When Mental Illness Runs in the Family

By E.H. Pawl 01/21/16

My brother walked the streets because he couldn't conform to rules, but he took care of himself. When my son began showing the same mental health issues as my brother, I started to worry...

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Wandering the Streets
via Author

My brother is a streetwalker. Well, that is what I call him. I can’t call him homeless or destitute because that would not really describe him. He qualifies for a room in a housing facility, but he can’t conform to the rules. The social workers have found small apartments for him in our seaside town but he is afraid of the neighborhoods in which they are located. I could pay for an apartment but he would not be a good tenant. He is not violent and he has a loving family, and my mother, although very elderly now, checks in on him, so he is not really alone. But he is.

We wonder the most about my brother during the winter weather. The New England winter was particularly hard last year. Christmas came and he did not stop in to see my mom, and her birthday, which is on December 26, arrived without flowers or a visit from him. As a family, we call them “sightings." We did not have any “sightings” that winter and the new year arrived without any visits from him. I went back home that Christmas because I retired from my job and finally had time. I didn’t realize that I had not been home for Christmas in over 20 years. Yes, I made sure to go home, bringing my family along during the summer months and yes, I invited everyone to my house, but life takes all kinds of turns. Somehow, there are more excuses and less time in the winter. 

While visiting in the summer, I could usually find my brother at the library or walking along our childhood beachfront, but during this rare Christmas visit, I searched all over and found him nowhere. Driving around the snow-banked city, everyone looked the same; big dark coats, scarves, extra wraps, huge boots, I couldn’t tell if any of them were him. So I rolled down the window, yelled his name and wondered how he actually survived these harsh winters.

When we met in the summer, he would laugh when I asked how he was doing. He would chuckle and say that he survived the snowplow yet again, so he’s doing ok, and of course, walking is a lot easier. At times, he said, he would lose his birth certificate and could not access his small disability check so he was thankful that we made sure my mom had multiple copies just in case.

Kids grow up, families change, life goes on, I understand all that, but sometimes, life doesn’t go on. Years ago, my brother was a wonderful uncle to my boys. He brought them fishing, he taught them about the ocean, took them swimming and he loved them so. When employment was difficult for him, he lived with us but when he was in the depths of his illness, it was too much for the boys, so I had to ask him to go back home. He lived with my father until my father passed away in 1998. He always kept in close touch with my mom, but he isolated himself from others because he knew he was ill. He knew he might not have the best behavior for family get-togethers, so he stayed away. 

Over the years he found apartments here and there, stayed at the YMCA, or paid for an occasional hotel room. But after awhile he was accepted into shelters in the evening and set up a routine during the day. Whenever I went home, somehow I would find him and update him about my own boys. I would even express my fears, because I did have many. The boys were all doing great, turning into young men, making their way into a successful adulthood, but as a parent, you never really know, especially if there is illness running through the family.

When my son exhibited the same mental health issues as my brother, I was not frightened. I loved my brother and wasn’t concerned, and I figured the doctors should know more now. I got my son the best care that I could provide and made sure that he was loved and supported. He stayed safe all through childhood and developed into an educated, vibrant young man. I was so very proud of him. 

I don’t really know when it really started to unravel, but it did. Life was more difficult, happy days were fewer and fewer and lonely days became more prevalent. I understood that there was not a cure for what he had, but I started thinking, if I could find a city in which he could be safe and even live on the street away from the harsh laws, it would be ok. I thought I could handle that. I had read stories to my class about the Leatherman, a wanderer in Westchester County, New York, and I had read stories to kindergarten classes about Johnny Appleseed, a wanderer that every school child knows. We glorified these wanderers of history and drew pictures and sang songs. We love these characters, until they come to life in today’s society.

The so-called “streetwalker” is not acceptable and should not be tolerated. We tell them to move along, no loitering. We make legislation to bar them from public spaces. We take their choices away and say that others know best. We force them into treatment against their will and give them medications that may or may not work. We advocate for their needs without asking them what they want. But we do not have a treatment that works for all. We do not have a cure at all. We want to think that we do, but we really know very little. 

Not much has changed for those that have mental health issues and substance use disorder. Unless working in the field itself, our primary care and emergency personnel would rather not bother with the medical needs of those that may be suffering from these ills. It is too complicated and we see little success, so we fear them instead of seeing them as the unique people that they really are, and set up laws to protect ourselves.

My brother never saw my mother during that Christmas holiday, though she did not get worried until after Valentine’s Day. She called me with a fear in her voice that I rarely ever heard. She wanted to know how to contact the police and shelters to find out if my brother was alive. Her voice was the same tone as when we got the news in 1983 that my 21-year-old brother was dead. She said the snow had yet to melt and it was too long without a sighting. As I put down the phone, I hoped that she would not lose another son; that just would be too much, she wanted to go first.

I called all the hospitals and jails and then I called the shelters and police. The police and shelters informed me that they no longer passed messages to those that came to the shelters for safety reasons. Sounded strange to me but they said the silence may be keeping us safe from our own family member. I finally got the nerve and called the morgue; thank goodness he was not there. My mother suggested filing a missing persons report; after all she was his mother and had his birth certificate to prove it. They have lived in the same town forever it seems and since my brother was a long-time user of the local shelter system, the police knew him. They located him and told us that he was alive and in a newer shelter. They could not tell my brother anything about us, but the news did relieve my mother’s fear that he was dead under the heavy snow of winter.

My son never got that far away from regular society. He was a working professional. He saw his doctors on a regular basis; he had health insurance and lived one block from the hospital. He took the subway to his investment job, won awards at work, supported community stewardship, had great friends, stayed close with his brothers and parents and was in a relationship with a girl that we loved. Everything seemed just perfect on the outside. They were a beautiful looking couple; they went skydiving, took vacations to the beach, went to dinner and even had a kitten. They looked good together and just maybe, my husband thought, this was the right match for our son. 

But then we discovered the drugs and alcohol; not a good mix if you have other mental health issues. The same vice that took my brother’s sunny disposition away had grabbed hold of my son, and it hit hard. He had the insurance to get help, had the support of his workplace and family, but not the support of society. Much like my brother, those on the outside looking in saw a weak male soul that just couldn’t conform, an unstable man that was to be feared. At times, they look un-kept and at times their eyes wander and you need to look away. They walk the streets during the evening when they can’t sleep and sometimes sleep on the subway when others are standing up in the middle of the day.

As a family, we knew it was becoming too much for him so we started a trust fund for him, just in case, and made a one-year plan together to reduce the stress and start a new life. He was getting ready to leave his job, finish his master's and relocate down South where we retired. Warmer weather, sunny skies and ocean air, the natural fix for all that bothers you. So I decorated the room over the garage as a studio apartment just to start him out, then texted him that it was all finished. He would start over, like those pioneers who went west. He would get a dog again, a rescue puppy, the best therapy of all. He just needed time to regroup and get well again. It was not to be. He was found dead at 29 in his city apartment hours after I had received his return text that the decorated room looked great.  

My son is forever home now in the waters off the Morris Island Lighthouse off the coast of South Carolina. His items have been removed from his apartment, clothes are packed away, books and writings are stored, yet we keep his cell phone on. It just is too soon to delete his cell number. After looking through some of his texts, he was conflicted about accepting help, he was supposed to be self-reliant and a success, but he felt nothing but despair and guilt that he needed to take a short medical leave and accept support—strong men just don’t do that. 

I am supposed to go on with life, yet I will be living with the same heartache as my mother—the loss of an adult child. It just doesn’t make sense that a pattern has been created. I thought I did everything to guard against it, and a mother’s love was not enough. As I think back, not much has changed though, there is little compassion for adults that need to ask for emotional support, we push them to succeed and to make it on their own, we are told to detach.

My mother calls regularly and asks how I am coping since my son’s death. I think it gives her an opening to also talk of my brother’s death and illness as well as her own upcoming death. She reminds me about God’s love and understanding and that heaven is waiting for us all. This time though she was calling to say that my brother had stopped by her assisted living facility. He was showered and sporting a red beard. He was trim and smiling. She finally gave him the Christmas present that I had left with her and the $20 that he will likely use on cigarettes or booze. She couldn’t remember if she updated him with the news about the wedding or my son’s funeral, she was just happy to have spent a few minutes with him. He informed her that he had an apartment and was not on the street. I took down the address and promised her that I would check in on him again this summer.  

As I looked up the address, I discovered it was not an address for an apartment, but an address to yet another shelter. I did not have the heart to explain this to my mom. At 85, she needed to know that her son might finally have a stable address near her.

Now that I am retired, I tell myself that I have plenty of time now to spend with my brother, or even have him live with me down South. I know the life expectancy of a streetwalker is around 48 or 50 and he is getting over that age. I am ready to have my brother with me; he doesn’t need to live in a shelter. I have the room, I have the money, and I even have a rescue shelter pup, but…I do not have the street. My community has a golf course and tennis, a neighborhood watch and sprinkler system lawns. Drinking is done behind closed doors at the club. The valet parking attendants will even drive homeowners home, if need be. It seems perfect, until someone is not so perfect.

Again this year, I sent my brother’s Christmas present to my mother hoping that he would stop by to see her this year. Today, I received white holiday flowers from my family in memory of my son. It has been three Christmases since his passing. They are thinking of me and sending prayers. My mom takes comfort in her belief that my son is at peace and in heaven with my brother and father. 

But my brother and son are not the only ones that had their lives cut short; they are one of way too many. I am trying to believe that compassion toward them is coming, but wonder if there is too much misunderstanding of these health issues for society to care. There is much talk of change and we are starting to make headway but when the wanderer prefers the street to forced and ineffective treatment, my street-walking brother is better off surviving in the hometown that is familiar to him, where he is near my mother and the shelter, without the tidy lawns and professional gardens of manicured life.

A special thank you this holiday season to all that work in the shelters to keep people warm and fed. It is a thank you that extends the whole yearlong.

E.H. Pawl is a pseudonym for a life-long learner; currently reading stories from The Forgiveness Project.

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