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.