Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘hospitalization’

Schizophrenia: Nature and Nurture

Think about the devastation that a case of schizophrenia can cause a family. Then multiply that times six.

If you want a book that explores such a situation, look no further than Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker. It’s the true story of a middle-class family with 12 children, six of whom became schizophrenic. The children included ten boys and two girls; neither of the girls developed schizophrenia, so that’s a full 60% of the boys who did.

The story begins in the 1950s, when at least there were hospital beds as well as halfway houses for psychiatric patients. The matriarch, Mimi Glavin, however, preferred to care for her boys at home as much as she could. This was, of course, disruptive to the rest of the family. And the patterns were perhaps obscured by the fact that four of the boys and the two girls never developed the disorder. One of the girls was sent to live with a rich friend, and the other managed to be admitted to a boarding school. These were irregular family arrangements, intended to get the girls out of harm’s way, though they certainly harbored resentment at what they saw as abandonment.

The 50s and 60s were the era of what the mental health community called the “schizophrenigenic” mother. Back then, schizophrenia was thought to be caused by the mother, who was either too cold and distant or too controlling. Take your pick. It was the mother’s fault. It was also the era when Thorazine was the best (or only) treatment that could be given for the disorder.

The boys, many of whom were talented athletically or musically, presented with schizophrenia, as you would expect, during their late teen or early adult years. Chief among the delusions affecting Donald, the oldest son, were religious ones. The younger ones also heard voices. One committed a murder-suicide, and another sexually abused his younger sisters. Violence among the brothers was common. Overlooked in all this was that Don Galvin, the father, had suffered a mysterious hospitalization while on duty in the service, which was classified as depression.

Psychiatrists and other researchers were at that time conducting twin studies to examine whether twins were equally likely to develop schizophrenia or not. The Galvin family was a treasure trove.

Still, the family couldn’t resolve the nature-nurture debate. Were the six boys affected by defective genes? Or was their illness because they had all been raised in the same household? DNA study was in its infancy. Most of the family agreed to interviews and blood studies, though they proved not to be much help.

Of course, the children, when they began to have children themselves, were afraid that the family affliction would be passed down to them. One of the young women put her child in therapy at a young age, hoping to spot incipient signs of psychosis. This choice did possibly more harm than good, as the young boy never developed any symptoms and resented the unnecessary therapy.

The heroines of this story were, of course, Mimi – who cared for all her children as best she could, and her husband after he had a stroke in later life – and Lindsay, the youngest child. The care for her schizophrenic brothers was her purview – monitoring their health, their medications, their hospitalizations, and their money, as well as caring for her mother, who became incapacitated in old age. The mentally healthy brothers and the older sister largely detached from the family and went about living their own lives.

Why read this book? It delves into how schizophrenia can affect not just a person, but a whole (and large) family. It illuminates the struggles the family had to deal with in caring for the brothers who had mental illness. It records how treatments for and research about schizophrenia over the years worked and didn’t. And it’s a well-written book on top of that. I could easily have read it in a couple of days, but I stretched it out over weeks to savor and contemplate.

The book rings with authenticity, as interviews with all of the family and records of their therapy and hospitalizations were made available to the writer. It resonates with pain, frustration, pity, courage, illness, relapses, and desperation. It is truly the best chronicle of schizophrenia I have read. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Time I Was (Sort of) Hospitalized

When I was a teenager, being hospitalized for mental illness was a big joke. The local facility was located on a street called Wayne Ave. Wayne Ave., despite whatever else was located there (a pizza restaurant, I think), was shorthand for “crazy.” (This was no doubt an annoyance to people who actually lived on Wayne Ave., of which there were many. Now the former mental facility is a Hospice.) I knew by then that I was mentally unbalanced, but it never occurred to me that I would end up in Wayne Ave. It was an address used only to tease other kids, which was uncomfortable enough.

By the time I got to college, I was aware that I was in trouble, mentally. I had turned down the offer to see the school district psychologist in high school, delusionally afraid that it would show up in my permanent record and prevent me from getting into a good (or any) university.

I did, however, get into a very good university. (No idea if they took my lack of mental health treatment into consideration.) But by this time I was really suffering mentally and emotionally. I tried at least one therapy group, but was able to breeze through it without making any notable progress, thanks to my ability to “act normal” for an hour at a time.

Still, I figured it was just a matter of time until my mental disorders manifested themselves sufficiently to be generally noticed. Maybe even noticed enough to be diagnosed. And I was waxing delusional. I felt sure that at some point in my life I would be hospitalized for my illness. I just wanted to make it through college and work at a paying job for at least two years, if I could, in hopes of getting Social Security. (I said I was delusional.)

Along the way, though, I was (sort of) hospitalized for mental illness. I say “sort of,” because I went to the university clinic, a small facility with about a dozen beds, most of them used for students with flu and the like. (There was a sort of witticism going around campus: It’s a short trip from Willard Straight (the student union building) to Willard State (the nearest psychiatric facility). Again, going to a psychiatric facility was considered a joke.)

I was nearing the end of a disastrous relationship, self-injuring, self-medicating, and vaguely suicidal. I checked in to the campus clinic. I don’t remember much of it, my brain obviously not working too well at the time. I had to tell them I wasn’t really suicidal, or else they would have called my parents, which I definitely didn’t want.

I do remember a nurse who would look in on me as I lay in bed crying. I don’t remember what if any treatment they prescribed. In my memory, mostly they just let me cry.

One very peculiar thing happened, though. The man of the disastrous relationship “checked me out” for an evening (much as you would check out a library book) to go to a dinner with someone in editing or publishing that he thought might help me get that coveted job after college. I don’t remember the dinner being a hit, and of course no job ever came from it. Then I was checked back into the clinic for a few more days of crying. I don’t remember how long I stayed or why I was finally released. It was altogether a peculiar experience, and the gaps in my memory have swallowed most of it.

I don’t think it actually helped me at all, other than to confirm to me that I was indeed ill, with some kind of mental disorder, and to reinforce my delusions. It also, I think, hastened the dissolution of that relationship, which proved to be a good thing in the long run. Was it all a ploy by the boyfriend to establish that I was the “sick one” for the purposes of couples counseling, which I had convinced him to try at one point? I’ll never know.

But since that time, I have never been hospitalized for my bipolar disorder. I have been properly diagnosed and treated. I now take psychotropic meds faithfully and see a therapist. I have been working for decades (except during a major depressive episode, when I learned how hard indeed it is to get Social Security for a psychiatric disability).

I suspect my hospitalization was far from typical. After all, it was dozens of years ago and not in a dedicated mental hospital or ward. I can’t say whether it helped me or not. But it’s an experience I never want to repeat – and, at last, something I never expect to endure again.


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