Unhappy Here, Unhappy Anywhere

Chronic Crisis in this week’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel tells the story of a mother and her 25-year old son with mental illness. He is not so severely ill that involuntary commitment is appropriate but cannot function well in the community even with a case manager. He’s been in and out of dozens of living situations, is frequently homeless, refuses to take medication which would calm his symptoms, and is bitter and angry at his mother.

The mother is exhausted, inconsistent in her approach, unwilling to listen to professional advice, and frantic in her efforts to make her son happy. Notice that I did not say, make her son well or make her son able to live with his mental illness. Her focus is on her son’s happiness for it is in its happiness that she believes she will find her relief. Her deep frustration and her hysteria, which a reader can feel emanating from the printed page itself, give way to magical thinking.

Believing that there is nothing in Milwaukee to help her son, the mother decides to take him to their mutually agreed upon promised land – California. It is in California, she decides, that everything that has been wrong will be righted, she will be able to find a safe place for him to live, he’ll move in, buy some shorts and new flip flops, and just mellow out under the palm trees. He’ll be happy. And when that happens, she can come back to Milwaukee. Alone. Everything will be different. It will all be fine.

Of course, this plan does not work. She finds her son a place to live in a group home but he is kicked out after a few days for violating the home’s rules and not taking his medication. He gets on a train to come back to Milwaukee and ends up hospitalized in Sacramento. In between, there are episodes of him wandering, being on the wrong train, and behavior so erratic that police were called. She goes to fetch him.

What is intended as an indictment of the local mental health system read to me like a story of a mother who had lost herself in her son’s illness. Insisting that he take his medication one minute, she would acquiesce the next and decide to drive him to the corner store so he could buy alcohol. She had a tremendous dependence on her son’s case manager but wouldn’t trust his insights or follow his guidance. She was like a new mother who would do anything anyone ever suggested to make her baby stop crying including, in this case, taking him across the country to leave him with strangers in a strange land.

The hard thing for this mother and for all of the mothers who have children with mental illness, alcoholism or drug addiction is to master the almost counter-intuitive ways of tough love, boundaries, consistency, and saving oneself. Learning these things and putting them into practice goes against every desire a mother has to see her child be happy. We want them to be happy. But before they can be happy, they need to be safe. Safe in the world and safe in their own minds. Safety trumps happiness. Safety trumps love, sadly enough.

This news is just too much for many mothers of persons with mental illness or addiction. It seems foreign and cold and they stay convinced that the answer to their adult children’s misery is some thing, some event, or some place that will make them happy. So they continue with the trips to the ice cream store, the ambivalence about treatment, the negotiations, the arguments, the disappointments, and the gross, huge, never-ending fear that something they have done or will do will result in a catastrophic end to the struggle.

This family’s experience was supposed to illustrate failure of the local mental health system but it is really a story about a mother who is drowning. And like most people who are drowning, she is flailing, kicking, grabbing at anything to stay afloat. If she calms herself for a moment, though, and takes a careful look around Milwaukee, she will find people who can teach her how to reclaim her life and let her son reclaim his. There are also people who can show her son how to manage his mental health, create and use a crisis plan, maintain a medication regimen, and become comfortable in his own mind and body. He doesn’t have to continue to live the way he is living. And neither does his mother. There is hope, right here in this city. I know. I see it every day.

Excellent resources in Milwaukee:
NAMI and Mental Health America provide education and support for people with mental illness and their family members.

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