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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Uncle Jerry

Dearest Dears, 

My Uncle Jerry, diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, made my mother so miserable that as a kid, I just wished he'd get hit by a bus. When I'd hear about some good guy dying before his time, I'd wish it was Jerry instead. I could always tell from my mother's posture or tone of voice when she'd had contact with her brother. He sucked the soul right out of her.

Jerry got a degree in mathematics before I was born. But by the time I was conscious he was in and out of institutions and jails. Sometimes homeless, sometimes taken in by women who thought they could help him. These women blew my mind -- why would they want my creepy uncle Jerry? 

The pattern repeated. A new social worker or girlfriend would call my mom, horrified by her callousness. What kind of sister could let her brother sleep in unlocked cars? Eat out of trash cans? Go without meds?

And my mom would agree, she was a horrible person, a terrible sister. She'd let her dead mother down. Hadn't Bubbi said, "Something's wrong with Jerry! We have to help Jerry!" before she died at 51?

The girlfriends and social workers never lasted, but my mom's guilt and misery was relentless. My own sympathies, however, were never with Jerry. Ever. I hated when he "visited," I hated what he did to my parents -- his mental illness was virulently contagious.

It wasn't until adulthood that I had any real compassion for the Uncle Jerrys of the world. And now that Jerry is dead, of natural causes, at a ripe old age, I can see how fiercely I detested him and his disease. There was no separating the two, for me. 

Since then other friends and family members have been stricken with similar illnesses. With them it has been easier to understand that the illness is not the person and the person is not the illness.

And now there is a brilliant book called CHALLENGER DEEP by Neal Shusterman. A first person narrative of a 15 year old boy's nightmarish plummet into mental illness. This book would be an amazing read for anyone, but for kids with mental illness in their family: wow! A brilliant, terrifying, hard to read but impossible to put down treasure. 

If I'd had this book as a kid, I probably wouldn't have hated my uncle Jerry any less, but maybe I would have understood him a tiny bit more.  


P.S. CHALLENGER DEEP won the NBA (National Book Award for Young People) a couple days ago, and never have I agreed more with any award committee's choice. 


Suzanne said...

Thank you for this Amy. Many, if not most, of those with serious mental illness have families that can't handle the intense stress of being around someone who is unmedicated and out of control. It is brave of you to admit your feelings. Though I see you as brave and honest in general.

As you know my son is mentally ill. When he is on the streets, in and out of jail, crazy and difficult and unpleasant, the stress is incredible. But I won't give up. This puts a strain on my marriage, and on all my relationships. There are constant hard choices to make. After nearly 30 years it wears you down, and wears you out. I am afraid of what will happen when I die. And I nearly did die of a heart attack which everyone seems to think occurred mainly from stress.

My goal is to keep plugging away, helping to remove the stigma of mental illness (can you imagine hating someone for having cancer?) and for treatment options that still are not available. We, in San Jose, just had a mentally ill young man murdered - MURDERED - by three jail guards. He was just in jail waiting for a bed in a treatment program. Right now there are 106 people in our jail who are mentally ill and would be released this minute if there were a bed in a treatment program for them. Can you imagine keeping cancer patients in prison until there were treatment options available for them? It is unbelievable what we do in this country and then call ourselves a humane and caring society.

I'm happy to say for the first time in years, my son is doing really well. Somehow the stars aligned and his fear of being jailed (for substance abuse) was so great he voluntarily went to the hospital, and then a crisis center, and then now in a sober living house for dual diagnosis people. It is temporary... his housing is, and probably his wonderful stable state. But I am so thankful. My son is a wonderful, compassionate, generous, loving and intelligent person when he is stable. It is so wonderful to have him back.

I hope everyone can find some compassion in their hearts the next time they see some dirty, angry, person walking down the street talking to themselves. That person probably has a mother somewhere who deeply loves them and would do anything - if they could - to help them.

Eileen said...

Thanks for reviewing this book because you made me want to read it. I've known a couple of seriously mentally ill people. Everyone who loves such a person suffers deeply, as does the person afflicted. Neal Shusterman tackled an important and oft misunderstood topic.

Naomi said...

Rooting for Suzanne's son and Suzanne, too.