An Interview With Mary Ann Bruni

  • I believe that each of us has one thing he was put here to do in his lifetime. My mother's "one thing" was to drive me to the hospital. She refuses to take credit for my recovery, yet I'm convinced her act of courage made the difference between my having a life worth living, and living a life spent on the margins. My intent in interviewing Mary Ann Bruni was to inspire you to seek help. Here now, an intimate Q&A.

    On September 25, 1987 at five o'clock in the afternoon, I took you and Dad in the backyard and told you the government was after me. That night, I had a break with reality. By ten the next morning, you had driven me to the psych ER. A day later, I was in the hospital and given Stelazine. Within three weeks, I no longer had any of the positive symptoms that I presented when I got sick. [I was 22 years old, and had graduated from the university in June.]

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    CB: How did you know what to do? Why did you take immediate action instead of waiting?
    MB: That's a good question. Everything you said was pretty accurate. Let me see, I don't know, I took immediate action but I believe Daddy was a nurse at the time [he was] and so he knew that it was a mental problem. He didn't put a name to it, but schizophrenia, that was the name they put to things like that. There was no certainty. But we agreed it was not right, you were not yourself, so we had to seek help, there was no denying it, and no reason to wait for it. Because-because why? When we talked about it, the week before you actually broke with reality. You had taken Daddy aside and you were talking to him, telling him all your plans, you were very hurried, your demeanor was hurried. And you had also done the same to me, you said, "You know, I'm not going to live [on the Island] all the time," and things like that. I understood, but you were talking nonstop, and you were never like that. This was the week before your breakdown-and so we knew then, we put it all together and said, "This is not right." So I knew you had to go to the hospital, and I took you to Veronica Lane.

    CB: I was locked in the chair, and you came to give me the pudding because you couldn't give it to me while I was in the [psych] ER. What happened in that moment when you saw me in the chair?
    MB: It was a heartbreak-it was a heartbreak. You could never see your child in such a state. It was more than I could take. And every time we would visit you after that, I would leave there and feel like I wanted to throw up, I got the shakes, like my body wasn't my own any more. That is not like me-I'm strong-but during those visits it was traumatic to see you like that, my little baby, it was a heartbreak. I must have thought, a touch of reality with your Mommy, and something you liked at the time-chocolate pudding-because I wanted you to know that I was there for you, I wanted you to be aware I was there.

    CB: The nurse unlocked me, took me to a room where I could shower, and get dressed again. An hour later the psychiatrist with blue eyes came in with you and Dad, and told me, "Chris, you have to take the medication. You don't want to have paranoid schizophrenia." How did you feel about that suggestion?

  • MB: First of all, Daddy didn't want you to take medication, he was against it. I more or less thought, OK, he has some medical training. I don't remember the doctor with the blue eyes, you do more so. I don't think we actually had a say in it because you were 18, so you had more say at that point. Daddy was against it, I wasn't quite sure, but I knew I didn't want you to spend a life like that. So before we saw you, and Daddy was so adamant about it, they called in Dr. Miller-the head of psych at Veronica Lane-and he came down to see us. He told us, "Mr. and Mrs. Bruni, she won't be able to take care of herself, she knows nothing about her life, and she won't be able to function in this world." Dr. Miller said you really had to be on medication, and he talked to us nicely, and it made sense then. I thought, "She can't live like this. It's worth trying medication."

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    CB: What early warning signs did you detect in retrospect?
    MB: Running off at the mouth the week before. What set it off-mostly your grandfather being sick, you seeing him like that.

    CB: He was in a coma, hooked up to a respirator in the intensive care unit.
    MB: He was in a coma. In the beginning, we tried to talk to him and read the paper, but things weren't going to turn around, and in three weeks we realized that. So you went into the hospital the week after Grandpa was in the coma. You came home the day after he died. I think that was part of it.

    CB: Go on.
    MB: I'll give you a footnote: first of all, it's hard to stop beating yourself up, and I'll never stop beating myself up. You were probably more sensitive than I thought, and it's the same way with Marc. I was not the best mother for you-I was not as understanding as I should've been. I thought you would be just a normal, average kid growing up. You should've had things-you should've had more money, more clothes, you should've had more friends. I didn't have control over some of those issues. There wasn't enough money to go around giving you the things you wanted. At one point I realized something was wrong, you were 12 or 13, we knew at the time. It should've never happened to you, and I can't help but feel I was a part of that. So that's the only way I can answer your question-to go back in time. You could've lived-the thing here is- you could've lived with this a long time before you had a breakdown. It could've always been there, it could've happened at work where somebody lashed out at you-it probably is a seed that is there with people-something will bring it out. In my case I feel I was partly responsible, and then the death of your grandpa who you really loved. That hurt you a lot.

    CB: In April, 1992 Dr. Santiago instituted the drug holiday and that was a mistake. We didn't know it at the time.
    MB: It was something you wanted to try, to see what would happen, it was a reasonable thing to want. It was definitely a reasonable request-I guess he knew what would happen but you didn't and I didn't, and that was it. Everyone tries to come off his medication, no matter what it is, he'll try to get off it. It just doesn't always work.

  • CB: After I came home from the hospital the second time, I realized I never wanted to put you through that again. Could you forgive me?
    MB: Yes. What I felt bad about is, you weren't living here at the time, so I had no way of knowing what was happening, it was at the end, what were you off the Stelazine three months?

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    CB: Yes, three months.
    MB: I might have recognized the signs had you been living at home, but I didn't. You weren't here. I wasn't in error, and you weren't in error for going off the meds. You, me, everyone-it's something everybody will try. Sometimes, more often than not, it's not a good idea. You'll never be satisfied until you try it. In the end, it worked for you because you know you have to be on them. It's been how many years?

    CB: Sixteen. I've been out of the hospital 16 years.
    MB: So for you, it's the way to go. You have a life, Chris. The other way you don't have a life.

    CB: My last question is: You realize I'm alive today, that I recovered, because of the action you took.
    MB: No, I'm not sure that I was instrumental in causing you to be as well, quickly.

    CB: The average delay between onset of symptoms and beginning treatment is 8.5 years, according to a NAMI study. Either because the mother or father doesn't want to admit their son or daughter has schizophrenia, or because in many areas in America-indeed, around the world-the mental healthcare system is so "fragmented" that people can't get the help they need.
    MB: Unfortunately, that's probably the way it is.

    CB: What final words can you give family members whose loved ones have schizophrenia, about living with this illness?

    MB: First of all, to recognize it. To recognize the change in the person. Second, to get help as soon as you can. Without recognizing it and doing something about it, it's not going to cure itself. So early detection is primary, like with any illness. You're right then, in what you said, because I just said it and I didn't realize it: early detection is the best answer.

Published On: September 02, 2008