Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Postcard From The Edge Of Sanity

I was going through a drawer in my basement studio and came across an envelope full of old pictures, postcards and birthday cards. One postcard immediately popped out at me. I bought it some years ago at an antique store because it made me laugh. A sardonic laugh, though. It's a penny postcard, probably from the 1930s, of the Utah State Mental Hospital in Provo.

Who the hell would send a postcard of a state mental hospital?! What would you say on the back, "Having a wonderful time (receiving electroshock therapy daily)…wish you were here."

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s the name "Provo" meant mental hospital. We'd say, "You need to go to Provo," if someone was acting strange. Nowadays Provo means Brigham Young University, but the state mental hospital is still there.
I read a news article the other day saying that the state kicked in some money for an additional 20 to 30 beds at the state hospital, but that there is a shortage of psychiatrists. My advice is, if you're a psychiatrist needing a job, they need you.

Before you get an idea I'm just another insensitive clod who makes fun of people who are mentally ill, I'll tell you that my mother was mentally ill for years before she got Alzheimer's. We never had to send her to Provo, or to any other facility, either, because her mental illnesses were mostly paranoia and delusional, and we thought she was bizarre, but not mentally ill. She had exhibited symptoms all of my life, but the illnesses only took over her life in the few years before she was put in the Alzheimer's care center.

As my own therapist put it, 10 years ago, after hearing stories about my mother, "Growing up with a mentally ill parent is one of the hardest things to do." It can't help but have an effect, emotionally, and maybe someday after Mom has died I'll be able to tell people what it was like, but for now let's just say that while I don't have all of Mom's problems, I can see that I have a few of them. Genes will tell.

Like a lot of uneducated people, I thought of mental illness not as a brain problem but something else. Who knows what I thought? People thought "crazy people" were crazy because it was their own fault, maybe their parents drove them crazy, or maybe they were being punished by God. We have so many derogatory terms to describe mental illness, and we are still superstitious, fearing the disorder rather than trying to understand it.

I think it was what kept my mother from asking for help. Mental illness was so stigmatized that to be admitted to a state mental hospital was tantamount to being convicted of murder. At least it was in Mom's eyes, and she passed that prejudice along to me. My brother and I finally got her to see a doctor about two years before she finally had to be put into the care center. One of the last lucid things I remember her asking me was, "Is he going to tell me I'm insane?"

NAMI is an organization devoted to education about mental illness, and is in its tenth year.
Right now after a lifetime with Mom, of battles with brain disorders and quirky personality traits, I'm a lot more sympathetic with people who have those problems, either with themselves or a family member.

Alzheimer's is a destructive disease which has robbed my mother of what quality of life she had left, even with mental illness. But the mental illness took my mother away from the joys of life many, many years ago.

Ciao for now, El Postino

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