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Mental Flexing

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I read this book on the tails of having read Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter (by Kate Clifford Larson) because I wanted a good look at how the generation before Patrick coped with the “stigma” of mental illness and mental disability. That book was quite eye-opening, and so when I read this book I had a very clear understanding of the deeply rooted, almost pathological need for Patrick’s family and extended family members to either deny and/or keep their mental illnesses and addictions secret. Unfortunately, as Patrick so clearly points out in his book, his family is not alone in this practice.

Stunningly well written, Patrick exposes his journey through the labyrinth of mental illness and addiction, and the price he paid to get supportive help. This is not a juicy Tell-All book about family secrets or shortcomings, but an honest look at the personal, social and political struggles of the individuals and families of those who suffer with a myriad of chronic mental illness and addiction.

At times the book gets a bit bogged down in the details of the political process, but I never felt the author’s story got pushed aside for a political agenda. Patrick does a good job of balancing his inner journey with the events that took place on a local and national level. I’m not particularly given to reading political jargon and yet this book held my interest captive right to the bitter end.

This book touched me deeply on a personal level because my own family has struggled through several generations of mental illness and addiction. Reading Patrick’s personal account of his story gave me a much better insight to the wreckage of mental illness and addiction and the ripple effect it has on the extended family. I now have a greater understanding of why the generation before me didn’t seek treatment for themselves or their loved ones, or when they did, why the treatment failed to deliver any lasting results.

A Common Struggle was not all train wrecks and despair. In fact, there were several points along the road where I found myself shedding tears of joy and relief. Patrick reveals his highs and lows with such honesty and poignant hindsight that you can’t help wanting to jump for joy when he actually gets things right. I came away from this book with a greater empathy and respect for a wonderful human being who just happens to struggle with a “common” health problem that many people have. I’m so happy and thankful Patrick lived to tell us about it.

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My own extended family has a few skeletons in the mental illness and addiction closet. Actually, more than just a few. I grew up in a family full of doctors and lawyers and high powered men who clearly had a vested interest in keeping the family secrets secret. However, in reading the two above mentioned books, I finally came to understand the cultural stigma that my parent’s generation felt they had to prevent: the stigma associated with mental illness and addiction. It never occurred to me (at age fourteen) that the reason my parents were so afraid of family therapy was because traditionally, the medical field attributed the cause of mental illness (in my case, depression and activities with a propensity for addiction) on faulty parenting.

That was an ah-ha moment for me. It wasn’t just that my parents were being assholes, they probably felt judged and most likely they felt great shame when it was suggested our family seek group therapy. At a time when my parents should have been feeling relieved and supported, instead they felt enormously embarrassed. Marginalized. Less-than. Blamed. I can’t begin to explain how their resistance and shame felt to me, but the dread that hung in the therapist’s room could have been cut with a knife. Every time the therapist directed a question to anyone but me, one of my parents would tersely respond with, “Why don’t you ask HER. That’s why we’re here!” I sensed my mother in particular bore the brunt of most of the blame for my shortcomings. After all, hers was a generation where most moms stayed at home and they were considered the primary care-giver and influence on their children. And it didn’t help that my mother’s sister had a lengthy history of mental illness. My father (a doctor) never let her forget that. I don’t remember how many times we went, but I know it wasn’t very long before my father used his medical authority to pronounce the treatment DONE.

Had it not been for a very personable and empathetic school psychologist, I might not be here today. I can say without any hesitation that David Weisner saved my teenage life. That odd, quirky, unquestionably geeky psychologist provided a safe place where I could share my feelings and work on ways to try to cope with my social and familial estrangement. My parents were not pleased that I was seeing him and resisted all requests to join us, but they couldn’t prevent my visits to his office during school hours.

So  back in the early 70’s I was having weekly psychotherapy sessions, which turned out to be a positive experience that ushered me into a much healthier adulthood than the path I was on as a teen. Unfortunately, many of my fellow students and friends didn’t have the same good fortune and today, many of them are dead or dying from the long-term effects of addiction, alcoholism and mental illness. The numbers are literally staggering, and sadly, they are frustratingly unnecessary; mostly due to the stigma and the lack of access to good, long-term treatment.

Meanwhile, the ripples keep spreading, and not just in my own family. My husband’s family struggles too. A young girl in her early twenties is trapped in the loop of mental illness and heroin addiction and her immediate family is torn between trying to help and locking their doors to prevent another robbery. She has been in and out of detox and rehab to the point where finances are strained and benefits limited. What do I say to her mother, who tearfully admits she doesn’t want to have to bury her daughter … but knows someday she probably will? What do I say to her sister, who still loves the little sister she used to know, but is tired of being robbed for drug money? What do I say to her father, who himself is in recovery and can’t afford to let her stay for more than a quick shower and a hot meal? It’s nothing but a trail of broken hearts and broken dreams and it’s every where, hidden in every family.

And it’s not just an American problem, it’s a world-wide problem. People who think mental illness and addiction are the product of an affluent society are sadly mistaken. We just deal with it a little differently. Here, we let you wander homeless or stand back and let you get caught up in the revolving door of inpatient/outpatient “care.”  Here, we hope your family will shelter you, oftentimes putting their own lives at risk. Here, we blame guns when the mentally ill use them to express their angst and make headlines. In other countries, you get “tied” if you aren’t capable of functioning in society (read the book for that definition), or you are warehoused in institutions that don’t even pretend to offer treatment or rehabilitation for patients.

I wish I could say my own extended family has dealt well with the challenge of mental illness and addiction, but it hasn’t. We have our skeletons, our denials and our methods of self-medicating our demons. Because stigma and shame still runs deep. My generation in particular still suffers from the restraint, hesitancy, conflict and denial of the preceding generation. And even though all but one or two of that generation has long since passed, we still hear their voices in our ear, feel their influence on our daily habits and choices. I can only hope someday our extended family can break free from the secrecy and denial that hovers over us, that keeps the sun from shining on our faces. Patrick’s book gives me hope that slowly, gradually our society will make progress toward helping families get help for their loved ones. Because nobody should have to suffer silently with an illness we KNOW can be helped.

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Busted

2 responses

  1. I love this and I love you! Can’t wait to talk about this and the book soon! Xoxo

    January 9, 2016 at 1:35 PM

  2. Thanks Sweetie, I love you too! 🙂

    January 9, 2016 at 1:53 PM

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