[formerly titled “Mentality.”]
For many years, the shroud of mental illness draped our family.
Our father’s mother had been committed, by her brutal husband, to a Massachusetts sanitarium circa 1914. A Sicilian immigrant, she spoke no English and could not defend herself. And, she was pregnant.
Dad was born there.
Because sanitariums in those days were not equipped to house young mothers, let alone those deemed unfit, she was not permitted to raise her third child. Along with his sister Dad was first sent to a foster home, where he was regularly beaten over the back of the head with the buckle end of a strap belt, and then to a state institution.
Marvelously, being of sound constitution, he survived – drifting, riding the freight cars, playing his harmonica and bones for loose change and, then, joining the Army – to meet his future wife, on a steam train bound for New York. Years later, as grateful husband and father, he would give God all the credit.
But, our unknown grandmother wasn’t the only figure in the shadowbox.
Mum’s father was a scholar of the Old Testament, a crane builder, and a brooder. We’d never know what mood we’d find, entrenched on the recliner in the corner by the radio. Sometimes a wide, toothless grin, a wisecrack or a belly laugh. Other times, a deep, distant scowl, and scrap envelopes, scattered near the Bible or the stack of National Geographics, emblazoned repeatedly with the bold signature of his name in broad, flat, penknife-sharpened pencil.
Mum inherited a bit of that mercury. She had two faces, so distinct that, had anyone met the one, the other would be unrecognizable.
I learned early on that observing human behavior was not only fascinating, but prudent. I became all too aware that, by watching others, information would come to me continuously, most of it in very great need of being sorted out.
What we called our family was a cinematic display, its camera’s filter missing, of the most transparent aspects of humanity. Beyond dysfunctionality, each member was its cautious and dreaded subject. We never knew when the ball would drop; we only knew that it would.
And, as if to deny the reality, explosive events were often followed by years of avoidance. Being English, Mum’s side of the family called this “holding a grudge.” I remember a Christmas so volatile, so reverberant with screaming and weeping, that the cozy kitchen and grand oak table in the diningroom could hardly contain the scene. That would be the last year, truly, that the whole family would ever convene again. And, I was only eleven years old.
With the stigma of mental illness weighing heavily on the conscience of our society, I now guardedly approach what moves me to disclose. There is a very great need amongst us to identify, primarily because, most of the time, victims cannot do so themselves. Even as physicians are ultimately required to confirm diseases of the body, those who bear up under afflictions of the mind are in even greater need of being found. There are none more lost among us.
The following is a list of traits, hallmarks if you will, that suggest the presence of mental disease. Some are easily recognized, but others may not be. Included are short references to loved ones, by example.
1.) Reaction to Stress.
Those with mental conditions have weaker coping mechanisms than their healthier counterparts. What merely annoys most will sometimes derail the other. The mentally ill person has a far longer list of stress inducers than the rest of us and, most importantly, is often ready to react to each of them with apparently little power of restraint. My mother spent much of my adolescence alternately sobbing or shrieking; only in the late evening, well after midnight when the house was quiet, would she find solace – seated alone, at her sewing machine.
2.) Sensory Load.
While some extreme mental states produce catatonia, or an apparent absence of reaction, those with mental disease can often be more easily stimulated, and more ready to respond to stimuli. To them, the world is a maelstrom of desirable and undesirable feelings, and these can often collide over a single incident; sorting through the pleasure and the pain which simultaneously ensues is a task, and may often confound normal counterparts experiencing the same event. Our grandfather would open a family gathering with joyful and exuberant laughter, but a disagreement at the dinner table could send him into a rage that dispersed the family in all directions – to say nothing of the effect on our collective digestion.
So much is said about the character of a good citizen in various social environments that the trait of honesty, or veracity, seems almost mundane. But, to one who is afflicted, even the best intentions can go awry. Mental disease can cause one to both speak and write things that cannot later be defended; sometimes the language itself is ambiguous, or the content vague, the tone unmistakably that of either anger, bitterness, or undying devotion. One can set out to be the most upstanding and compassionate towards others, but be left with chaff in the wake of a verbal outburst which, long since forgotten, cannot even be recognized or acknowledged. I can recall lengthy, if earnest, handwritten letters from my mother, so convoluted that I hardly had the emotional energy to read them – and, repeated denials: “I didn’t say that!”
4.) Immediate Gratification.
Everybody likes to get answers to important questions, or receive something nourishing. But, those with mental disease depend on a degree of satisfaction in closure which others find demanding. Furthermore, they become inordinately convinced of the reality of their needs, and wear these convictions as blinders. The unknowns which populate normal, daily landscape can be sources of fixation to one who is burdened, and obtaining what, to others, can easily wait becomes a mission. Dad, especially in his later years, was the most popular member of his neighborhood when it came to solving household problems which, to the rest of the world, were incidental; repeatedly dialing the man up the street, because he couldn’t get the wrapper off of the slice of American cheese, was the story nobody could forget.
Like all syndromes of the human frame, such burdens can have a range of expression. At moments of intense duress or demand, an otherwise healthy person might exhibit traits which could be attributed to one who has a form of disease. This likelihood is intensified if one has been closely exposed to the illness and its manifestations. But, those who are marked by such affliction will fight, on a daily basis, a chronic, inner battle.
There are likely other points which can be made about illnesses of the mind. But, for now, maybe making a mental note to save these in a secure corner of awareness for future reference would be wise. And, most of all, having a quiet conversation with self might help remind us all that we each occupy bodies which are random in their assignment. Only our souls matter, in the end.
Best that we all move through life with a mentality of acceptance, linking our virtual arms with determined commitment to bearing with each other. We are all both strong, and weak, in every way, and it is the convergence of these that both encourages and sustains the ebb and flow of life.
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo
9/25/15 All rights those of the author, whose name appears above this line. Sharing by permission to ReBlog, exclusively. Thank you.