I've always been hesitant to talk publicly about mental illness but I know that demon well. It runs rampant in my family, manifesting itself in unexpected ways. Mental Illness abruptly ended my Fathers career as a minister at the age of 42, when I was four. I would consider myself an expert on the topic having lived through the repeating cycles of hospitalizations, overmedicating, outpatient treament, undermedicating, and re-entry into the hospital. My Mother worked in a program based on Fountain House in NYC. As we were a single income family without means, I was with her most of the time while she was working with the clients. In a twisted way my tolerance of crazy is both higher and lower than the norm because of my experiences.
My Husband's Sister Janet suffered profoundly and deeply from mental illness for the whole of her life. She lived the familiar revolving door cycle. There were interventions from the state, from family, and unfortunately from jail. The side effects of the medications were very serious and affected her in darkly incomprehensible ways. I don't believe she ever really meant to get into trouble or to cause pain or hurt in others.
There were good times. For two straight years in 2003 and 2004 Janet took the medication, abilify. It changed her life for the better. She was certified to work in a library, she became confirmed in her church, she had her own apartment and car, and I know she made her Dad so very proud by keeping it together as he went through the end stages of terminal pancreatic cancer. My Husband and I spent as much time as she would see us during her healthy period. We took her places, saw things, and just plain hung out. Janet was upbeat and positive. She had a creative soul, she loved to play the violin and the piano. She wanted to help people (even if she had her own endearingly bossy way of doing so).
It's been about a year since I last saw Janet. She had just gotten out of a short 5 week stay at the hospital. Something imperceptible was "off." She wasn't the same person I knew before. Janet had become obsessed with the idea of getting pregnant, and one could hardly blame her since her sister and her sister in law were both expecting. Pregnancy takes a tremendous toll as we all know. It really ravages the hormonal system and changes our bodies in colossal ways.
Janet conceived. She had her son, Benjamin just this past March. He is tiny and perfect. Janet was unable to have custody of her son and he lives in a loving foster family. Janet was unable to let herself see and hold him like a new mother so badly wants to do. She was released from the hospital in her tenuous condition, without her son, but a Strep infection instead.
I can't help but feel we let her down. That the medical community let her down, the state assigned Psychiatrists, Case-workers, the OB and Maternity staff and the volumes of others who stumbled across Janet over the past 25 years. But what can you do for someone when they won't seek help, won't accept help and damn well won't ask for help?
Janet was only 40 when we lost her last week. Even when you know something could happen it does not lessen the shock and pain when it does happen. My heart aches because I know I will never get to talk to her again. But I know her suffering is over and for that I am glad. Even if I'm selfish and not ready to let go.
I'm sorry Janet, we love you.
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