David Frum

12.19.12

Living With Mental Illness

A friend writes:

A member of my family has a history of severe mental health problems. He could not control his behavior, which ranged from abusive and foul language at all times, especially at church or family functions, to hurting himself and household objects. He would get violent, too. He used to hit my dad and once broke my dad's hand with a pool cue, he used to terrorize me with violence, and he made suicidal threats. I cannot begin to explain how hard this was on my parents. They lived in fear--by the time I was 8 or so, they had basically stopped going to social functions because they wouldn't want to leave him with a babysitter. I was stronger than him, and my parents strictly forbade any physical retaliation because they were afraid he would do something life-threatening to me. Some times he was fine, and other times he was a nightmare from hell. Police got involved on several occasions. He had no friends and never displayed empathy for others. Once when I was in a hospital room screaming in pain from a broken arm, he kept pestering mom for money so he could buy a Coke. A thousand doctors, shrinks, some stays in the county hospital, and a six-month stint at a facility never seemed to explain what was wrong with him. When I hear all these mental health experts talk about "the warning signs" for people who become mass murderers, this family member fit that mold.

But the damnest thing happened: all of the sociopathic behaviors gradually went away. He still has a low IQ and hangs around some real losers, but he is gainfully employed and his antisocial behavior now just involves normal stuff any random redneck would exhibit. While he curses like a racist truck driver around me, he never uses bad language around mom and dad. He's never hit a girlfriend, he's never had any run-ins with the law in adulthood, and even shows flickers of genuine empathy. I've not felt physically threatened around him in a decade.

The bottom line is mental health is such a terribly spotty field. They never figured out what was wrong with him and we have no idea why most of it seems to have gone away. Had he ever done something like in Newtown, every self-important shrink on TV would have claimed they'd have seen it coming. And yet . . .

Lastly, much talk has been about "de-stigmatizing" mental health so people will come forward. That has to extend to the families of these people. To this day, my parents are wracked with grief and guilt over him, even though they and many sweet people did everything possible to help him. Families of the disturbed need to feel supported, not shamed.