For Janet

Posted on Jun 10, 2007. 14 comments

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.


  • Posted by Heidi on Jun 13, 2007

    I am so sorry Michelle. I will pray for your family.

  • Posted by Kim on Jun 14, 2007

    I’m really sorry to hear about your loss. Thanks for sharing your experiences as a family member of someone with mental illness.

  • Posted by monica on Jun 13, 2007

    I’m sorry to hear about Janet. It is tough to deal with it esp when she didn’t want to seek help. It was good that you guys were always there to offer help and that you didn’t give up.

  • Posted by stephanie on Jun 13, 2007

    I am so sorry about your sister in law. Please do not feel that you failed her. You all did what you could for her and, most of all, loved her. I hope that you are able to have a relationship with your nephew, if that is what is right for you, so that you can see her live on through him.

  • Posted by Michael on Jun 12, 2007

    Though I only met her twice, and knew her only in her better times, I knew a great deal about her past from Michael and Michelle. I liked her, and her passing is an ache that will fade slowly.
    I know this. Janet was fortunate to have such wonderful people in her life as yourself, her brother, and her father. You didn’t letter down, but gave her reasons to fight a condition that she’d otherwise have succumbed to long ago. My thoughts are with you both.

  • Posted by Jenn on Jun 12, 2007

    Oh, Mish! I’m so sorry about your SIL. But you have to know that you did the best you could, and you know how hard it is to carry the burden of someone else’s mental illness in your life. For any time that you think, “I could have done more”, you must remember that “doing more” sometimes means taking a step back and doing for yourself instead of the other person. If you don’t take care of yourself, you have nothing left to give to anyone else. I am sure that in her own way, Janet knew that she was loved.
    If there’s anything I can do for you, please let me know.

  • Posted by La on Jun 12, 2007

    Let me tell you, mental illness scares the bejeebers out of me, but your post touched me in ways I would have never thought. I’m over here crying, wishing I had the words to help you through this tough time, but I’ve never had to deal with it, so I’m at a loss for comforting words except to say that you and your husband are in my thoughts and if I could, I’d give you hugs and black cherry berry tea and tiramasu until you felt even a little better.
    You do her justice just by honoring your sister here with your honesty and your praise. Remembering the person she was, both the good and vibrant, and the not so much will keep her alive.
    Again, though I’m sure right now you want to be close with the ones you love, my door is always open if you need it.
    And I promise, I won’t play you any Rush

  • Posted by Carrie K on Jun 11, 2007

    Oh, Michelle, I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. You feel like you let her down, that she let herself down is one way of trying to manage the unmanageable. Mental illness has its own challenges but it’s just sad when you lose for good.

  • Posted by DebR on Jun 11, 2007

    I’m so sorry for your loss.
    You and your family are in my thoughts.

  • Posted by Lissa on Jun 11, 2007

    Thank you for sharing this. There are a lot of things that don’t get talked about in this world, and mental illness is at the top of the list. It means a lot. I’m sorry for the loss your family is suffering.

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