The phone rang just as I was about to put dinner on the table. It was Lou, my ex-boyfriend’s mother. She had the same hushed, hurried, worried tone that I’d heard every time her mentally ill son went missing or threatened her or holed up in his apartment and refused to answer the door. For years, I had been her compatriot in coming up with new, unsuccessful strategies for getting her son, my boyfriend, into decent mental health treatment.
All that was over now for me. I had fallen in love with and married someone else. We bought a house, enrolled my daughter in a new school, adopted a dog. My life was good, fun, and predictable. It didn’t involve anyone with mental illness. That was my old life.
I told Lou that I hadn’t seen him in months and that there was nothing I could do to help her. No, I couldn’t go look for him or go check his place. No, I didn’t have phone numbers for his friends. At the end, I was his only friend. No, I didn’t know what she should do. I didn’t know what was right or possible. I had left that, shed that skin, by the side of a long road I’d traveled with him.
I felt terrible offering no help. I just wanted to get off the phone. I remembered the times I’d listened to her tell me stories about being a woman in the Army, the places she’d gone and the things she faced. She was a tough lady but her son’s mental illness had beaten her down. Just beaten her down. It had started to beat me down as well but I could leave and I did. She could never leave. She was his mother.
I thought about Lou today while I sat in a symposium about the crisis in our county’s mental health system. Meg Kissinger, an investigative reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and Debbie Sweeney, the mother of a mentally-ill 26-year old man with multiple failed placements and treatment episodes, talked about Sweeney’s struggle to find decent care for her son as portrayed in Chronic Crisis, a Journal Sentinel series that documented the mom’s failed attempt to find better care for her very sick son in California.
In the article and today in person, I heard from Debbie Sweeney the same exhaustion and years of not knowing what to do next that I’d heard from Lou. Debbie’s son, back living in our town, is taking new medication and doing well in his living arrangement; she seems relieved but waiting for something terrible to happen. It’s as if she is just resting, gathering her strength for the next crash.
It is really tough being a person with serious mental illness; there’s no describing how tough it is. It’s an injustice to even use such a casual word as ‘tough’ in reference to the struggles that so many endure. But for every mentally ill person, there’s usually somebody like Lou or Debbie. That person is worn out and frayed. She’s probably called the police a dozen times, talked to a dozen doctors and case managers, packed a dozen bags with new clothes for a new treatment placement, visited every week, gotten calls in the middle of the night, and maybe, like Debbie, caught a glimpse of her son walking down the street looking every inch as if he had been homeless for years. She saw her baby on the street, homeless. Think about it.
There is help for parents and other family members who are struggling with a loved one’s mental illness. NAMI and Mental Health America are two important resources for family members. Both of them help family members manage their own emotions and keep their heads above water, much like Al-Anon.
Like the flight attendants instruct us before the plane takes off: if the cabin loses air pressure, the oxygen mask will fall down from the ceiling. Put your own mask on first before helping anyone else.