When Mental Illness Strikes Home

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I talked to my Dad last Saturday on his eighty-eighth birthday, and he was surprising like his old self, chatty and congenial. What a relief. For so much of his recent years he has lived in a state of agitation. Contentment has been something he rarely experienced. Hence, much of the time he has been nearly impossible to live with.

While he is very feeble at eighty-eight years of age, he does not medically require the level of care that he thinks he needs. He has been terribly demanding of my Mom for far too long.

He thinks he must be waited on, hand and foot, the result of a life of enabled behavior, exaggerated by age. Now, he also suffers from vascular dementia, and is simply forgetting things that are important for him to navigate his day-to-day world. Along with all of that, he is very hard of hearing which further isolates him and feeds his paranoia.

His medication levels are tricky to balance. He tends to be either impossibly agitated (and agitating,) or he falls asleep while eating dinner. Balancing his meds requires a level of attention than he has never received from his primary care doctor. In those fleeting seasons when all is aligned, I feel I have my Dad back.

He is in the midst of perfect storm of how not to age … negative life-long attitudes and behaviors, poor health habits, severe hearing loss, dementia, and questionable medical care.

My half-brother likewise, lives life mentally impaired. For reasons unknown to me, he became terribly possessed with racial hatred as a young adult, and he continues in that vein to this day. He also developed epilepsy in his teens, something controlled by medication.

Many years ago, he had a motorcycle accident that left him unconscious for several days. He changed after that. All these years later, it is hard for me to put my finger on it. But he could get a scary look in his eye when he was riled up, which happened pretty frequently.

A few years back, he had a collision while driving a forklift in the warehouse where he worked. Actually, he blacked out. That’s when they discovered he had two brain aneurysms. After that surgery, he began to have difficulty remembering things and caring for himself as he should.

These days, he lives a muted existence, having to be directed to do most anything, and he moves very, very slowly. His agitation and racial hatred remain, though subdued. I never know whether his symptoms and behavior are the result of his injuries, the surgery, his attitude, or medication.

One ray of sunshine is that he always very appreciative of whatever anyone does for him.

Like Dad, he got caught up in his own perfect storm of how you hope you don’t wind up, only Bill is just sixty-five, and has been like this for nearly ten years. Bad attitudes, aneurysms, epilepsy, diabetes, less than successful brain surgery, years of inadequate medical care and more poor health habits have resulted in a less than desirable life.

I don’t know how to categorize the mental illnesses of my dad and brother, but I know I want to avoid whatever part I can control. These days I have a legal responsibility for my parents, and brother, as power of attorney, and legal guardian, and honestly, I find that rewarding and challenging.

People like my brother and my dad, need an advocate to help them get the right kind of medical care, and to manage their affairs. I have spent considerable time keeping my brother from being taken advantage of by his former employer and medical supply companies.

Mentally ill people generally freak us out. We are fearful of them, especially, if they have any violent tendencies. It’s hard for us to treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve as human beings. And it’s hard to balance that compassion with a realistic response to their condition and behavior.

It is so sad to see the way we have abandoned the mentally ill to wander the streets and to try to figure it out for themselves with minimalistic support.

It indicates we don’t value people who don’t live up to our standards. So, they have to try to manage their own illness, which they are not capable of doing. They are denied the care they need, denied someone to support them, and denied even basic human dignity.

We can do better.

Much better.

This post is my contribution to this month’s synchroblog commemorating Mental Health Week. Here are the links to the other participants posts.


About Glenn

Glenn Hager is a blogger, former newspaper columnist, and author of two books, An Irreligious Faith and Free Range Faith.
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