CHOICES II-12 - The Reactions of One's Immediate Family

Robin Cunningham Health Guide

    In my last blog, I drew upon my own experience and presented an abridged excerpt from my memoir that illustrates the kind of reaction one often receives from family members at large.  In this blog, I will again present an abridged portion from my memoir that recreates the reactions of my parents.


    In reading this, please keep in mind that I am recreating a bitter argument between my parents that I was not supposed to have overheard.  This occurred late in the evening of April 10, 1956.  Thorazine, the first medication used successfully for the treatment of schizophrenia, had been on the market for about a year.

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    "As I just said, it would be a terrible mistake," Father exclaimed.  "Give him a little time to work it out on his own.  He'll probably be just fine."


    Sitting at the kitchen table, father was hunched over a cup of coffee mother had just topped off.  He looked and sounded exhausted.  When he tried to take a sip, his hands shook so badly that it dribbled down his chin and onto the table.


    "What do you mean ‘he'll be just fine'," Mother protested.  "Your family has always pretended there's no problem, as if that would make it all go away.  You've never faced the facts."


    "How can you say I've never faced the facts?"  Father replied, his voice strained and bitter.  He'd never talked to mother this way.


    "Your whole family has never accepted the fact that it carries a susceptibility to mental illness," Mother said.  "You're all in denial.  The whole family has gone to extremes to avoid the issue.  You have a sister living next door that you haven't spoken to in years."


    "Denial!  Ever since my father hanged himself, ever since I was eleven years old, I've gone to bed every night not knowing if I'd awaken in the morning in a private hell like the one that killed him."


    Mother said nothing.


    "What good would it do to deny it anyway?" Father continued.  "Will denial help if I get sick?  The mental illness in my family has always been obvious enough to those who are close.  We've just never advertised."


    "But your family waited to seek help for both your brother and sister until it was too late, until they were too far gone."


    "Since you've brought up Walt and Mildred, let's talk about what happened to them.  Of course we tried to hide the fact they were mentally ill.  But you know full well we also took them to more than one doctor.  And look what it got them.  The shrinks couldn't do anything and people found out.  They were ostracized.  Friends suddenly began to treat them like lepers, like idiots.  Walt couldn't get a job to save his soul.  If you take Robin to a psychiatrist the same thing will happen to him."


    "The doctors might be able to help him," Mother persisted.


    "Like they helped Walt and Mildred?" Father shot back.  "They said the brain surgery, the prefrontal lobotomies, would help, but they didn't really know what they were doing.  Do you really want them to experiment on our son?  The doctors ruined the prospects of my brother and sister.  They may not have had much in life, but the doctors managed to destroy even that.  I'll not let that happen to Robin."


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    "And you think mental illness won't destroy Robin's life?" my mother continued.


    "If you take him to a psychiatrist, you'll be taking a terrible chance.  He's a bright boy, but people will conclude he is weak or lacking in character.  They'll never give him a chance.  He'll start life with two strikes against him."


    "We may not have a choice," my mother said.


    "There's always a choice," father countered.  "The difficult things in life build character.  Robin's problems will make him all the stronger if he can work it out in his own way.  Then he'll bear no stigma."


     "Are you really worried about Robin's quality of life," my mother asked, "or that others might discover you are the source of his problems?"


    My father recoiled as if he had been slapped in the face.  His coffee cup fell from his hand to the floor where it broke into a hundred pieces.


    "That's not fair.  No matter what happens, Robin is my son and I will stand by him."


    My mother ignored the broken cup and looked directly at my father.


    "That's what scares me.  You'll stand by him but do nothing.  Hoping for the best you'll just watch as he sinks.  With or without your permission, if he doesn't show real signs of improvement in the next couple of days, if he doesn't seem to be ‘working it out on his own', I'm taking him to see a psychiatrist."


    I vowed I would never go willingly.


    [The tragedy is that, although there are now effective treatments for schizophrenia, this conversation or many very much like it are still taking place every day, over fifty years later.  Stigma remains deeply embedded in our society and will only be removed through public education.]


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    Please remember, this writing reflects my own experience and opinions.  If you, or a loved one, are experiencing the symptoms of schizophrenia, or any other mental illness, you should seek professional assistance.


Published On: December 21, 2008