By Doris Ray, (author of THE GHOSTS BEHIND HIM published by Caitlin Press 1999. Received BC 2000 BOOK AWARD)
I am hoping the general public is beginning to understand that erratic and sometimes criminal behavior sometimes stems from a serious chemical disorder within the human brain. When a brain chemical disorder affects the thought processes, the affliction can cause a patient to lose touch with reality. When a brain chemical disorder affects a patient’s emotional state of mind it can lead to extreme anguish and despair. And too often suicide.
Once we accept that diseases of the organ that is the human brain are for real; that the person we thought was “weird” or “possessed” or “bad” was in all actuality, suffering from an illness, compassion will set in. I am hoping that will happen soon!
On Being a Mother
Sometimes I think we mothers have no control at all over events that shape the course of our lives. After the last babe has fled the nest, we should be able to rest upon our laurels. The big job is done. We have fed and diapered our flock and launched them successfully through infancy, adolescence and other milestones such as attaining that all-important driver’s license. Now they are married or in college or perhaps hitchhiking around the world. Your only obligation is to send them money periodically—if you have some. (If you’re really lucky and I know I’m fantasising, they’ll send YOU money once in awhile.)
But that’s not necessarily the way it works. We are allowed five minutes or so to bask in a state of warm complacency before our REALLY big job begins. Unforeseen circumstances loom that are beyond our control and we find ourselves caught up in a brand new facet of the human experience. Destiny points the way and we have no choice but to hang up our hats and become enmeshed in something that is in dire need of our particular talents and dedication.
For me it was mental illness. At the age of 21 my son Bruce was struck down by the symptoms of an illness which at times was so bizarre that it was beyond my capacity to comprehend. Despite his doctor’s diagnosis of schizophrenia, I sometimes suspected that he had multiple personalities, or else was in a state of being possessed by otherworldly entities. Bruce was puzzled and bemused by the hallucinations he was experiencing. At first he recognised that they stemmed from his own runaway imagination; later on, he became overwhelmed by them.
In 1993 I became inadvertently drawn into the dark world of mental illness where tragic circumstances sometimes occur when its victims are unmedicated or wrongly medicated. Schizophrenia adversely affects the lives of family members, friends and other members of the community, as well as the victim. Sufferers don’t always realise that they are ill. Sometimes they express disturbing and even criminal behaviour. When that occurs we can no longer ignore or sweep under the carpets, the plight of the mentally ill in our society.
I’ve learned that schizophrenia is a disease that has concrete and specific symptoms due to physical and biochemical changes within the brain. It strikes one in every hundred young people—world-wide, and is usually treatable with medication. It has nothing to do with diminishing intellect or talent. Over the years my son has managed to retain his ability to write poetry and draw cartoons. For that I am grateful.
Psychosis is an acute symptom of a brain chemical disorder. The sufferer has withdrawn from reality into a delusional realm of existence. His behaviour is most often not criminal, although he is a high risk for suicide.
On the other hand, people sometimes confuse a mental health patient suffering from a brain chemical disorder with a psychopath. The classic psychopath – according to my dictionary -is “an individual who is emotionally unstable to a degree approaching the pathological, but with no specific or marked mental disorder.” People diagnosed as psychopathic often express antisocial and even criminal behaviour patterns.
There is the same social stigma attached to a brain chemical disorder such as schizophrenia as there is to homosexuality. During my son’s adolescent years I believed the worst thing that could happen to him was that he could turn out to be gay. (He’s not.) He was shy and didn’t date so that thought had occurred to me. Many times over the past twenty years I have reminded myself of that paltry concern. I have wished fervently that one morning I would wake up to the knowledge that instead of my son’s having been afflicted by a devastating brain disease, he was merely gay. Everything, it seems, is relative.
When The Hard Drive Doesn’t Work
It must be very hard to accept the fact that you have a chronic, incurable illness. It must be especially hard to acknowledge that your brain—the part of you which houses every piece of remembered information, as well as the emotional content associated with each experience, can become faulty. But the brain like every other organ in the human body, is subject to the possibility of becoming diseased or of malfunctioning.
The brain is similar to the hard drive on a computer. When it doesn’t work properly, it may begin to churn out garbled information. You have relied on that hard drive ticking away inside your head for all the days of your life. At first you have a tendency to believe the false information you are receiving. If your brain informs you that you are not sick, how are you supposed to know the difference? If your brain tells you that other people can read your mind and are plotting against you, you may believe that as well. When you finally realise that you have a brain chemical disorder and its not going away anytime soon, you need to develop a sense of humour—big time!
Retaining a Sense of Humour
I was down at the Coast during the “big blow” on Easter Sunday 1997. A big wind in the country is merely an interruption between the snow or rain and the ever-popular sunshine. The important thing to remember is to stay off the lakes in your rowboat or canoe. But a wind storm in an urban setting can be an eerie experience, especially if one is imaginative and spending the night on the Riverview Hospital grounds in Port Coquitlam.
Mental patients–I have found–are like everyone else. Those whom we know and love are just fine. It’s the strangers we have a tendency to mistrust. But when I am anywhere south of Hope or Princeton, I begin to notice that there are a lot more strangers strolling about than there are friends. Many have attributes that would qualify them as being “weird” in downtown Fraser Lake. (Simply not wearing parkas and winter boots in April would do that.)
When the sun goes down in the city I never know what to do with my purse. Draping its strap across the opposite shoulder used to deter snatchers, but now I hear that is not enough. Seasoned crooks merely cut the strap and run. Even though it contains nothing more valuable than Kleenex and an occasional coughdrop, I clutch mine closely to my bosom. Holding my head up I stride confidently, gazing neither left nor right, hoping to create the illusion that I am armed with a lethal weapon or at the very least have a black belt or better in karate.
Cottage 119 at Riverview is for patients’ family members to stay when they are visiting. Conveniently, it was right around the corner from where my son resided. At five-thirty on Easter Sunday, Bruce and I were finishing dinner when there came a tremendous burst of wind, followed by a high volume of screeching and wailing sounds from somewhere outside the building. The creaking of branches from nearby trees, as they gnashed and rubbed together, completed the symphony.
Each succeeding gust of wind produced more banshee-like shrieks that pierced the air above the droning sounds of traffic on the nearby highway. These high pitched sounds were not unique to the Riverview area. Later that evening my daughter phoned and said the same eerie noises emanated from outside her in-law’s home several miles away. The hydro was off over there, she stated, which made things even spookier.
She wondered if her not-very-courageous, nervous and overly-imaginative mother was up to handling the situation. I assured her that in the event of a power failure, my finger was poised to dial the telephone for a taxicab.
My son had to leave at 9 P.M. If I was alone in the dark at that time, I was out of there!
Bruce and I discussed the history of the large tract of land known as Riverview. We agreed that the lush grounds would be a wonderful place to live, if one were considered “sane” and did not have to be there. There has been a concerted effort afoot by entrepreneurs to get their hands on the valuable piece of real estate, and build condos and monster homes upon it. That hope is not being shared by mental health advocates and promoters of Hollywood North.
People in the film industry are often seen skulking and lurking in and around the architecturally-pleasing old buildings. I have noticed that mental patients are usually pretty laid back. Chances are if a really weird character was spotted on the Riverview grounds, it would be a movie or television star and not a resident.
There are many beautiful trees on the Riverview grounds, most of which shed their foliage in great heaps in the fall. Now outside our window, we could see these wrinkled pieces of brown parchment, the corpses of last year’s beautiful leaves, begin to rise and dart erratically up into the darkening sky like flocks of small, hungry bats. The scene was more reminiscent of Halloween than Easter.
My son was now mentally stable. I could tell because his sense of humour was evident. He had mentioned that there was an historic graveyard located a short distance from the cottage. Just then a gust of wind blew up, setting in motion whatever it was that caused the shrieking noises.
“Perhaps its the ghosts of long dead mental patients,” Bruce suggested with a grin. I was not amused.
Major depression is the most common of all brain chemical disorders. According to statistics one man in ten and one woman in five will suffer a serious depression at some time in their lives. Many of us become depressed when we anticipate or experience unpleasant situations. It’s that “blah” feeling that envelopes us when our least favourite aunt arrives for an extended visit and the anguish that tears us apart (after the murderous rage has subsided!) when we discover a parking lot dent in our brand new car. And in my case, the ultimate down-in-the-dumps despair I once felt when I stepped on the bathroom scales. (I remedied that a few years ago when the offensive measurement of poundage went out with the garbage!) Those dark feelings usually dissipate within a reasonable length of time and are a part of everyday living. But when those feelings don’t go away, the sufferer may become trapped inside a demoralised and hopeless state of existence.
Symptoms of major depression are: tearfulness, brooding, irritability, obsessive rumination, anxiety, phobias and excessive worry over physical health
I had my first panic attack when I was about 13 and in the eighth grade. The teacher in our small rural school had asked me to read a poem to the class from our English textbook. I had been reading aloud to this same bunch of kids since Grade 2 so this should not have been a big deal. But that day an idle thought drifted through my mind that was to cause me consternation for more than four decades of my life. For some reason I thought, “What if I can’t do this? What if the words get stuck in my throat?” And that’s exactly what happened! My throat closed up tightly and I could barely breathe, let alone talk.
After that excruciating experience I avoided reading aloud to my classmates, or to anyone else. As a young mother I usually joined whatever organisation happened to be sponsoring my children’s’ particular endeavours. I enjoyed the interaction with other people although it seemed I was forever being nominated for the position of secretary. I would always decline. My heart would beat fast and I ‘d be trembling as I fumbled for an excuse. I knew I would have no problem with the business of keeping track of the minutes; it was the thought of reading them aloud at the next meeting that terrified me.
Panic attacks can occur at any time. You might be shopping, sleeping or in the middle of a meeting. An episode usually begins abruptly, peaks within 10 minutes, and lasts about half an hour. Signs and symptoms can include a rapid heartbeat, sweating, trembling and shortness of breath, as well as other body alarm signals. The symptoms of panic are so intensely physical that it often doesn’t occur to people that the attack they are having is due to a chemical imbalance in the brain. They may even think they are having a heart attack.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
The plight of victims suffering from a psychiatric illness known as obsessive compulsive disorder was the theme of a Jack Nickolson movie entitled “As Good As It Gets.” Jack did not experience hallucinations or delusions but he was overly concerned about things that made no sense to his friends. Common fears are: fear of contamination, concern with order and neatness, doubts of having injured someone, left something on (or unlocked) and inability to throw anything away. The person will be driven to perform specific ritualised behaviours calculated to temporarily reduce their discomfort such as: repeated hand washing and cleaning, excessive ordering and arranging, checking and rechecking, and collecting useless objects. A diagnosis of OCD is made when obsessions and compulsions become so marked they interfere with social and occupational activities, or cause intense subjective distress. Thankfully, there are now effective treatments available for those who suffer from persistent panic attacks or OCD.
Psychosis can occur in extreme states of mood disorders as well as in schizophrenia. Psychotic depression often takes the form of delusions of imaginary poverty, terminal illness, cosmic self-blame for world problems. Conversely, psychotic mania (in bipolar illness) involves delusions of wealth, great personal power, unlimited abilities or cosmic importance—symptoms that in psychiatric terms are referred to as “grandiosity.” Those suffering from bipolar disorder often experience a “double whammy” of symptoms, with moods constantly alternating from a depressive state to a “high” or mania in a relatively short period of time.