Sunday, October 19, 2003

Alive and well

Pain, isolation common among mentally ill

I have long been aware of the wrong-headed attitudes toward people with mental disabilities. Ridicule, intolerance, avoidance or just misguided minimizing of the significance of such conditions are all familiar experiences to people with mental disorders and their families. After writing my recent column, however, my own awareness was made ever so much more poignant.

An outpouring of letters from people living with mental disabilities underscored the need to remind the public that people with disabilities are all part of the same group - a struggling, resilient minority - whose equality and inclusion are long overdue.

Most of the letters were expressions of gratitude for shedding some positive light on a group of invisible disabilities. But many were the pointed tales of firsthand experience.

I heard from a father whose son keeps losing jobs because he won't take his medicine. And I heard from a woman who said her AA sponsor had sent her my article just in time to save her from another downward spiral, a state of despair stabilized when she was reminded to take her medicine. And I heard from a man who criticized me for making treatment and cure sound too easy.

It's not, of course. No serious illness or disorder can be banished with a pill or prop or pep talk. Most disabilities require hard work (in addition to those pills and/or props) before life can resume its proper centerstage position. Still, the pain of these unseen disabilities is expressed so passionately, palpably, that a few letters warrant sharing.

From Nancy O:

"I have been disabled for several years and I am embarrassed to tell people about my disability. I had a job in which I had to interact a great deal with the public. And at night I would go home and literally go to bed and hide under the covers. Life was pretty miserable until I found a good doctor and the right meds."

From Claire T.:

"I have lived a life of pain and isolation due to chronic major suicidal depression and schizoaffective disorder, and I pride myself on the hard, hard work in psychotherapy (combined with medications), year in and year out ... to try to become 'normal.' I have always been able to be employed, (without medical insurance), have always paid my bills (due in part to a kind doctor who gives me a fee break and free drug samples), but I have also lived in dumps with bugs and rats and shopped at the Salvation Army. My family reacted, not with support, but rejection and hostility, and they are highly educated, successful, and wealthy people. But mostly they are afraid. And I am one of the lucky ones!"

From Kevin N:

"Recently, I've felt such prejudice in my life when, after an uncontrollable mixed-state episode at work, my employer called me into his office and told me that I am not allowed to mention my illness while at work, as it might make others 'uncomfortable.' There is a stigma, and it lives. Actors, authors, artists, diplomats, doctors, kings and even a United States president have had mental illnesses. Yet people like me ... find that society sees us as an enigma."

From Sara S:

"My mother was diagnosed with mental illness 30 years ago. She is now 73 and no longer takes medication, although still greatly suffers. I am 35 years old, and have only recently been able to truly understand this illness. If only someone had been there for me when I was young. I needed someone when I was 5 to help me to understand why chicken soup wasn't getting my mommy out of bed. I needed someone when I was 10 to explain to me why I couldn't have Girl Scout meetings at my house. I needed someone at 16 to tell me it wasn't my fault."

Contact Deborah Kendrick by phone: 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail:

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KENDRICK: Pain, isolation common among mentally ill