open to acknowledging your current struggles, and not blaming yourself for it. Be well, friend!
Thank you for this, Gabrielle. More people should talk openly about these topics. This was so refreshing to read.
This reminds me of this touching StoryCorps interview between a father and son: http://storycorps.org/listen/chuck-and-josh-lampert/
you don’t understand it, if you haven’t lived it. unfortunately, we did with my grandma and it does shape you in so many ways. it was a happy day when she went to heaven because we knew she was in perfect peace.
thanks for writing this post.
thank you so much for sharing.
i appreciate your post about your aunt. my brother suffers from bi-polar disorder and extreme social phobia. no one quite understands what it is like to have a family member dictate a lot of your life and always wondering if the next phone call will be a devastating one.
i am also glad and grateful to see you so openly talk about your own struggles with depression. i, for one, struggle with depression but hide it. i always think, if only i can just pull it together. i am educated and intelligent, why can’t i just pull it together? and, i think i try so hard to be the opposite of my brother, that i deny my own struggles. i think if we were all just a little more open and understanding of mental illness (even myself), we could all experience improved mental health.
This is lovely. Thank you for sharing. So many families do not help their loved ones get help nor do they ever talk about these problems. As always you are an inspiration.
Depression runs in my family (although what family doesn’t it touch?). I’m pretty sure we’d all be hard core alcoholics if we weren’t practicing & devout Mormons.
I don’t believe I’ve ever been truly depressed, but I understand from watching family & friends deal with bi-polar disorder & depression that the one thing that is crucial to coping is having a support network of people who love you. Relationships & that human interaction is so important for those dealing with mental illness, & I hope I don’t sound corny here, but it’s love that really is the healing balm. It doesn’t take it away, but it makes things so much better. As in the case with your aunt & parents, your aunt was watched over & loved. What a blessing to her & your family!
Thanks for sharing. ox
Thanks Gabrielle, for writing this blog about your aunt and your feelings for her. I am a 70 year old, and was the daughter of a paranoid schizophrenic single mother. I wish I’d been able to express my feelings about her situation like you did. The situation was difficult for me. I eventually left home in high school and escaped it/her. It was the best thing for me, but not for the 2 younger siblings I left at home with her. I admire your parents and extended family for their attitude toward your aunt. Sending my best wishes to you!
That was beautiful–articulate, truthful and compassionate at the same time. I can’t imagine how difficult that would have been for your grandparents–especially in that day and age. But even more remarkable to me is that your family loved and supported Mary Lu, didn’t blame her AND it wasn’t a taboo topic–I think that’s even more amazing considering the day and age. Mental illness has come a long way, but there are still stigmas attached and sadly, shame. What a great model your family was, and of course what a great model you are for being so open about your struggles. The need to know we’re not alone in our struggles is one of the most important needs I think we have–and you are helping many people know they’re not alone.
Thank you for sharing her story. I recently moved and I thought I was *losing* it. It took daily calls to my friend and talking to my doctor and time to finally feel right. I was so excited to move, and I never realized the stress of it all – along with our daughter starting kindergarten. A reminder to be kind to ourselves when challenges come. I’m rooting for you!
Hi there. This is for Allison in particular. It’s okay to be human. Sometimes we need to press a reset button. You think of yourself as being educated and intelligent. You no doubt are! I was the same and when it all comes crashing down it is a very rude awakening. A high functioning person can appear to have life all sorted out when in fact it just adds a few more years to the inevitable. In my case I had a parent who is some kind of narissistic control freak and an abuser – a charmer and a monster. Childhood wasn’t all it is cracked up to be. Despite that my family lived a middle class life with a scattering of luxuries like private school and mercedes cars but he aspired to much more. I did well in school (a refuge) , completed university and got a good job, travelled married and then had a baby. However in hindsight I can see that first of all I share the gene pool (hopefully not to the extent that I am a charmer and an abusive monster all of the time- praying I have a little more self awareness than he was blessed with) and together with the impact of his parenting style, the dynamics of our dysfunctional family- well it does stand to reason that the result, ie moi, can’t maintain a facade of “normalcy” forever. At the very least it is exhausting dealing with other people’s “distress”, internalizing behaviours to cope. At some point you will crack and fall in a heap unable to move forward. Before that happens I urge you to go talk to your Dr. I never thought dreamed I would seek the help of a psychiatrist but thank I thank the heavens for the shred of self preservation that I did tell my Dr I needed help. Go on… you can do it, you will feel so much better.
I could not agree more with your thoughts. I also thought I was “intelligent and education”-privileged childhood, ivy league education, etc. – so how could this happen to me?! I ignored it (or really denied it and refused to even recognized that I may be depressed) but, like Corina said, it will eventually catch up to you and break you down. The fact that you are even willing to open up here is more than I could ever do! However, once I sought help, it all made sense as to why I was depressed (dysfunctional family, narcissistic mother who lacks compassion or empathy, etc). I would be lying if I said my life is great now, but the wealth of knowledge I have gained from addressing my depression and living with it is invaluable. Thinking of you! xx
This is so beautiful. Thank you for sharing and for capturing your aunt. I, too, grew up with a schizophrenic aunt who was diagnosed as a young teen. Her condition really impacted my mother’s childhood. My grandfather was a general practitioner in our town and upon my aunt being diagnosed, he returned to medical school to become a psychiatrist. This was in the early 1960s and the only school that would accept him was in the deep South. My mother moved w/ her parents and sister to Birmingham, Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement. Thank goodness for improved treatment and for what you’ve written here. It is sensitive and beautiful and really touches my heart. xo
I used to work in a clinical research center and many of my patients were there to participate in schizophrenic studies. The medication regime has improved tremendously and no one should shake anymore (but how fascinating that was a sign of Mary Lu working hard to take her meds). It is an intriguing population, especially the times of clear lucidity when they can discuss who they are versus what the disease does to them. Thank you for sharing, what a testament of family love thru difficult times.
Gabrielle, this is beautiful, as always. I feel so grateful to have experienced the wonders of therapy – of just having someone to talk to – when I was going through a particularly challenging time with my mental health.
Please take care of yourself!
Your story really resonates with me. I have a “Crazy Aunt Tillie,” much like your Aunt Mary. I’m not sure what her actual diagnosis is. I’ve never had the heart to ask my mom. But yes, it definitely affects you. My Grandma had to raise my cousin for several years while T. underwent therapy (I know she had shock treatments in the late 50’s) in a mental facility. I remember seeing my Grandma’s sadness when T. would be off her medication and do things that were harmful or hurtful to others (sometimes just emotionally). I remember when she had to move back in with my Grandma and my mom, as a middle aged woman, and claimed everyone was taping her, or dumped a bunch of straight pins by my mom’s bed so that mom would step on them. But…I also remember T.’s kindness to me. She went through a long patch of years where she was on her meds and lived a pretty good life. I often stayed at her house during the summer and we would have a great time together. And if someone is sick, you couldn’t wish for a better “nurse.” As a child, and even as a young adult, these ups and downs were confusing to me. Sometimes I would feel angry towards her, because the bad patches could often seem like meanness rather than mental illness. I understand it more now, as an adult, and just feel horrible for her, and for my cousin, her daughter. I appreciate that you shared this story, and also your own struggles. On the other side of my family there is some mental, illness, too….depression. My great-grandfather’s brother was institutionalized, my grandfather and my uncle both committed suicide. I’ve struggled with depression myself, but I thank the universe that I have not had it affect me that severely. Sometimes I worry that my daughters will have it (they are only 1 right now). I hope, if they do, I can recognize the signs and give them the full support they need….to know that many people suffer from depression and it is nothing to be ashamed of. But I also pray that they will never have to deal with it.
Oh, this stuff is tough. I have a history of mental illness in my family, too, and struggled with severe depression in my teens and 20s. My heart goes out to everyone who deals with this stuff.
Can I make a suggestion, though, that I hope isn’t too critical? Can we PLEASE, PLEASE retire that word “crazy”? I know we use it without thinking much about it, and we don’t mean to be insensitive, but if we’re going to de-stigmatize mental illness and make it easier for people to come forward, we’ve GOT to stop calling them crazy.
Mental illnesses are illnesses, simple as that. We wouldn’t call someone with breast cancer or a stomach flu “crazy”, we’d call them sick, and we’d get them some help. I wasn’t crazy when I was struggling with my depression, I had a brain that was prone to chemical imbalances. Same with everyone who struggles with mental illness.
I second this, wholeheartedly. “Crazy” is pejorative. Its use perpetuates damaging stigmas and can, sometimes, read as neuro-typical privilege.
You’re right, of course, Angela. When writing the post, I really went back and forth on whether or not to use it, and finally decided to include it, not with the intention of being offensive, but because I couldn’t come up with another word that conveyed all the meanings that crazy does. (I need to learn more words!)
My hope was that by using the word crazy, which is a word in common use for anyone feeling scatter-brained (it’s certainly not only reserved for the mentally ill), and a word I use to describe myself when my head isn’t working right (I probably shouldn’t, but I do), that I would make the conversation more approachable for readers who haven’t been touched by serious mental illness — a way to broach the topic without putting up a wall-of-seriousness first.
But I’m truly sorry if the use of the word offends here. I’ll continue to put some time into thinking of a replacement. Thanks for your gentle suggestion!
I often bristle at the use of the word crazy, but my daughter (who has a diagnosed mental illness) has taught me that my preconceived notions about the meaning of the word are my own hangup.
She decided on her own that she wanted to ‘take back’ the word crazy. To her it means the same thing-mentally ill or unbalanced- only with no stigma attached to it. She uses it as a label for her behavior and who she is, but she says being crazy is the best thing about her since as she says, “it helps me be more creative and see the world in a different way.”
In any case I appreciate you sharing Mary Lu’s story. I didn’t grow up with the same experience so it’s taken me time to learn not to feel shame about my own depression. I try to remind myself that seeking help isn’t showing weakness, it’s really being strong.
Hmmm….I’ve been thinking about this a lot today and will keep doing so. And Kelly, I love hearing that your daughter has reclaimed “crazy” and is aware of the gifts mental illness brings. She sounds like an awfully cool kid. :)
I agree with you, Gabby, about the “wall of seriousness” that surrounds this stuff, and maybe that’s why I bristle at “crazy”? “Crazy” for me actually seems so scary and hard-core when speaking about mental illness. (I use to word plenty to describe say, a wild color scheme, or where someone is driving me!) But when it’s applied to mental illness, it seems the same as “nuts” or “insane” or “weird” and those things don’t describe how I felt at all while dealing with depression, or how I see my family members who’ve been there.
I think if we want to make this stuff relatable, we just say, “Hey, I’m dealing with depression,” or “You know, my aunt hoards things and is getting some counseling for that” and let it be just another issue. We’re all dealing with something, you know, and maybe if people see this as just another something they’ll get the help they need. I just worry that “crazy” feels negative and scary.
But I appreciate these comments so much, and I’m glad we’re talking about this stuff.
Thank you for sharing this beautiful story.
I think it’s great your open about how you are feeling. And there is absolutely no shame in it ( I am sorry for people who feel like you should be ashamed for it!).
It made me angry for people think like that… as you should share only beautiful things, happy things and a “perfect” life, family,womanhood, etc. As if you were not allowed to go through bad times and just be human… or as if your own virtual space is not the space for you to decide what you would like to talk about?! Besides, we love you, we love your blog, your work and you are opening up (as much as you want) to a supportive crowd…
I also do get disappointed on how “romantic” hollywood representations tend to be… and only people who have lived with the disease or near the disease knows how tough it can be. I think the idea is to get others to realize the human beings behind the illness… and be kinder… but there should be better ways to do so…
because my family is so large and so layered by divorce and remarriage (layers and layers and layers) i’ve quite a few crazy aunts/uncles/grannies/whomever. aunt tam was my stepmother’s sister and had the sweetest-most earnest-most annoying personality on the planet – we (she and the world) actually called herself/her “crazy aunt tam”. and there were the darker personalities who were handled with kid gloves and kept at a distance and especially away from children. there were a handful of the sad ones with lots of sad stories that would never allow them to be happy. and then, closer to home, there was my young molly mormon mother choking on the restraints of boundaries and rules as she battled her alcoholism and bipolar…until she walked away from it all, trying to find some sort of life that would make it all okay and twenty years later and in the midst of a slow losing battle with breast cancer, she’s come to terms with the fact that she will never be whole in this life, that her demons/skewed life filter will always be her constant companion, even to her last breath. but at least she finds some modicum of peace in that knowledge and knowing she only has to fight for so much longer.
but the strangest/most difficult part of living with mental illness…are the hordes of family members who live in denial and self-righteousness and judgement. it’s one thing to have strong boundaries and firm rules when dealing with the more extreme cases in the family…but the more sinister subtlety of it all are those hordes of people (mothers, daughters, husbands, cousins, children) thinking that the affected person just needs a better attitude-to snap out of it-to be more grateful-to go away until they feel better and don’t make people uncomfortable anymore.
i don’t struggle with depression or the blues. i don’t have a hint of crazy about me. i am a sea of calm in a world of chaos. i am the ying to the yang of crazy – there is a beautiful balance to it all that, at the end of the day and even this life, leaves us with a complete family, everyone having their part to play.
and further than that, my children have inherited the bloodlines of crazy from all sides – from schizophrenia to clinical depression to bi-polar and alcoholism. it’s the toss of a coin who inherits which genes, who’s life experience might traumatize them beyond repair, break them beyond recognition. but everyone is given what they are give, special gifts and challenges and i fully embrace what may come and know it is not the end of the world. when acknowledged and treated, it will all simply add to the layers of color and texture that comprises our family.
i would never want to live without the color in my life. i would never want to live without crazy aunt tam or my mom or sheila or any of them…because then i would never have had the opportunity to witness the sheer joy and passion and excitement that comes when one lives on a knife’s edge. neither would i have the compassion or love that i have from picking them up off the bottom of life, propping them up for the next summit to climb. up and down, up and down, up and down…all balanced by my steady trek across the level plains of my mental health. the combination, the mix of it all – there is a tragic beauty to the process of life and living with what we’ve been given.
but there is only tragedy when we must do it alone. thanks for being so honest. i think all of us, every last person, has their own layers of crazy and balance constantly pulling and tugging at their families, their own minds. it is the mortal existence. shame and denial will only hinder and hurt, whereas humility, honest and humor will grow us, mold us, give is infinite more joy in this life.
sorry for blathering. a nerve must have been struck.
I feel compelled to add my thanks to others who have responded to this post already. I too can relate having grown up in a home with a mother who lived with undiagnosed depression/anxiety. Today I see similar (milder) traits in myself and may take the next step to speak to a doctor soon. I’m also a mother of six children, two of whom have autism. I can say for certain that autism has shaped my feelings about mental health and that I am more tolerant of all people now. However, the personal tole has been great, such that in raising my sons with special (and very demanding) needs, my own mental health has suffered. We must not underestimate the cumulative effects of prolonged “wear and tear” on our bodies and minds as we parent children, those who are typical and, for sure, those who are atypical. I’m happiest when my house is organized, when I choose to live simply, and when I refrain from taking on too much. Checking your blog everyday (or a few times a day!) is one small thing I do just for ME!!! The time I spend here reading about your projects, family stories, and your honest accounts of coping, brings joy to my little corner of the world!!!
Thanks for such a lovely post. My brother-in-law has lived with paranoid schizophrenia since puberty and, despite having a very high IQ and all kinds of educational opportunities, he spent the better part of 3 decades homeless. He was more of a hippie, off-the-grid urban survivalist, not, thankfully, into drugs or alcohol, and relatively high-functioning. But still, he ate out of trash cans and lived outside in the North East every winter, much too paranoid to visit a shelter, and going months at a time without speaking to anyone. He is now in his sixties, willing to accept aid from the government (this took many years of persuasion), and living indoors. He says that REALLY crazy people are the ones who admit they hear voices. Not only has knowing Brian given me a better understanding of mental illness, it’s taught me not to make assumptions about the homeless. They are not necessarily alcoholics, they have parents and brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews who love them. They might even be smarter than you. Thank you for your honesty, for opening the door a little and shining some light on problems experienced by so many, yet still so little understood.
Not exactly the same strain of illness, but Alzheimer’s has now claimed two of my immediate family. As you say, one learns very quickly that you don’t argue with crazy. And as someone else wrote above, you don’t know it till you live it. That said, I am constantly amazed by the compassion and goodwill that surrounds us. For every rotten apple, there has been a barrel full of good ones. Peace to you Gabrielle, and to all who struggle with “not quite right.”
After having what felt like a long round of PPD that took way too long for me to be ok with diagnosing and treating, I totally do what I call ‘self crazy checks’ pretty regularly now to make sure I’m able to cope with my life and I’m having appropriate responses to things. Denial is a crappy place for me to be living.
I have a daughter that is medicated for anxiety and in order for us to sell the idea to her we had to eliminate the idea (as much as you can) that it’s bad or wrong or shameful to need help or to have anxiety or to be medicated. We’ve been surprised at her non emotional, casual explanation of why she takes medication if a friend is over at breakfast or if a situation arises that she feels the need to tell someone.
I wish the stigma of mental illness didn’t prevent so many people from getting help. It’s so sad to watch loved ones struggle or flounder when there actually is quality help available.
I commend you for being so open regarding mental health. We need more visibility & mental health awareness because, as Jennifer Lawrence said in an interview recently, “It’s just so bizarre how in this world, if you have asthma, you take asthma medication. If you have diabetes, you take diabetes medication. But as soon as you have to take medication for your mind, it’s such a stigma behind it.”
I really loved reading your post. I had an aunt who suffered from schizophrenia and would show up at our house periodically, tapping on the back screen door, dressed in a wig, trenchcoat, and sunglasses because people were watching and following her. She refused to acknowledge that she had a problem and therefore didn’t take meds, but as she got older, her disorder became worse and worse and she was extremely paranoid. She showered in the dark because she believed there were cameras in the bathroom. Periodically she would stay with my Gram at her house, but was always accusing my Gram of stealing her makeup and going through her bags, and was so unpleasant that she couldn’t stay all the time because it was too hard on Gram. I think my aunt was homeless in her final years, and traveled via bus or Amtrak between Chicago (where my Gram and mom/family live) and Boston (where she grew up and has some relatives still there). She would disappear for months at a time, sometimes calling my mom from a payphone announcing that she would need to be picked up from the bus station in a few hours because she was coming back this way.
The last time I saw my aunt was last Christmas. Then in May, my mom’s friend was reading the news online and stumbled upon an article, “Woman’s Body Found Near O’Hare.” It had my aunt’s name (she has a Greek name that is pretty unusual) and her age, and the friend had a feeling it was my aunt and called my mom. So we learned of my aunt’s death from a local news article, and are lucky there even was an article! She always carried her passport, which made it easy for the police to figure out who she was, but no one bothered to contact her family, so it was weeks after her death when we found out. The autopsy found that she died of cardiac arrest, alone at a bus stop near the airport.
Mental illness is exhausting, draining, and heartbreaking. And amazingly common, yet not often talked about. Thanks for sharing so openly and eloquently!
beautiful story. Thank you for sharing.
I second Susan Silk’s suggestion to read Andrew Solomon’s beautiful book. I am so glad that you are addressing these issues here — given your “visibility.” Most people’s perceptions of and framework for disability in general are ignorant — having someone like yourself honestly, calmly and authentically discuss these issues benefits EVERYONE. I am the mother of a severely disabled eighteen year old daughter. I also have a younger sister who has struggled with severe depression for most of her life, who lives and is doing quite well, now, with her family and three young children but who has been hospitalized two times and suffered through all kinds of treatments. I applaud you, Gabrielle, for giving this attention, for honoring Mary Lu, even, by recognizing her life.
This essay is why your blog shines. So insightful, earnest, honest, educational, and beautifully written. Thank you, and peace to your aunt.
hmm. thank you for sharing this. I’ve read that historically autistic children were diagnosed with schizophrenia (more on this in a book called Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism) before the autism diagnosis existed. Having a little one on the spectrum definitely gives me a heart for neurological wiring differences and mental health.
This piece is another example of how classy you are, Gabrielle. You are so thoughtful in your addressing of questions and so kind in your dealings with everyone. We are lucky to have you in the blogosphere.
Thank you for sharing, Gabrielle. Beautiful post. Thinking of you. xo
Your family was a good family for her. The scary part of your story was that my friends thought me quite a lot like June from that movie… now I am going to be wondering about myself all day. :)
I didn’t realize growing up that I had any mental health issues, but I certainly had my world rocked after my first baby and experiencing depression. After a few kids more anxiety really became an issue. For a long time I thought I was broken and would have to be medicated forever, but went for a long time off meds, then back on for a bit when one of my youngest was having problems in school and I worried I was making it worse, but now I’m off again. In some ways it has made me much closer to the Lord to get through day to day, but I have to exclude a lot of non-essential, which is essential in other homes. I have learned not to put myself down or be overly critical or else I will get WAY LOW so knowing I am of worth despite this challenge in my life is such a blessing but has been a long process. Journaling is a big help for me as long as I make sure I don’t exaggerate in there, like say, “this is the worse day ever!” Instead I just say “Today was very challenging, or hard, or emotional” I have also realized I have always been limited in what I can handle, even growing up (but as a mom I had way more to do) and I think I realized some of my family must have experienced the same stuff, they weren’t just a “worrier” and maybe some alcoholism (and anger issues) are a result of needing an escape when things feel out of control. I just go lay in my bed or head to the shower for a cry, or go for a drive and pray. It has really opened up my eyes to people and what they are going through. I don’t know how to face all I need to yet, but I am very blessed at the moment to have some control over my world in my home and it is a sanctuary, even if it is a messy sanctuary. But we have some good relationships in this home and some open discussions and I think everyone feels safe here and know their parents love them so I guess it’s not so bad- oh, and we laugh a lot :)
I think it’s great to write openly if you are comfortable because possibly the hardest part of any trial is feeling alone, and when you find out that others share your feelings and experiences, there is less power the trial has over you. What a blessing to be able to share. The hard part is when people don’t understand and are critical or take something completely wrong. That has been a frustration of mine. Still trying to find the middle ground of what to share and what to keep in my journal. But writing here to complete strangers is so therapeutic! Thanks for your article. I look forward to the next one.
I’m currently taking baby steps toward “doing something about my anxiety,” and this really helped me today. Thanks very much & God bless.
Oh how I love this post. Thank you for sharing.
Mine was an uncle actually. My uncle Mark. He was schizophrenic as well. He was never violent either, although he was weird. Shrug. We’re all weird in our own ways. I actually wrote a post about him and shared at the Voices of the Year at BH in 09. I’d link to the post but I’ve taken down that blog. His schizophrenia was caused because of a car accident….or that’s the theory at least. A car rolled over his head when he was 17. They didn’t know much about close head injuries back in the early 70’s. On the other hand, he was 22 when he had a psychotic break, so maybe my family just thinks it was because of the head injury. We’ll never know for sure. He passed away a few years ago and I still miss him. It wasn’t always easy to have him in our family, but family is rarely easy.
It is good that we talk about this stuff, or that’s the way I feel about it. I’ve talked about my depression before online. If we give it a face and name, maybe it will stop being such a taboo subject. That’s my hope at least.
Randomly, I’m with you on mental illness in movies. It’s rarely portrayed correctly. Also, I kinda had to laugh, I’m pretty sure my mom became a psychologist because of my uncle.
One thing I love about reading blogs is when the subject written about is something that has already been on my mind and I’m subconsciously begging for it to be addressed. You did that here for me.
Three weeks ago today, I found my missing brother on a website for unidentified remains. He suffered from schizoaffective disorder, which is basically a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar. I’ve gone through so many emotions these past few weeks, but I’m left with a strong desire to positively influence the conversation about mental illness and help people open up. Your experiences with your aunt are somewhat similar to mine with my brother, and I think that helps us view mental illness similarly.
I’m so glad that your aunt was able to have such good support in her life. We tried with my brother, but there were so many legal roadblocks and he hated medication. His story had a tragic ending; he died alone and without his family knowing for three years. I want so badly for other people who suffer from serious mental illnesses to have a better outcome than he was able to have.
P.S. I wrote the story about my brother here on my blog.
I am so very sorry for your loss.
I will read your blog. Thank you for sharing your story.
Your aunt’s story was so familiar to me, my dear uncle was paranoid Schizophrenic. He was such a great person, intelligent, loving, hilarious sense of humor, so amazingly talented in woodworking. It was so difficult to see him suffer through the side effects of medicine. Some helped wonderfully, others he labored through. He passed away two years ago. I’m always happy to see when this mental illness is written about and shared. Thank you.
I read thru this post and was going to respond with a very flippant, “I’d be depressed too, if I got to live in that amazing farmhouse in France and then had to leave it”, but then I read thru the comments and was completely overwhelmed by the outpouring of emotion and experience here.
So, here’s what I’m taking away from this… I am going to try to be much, much more grateful for what I have and much, much more empathetic toward others.
You all have humbled me. Thank you for that.
I loved your story of Mary Lu. It brought tears to my eyes. I have a depressed parent, and a parent with borderline personality disorder. It made for an interesting childhood. As an adult now, I can appreciate what they went through, and I love them dearly, even though they may say or do things that an uninformed person would find hurtful, I understand where it is coming from, and I would not trade them for the world. In the 40s or 50s My Mom’s cousin Harald, who had schizophrenia, took a hatchet to his mother when he found out she was bringing him back to a facility for more electroconvulsive shock therapy. I feel a lot of empathy for people with mental health challenges. I am sure Harald was terrified of getting the shocks again and no one would listen to him. He would do anything not to have to go back again, or maybe the voices told him to do it, but no one speaks badly of him in the family, because they knew he had other sides to him as well, and also because looking back at the barbaric treatment options available back then, you can hardly blame him, can you? His parents certainly didn’t.
My background is in psychology and neuroscience. One thing I’ve learned is that we are all on a spectrum of mental illness – whether we check the stove twice to make sure it is off, or panic if we are in large crowds of people, get really down during the dark days of winter etc. The only thing that sets us apart from people with a diagnosis, is that we are close enough to the centre of the spectrum, that it isn’t interfering with our daily living. The good thing is, that for some things that stress us mentally, there are precautions we can take, coping methods that have been developed, and sometimes, just sometimes, they work!
I am extremely frustrated that mental illness does not elicit the empathy, or compassion that we tend to reserve for people with cancer, or a challenging physical disability. Maybe this is because it causes us embarrassment, or we think that people with mental illness should be able to have control or ‘pull themselves together’ as you say. I have a huge amount of respect for people that are able to reach out to protect and accommodate family members with mental illness (where possible). I think it teaches us a lot about service, about not judging, and about appreciating family, no matter the mental or physical state that they are in. There are very few mentally ill persons that are blissfully unaware of their problems, and it must be as frustrating for them as for anyone, that medical treatment for mental illness, especially bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, is still in its infant stages. There is so much to learn about neurochemistry and about trying to strike the right balance, without throwing the rest of the body off balance.
Many mentally ill persons end up homeless, and I try to remember this when I encounter homeless people, or strangers on the street speaking to themselves, or yelling at me for no apparent reason. They often end up ‘self medicating’ with alcohol, and who am I to judge them for doing so? Then I have to remind myself also not to judge family that has a person with mental health issues living on the streets – sometimes they just don’t let you help them, and it is also very stressful for family members that feel helpless in these situations. As a society we can do a lot more to bridge the gap from hospital to home so that these people don’t end up living in abject poverty.
And we have to remind ourselves, “There but for the grace of God, go I” and act accordingly.
This is such a beautiful and heartfelt post. Thank you so much for writing it.
Since high school I have been interested in and involved with mental health issues (my mother had a stalker) and I have spent my adult life working and training in mental health care for teens and adults. The more we talk about it the stronger the voice becomes for better mental health care and support and we lessen the fear that so many have about these issues.
I was so angry at Silver Linings Playbook! It made me absolutely furious. And then it made me more furious that people got mad at me for getting mad about it. Grrr.
And I love you. You’re great. Thanks for all that you do to foster such a beautiful sense of community on your site. Hugs from Austin.
Thanks Gabrielle, this was very special for you to share with us.
I am moving home soon to my own country. I’ve lived away a long time. I’ve been googling lots of phrases such as Checklist For International Relocation. On one such check list there was a paragraph on Culture Shock. I dismissed this, I mean, it’s my own country right? But perhaps I should revisit. There might also be a feeling of anticlimax. Being a foreigner is wonderfully freeing. For 10 yrs I’ve been able to adore the bits of my adopted country I like, and dismiss the stuff I don’t thinking- phew not my problem! Naughty but true. Anyway, back to the check lists and pack lists and calendars and so on xx