Part I – My Introduction to Mental Illness

By Marc Rios-Klein

I was born into a normal, neurotic semi-Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn in 1961 but was primarily raised in the community of Flushing, Queens (lived in two of the five boroughs for those who are unfamiliar with New York City).  When I was all of about 7 or 8 years old, my mother decided that she wanted my two-year older brother, Howie,  and I to finally meet her older sister, Phoebe, who had lived for years in upstate New York.  She also told us that Phoebe had some health issues.  Bless my mom’s heart,  but based on cultural, familial, and generational issues, she did not forewarn my brother and I that her sister actually lived in a sanitarium. Not that we would have understood that either.  Howie and I were clueless about what that meant but we knew we were going on a long car-ride into the countryside.    That meant trees as far as the eye can see, outside of the brick, mortar, and cement contained in all of all of the apartment buildings, businesses, schools, and playgrounds in Queens and in NYC.  We were raptured by the gorgeous scenery on the drive and the Motown music that was blaring from one of the five stations on the AM dial (the only frequency around at that point!).  After a few hours of the Temptations, Jackson 5, and some old-style driving name games, we arrived at the sanitarium.  It was a large building on beautifully well-cared for grounds.

Our mother stops us before getting out of the car and tells us both that her sister has been having some “emotional problems” of late. I assumed this was to help us understand a little better why she was living there.  My mother signed us all in and then we were escorted to a bedroom where a woman was in a bed but was sitting up.  Howie and I entered to greet our Aunt Phoebe and say a big hello.  At that very moment, this woman, our aunt whom we had never met, began yelling at the two of us.  She was screaming obscenities and yelling, “Get the hell out of my room.  Who are you? I don’t know you!!”  And then she proceeded to hurl packs of cigarettes at us to emphasize the point that she REALLY wanted to be left alone!

We did not argue with her and high-tailed it out of there dodging and avoiding getting hit by the packs of cigarettes being thrown at our heads.  Our mom was beside herself and saddened by the whole experience, as she had hoped for a much more pleasant connection for her and us.  She had been right behind us the whole way and had watched this entire scene unfold.  We all went out into the hallway, with my mom quite teary-eyed.  While catching our breath as we were still in shock and disbelief what had just occurred, we asked our mom, what the hell was wrong with her sister?

I distinctly remember my mother quietly and sadly begin to tell us that her sister has an illness called Manic Depression, and that she had struggled with it since her teen years.  My mom didn’t have a lot more to share or explain that day, other than the fact that Aunt Phoebe had very little control over her emotions, and had lots of angry outbursts as a girl which had continued on as she headed toward becoming a young woman.  My mother was able to go back in and visit for a while with her sister but Howie and I went outside on the grounds to play.  We had experienced enough for the day.

We left that day for home, all saddened by what had occurred.  I learned that my mom wished that her sister could just “be better”, want to take her medications on her own, and be able to enjoy a life outside of an institutional setting.  I gained a great deal of empathy for my mom and felt a profound sense of sadness in getting a glimpse into the plight and impact that a serious mental illness can have on a person.  From that day forward, my view of life  had been truly changed.  Little could I know, at that time,  as to how impactful mental illness would eventually be in my personal life and that it would lead me toward my present career.

(Part One)

5 responses to “Part I – My Introduction to Mental Illness”

  1. Dana says:

    Beautifully written Marc. Though I don’t know you, I was able to feel your heart and empathy in every sentence. As an outsider looking in, I can’t imagine the deep sadness of your mom, wishing to have the same sister experience her friends had with the one she loved. It seems like she was so sympathetic to her needs as well as yours. That is a great yet challenging gift. I’m looking forward to reading more as you write further excerpts…and hoping you consider writing a book to help those with the same feelings and similar experiences..attach the dots..and heal. Thank you for putting yourself out there for the greater good. <3

  2. Marc Rios-Klein says:

    Dear Dana,
    First of all, thank you so much for your kind words of support, and encouragement. This is my first attempt at blogging and your reply is my first feedback; so thank you again! I’m a pretty bold, frank, advocating and assertive (non-aggressive) New Yorker. I have to admit though that regardless of my sharing various parts of my life with my friends, trusted staff and patients, and their respective families, over the years in the best interest of other’s recovery, this is an extremely vulnerable effort from me, and I know that too. I have gained a great deal of strength through my formal education, my years of experience, and the incredible support of a few skilled therapists along the way who helped guide me, as I both provided care/treatment, while healing myself. I’m glad that you found my sharing empathic, as I believe true compassion is the route to most of what is involved in recovery from mental illness.

    My mother did balance very well that day, and for years to come. It’s ironic that you stated a few things to be honest. One, I do intend to share much more of my personal story, as my parents first born son, my only sibling, Howard, developed Schizophrenia at the age of 13, when I was 11. I plan to talk about him, and his struggles and triumphs, as well as the impact of his illness to me and the family. I will share now, that he is no longer with us, having passed away at the age of 40 in 1999. Presently, our 22 year old son, Max, was diagnosed within the last year with a mental illness and is currently working with a psychiatrist and therapist for his well-being, thankfully voluntarily, primarily for his sake, but truly for ours as well!

    The second irony is that it IS my intention to write a book, which initially felt like it would be a huge, cathartic, purging event for me. I’ve been talking about this for quite some time and now I realize and have been told by many others as well as yourself, that it should be shared with the desire to inspire hope and understanding of the path of mental illness to mental healthiness. I feel finally ready on many levels to take on this challenge knowing that my sharing will help many relate to and hopefully gain personal strength and healing/relief from it. My ultimate goal is to help bring the dialogue of mental illness to the heightened level where it needs to be. It should be discussed as commonly and with the same fervor, right next to cancers and other lifetime medical ailments. The only path that I see, to improve the current status of how mental illness is addressed, is to bring the stigma and shame factors down and diminish their intense impact on the system which has been extremely reactive versus proactive in the pursuit of improving mental health care in this country I love!

    This isn’t a partisan issue, it’s an American dilemma, that isn’t getting the funding or attention it deserves. Our mental health population is growing not shrinking due to war, increased poverty, disparity of income and it’s ripple effect, etc. And while the needs increase, it seems to me that the services continue to decrease. I’ve been exposed to dozens and dozens of legal matters involving mental illness and violence, of which numerous matters were totally preventable had improved and increased mental health services been available.

    Much appreciation , Marc

  3. Angela says:

    The development …..overtime , of healthy coping mechanisms and a STRONG FAITH are invaluable tools for battling all strongholds connected to mental illness. I believe that these tools have made a powerful difference in my life and have personally shielded me from the most dire consequences of mental illness. Unfortunately, the same has not been true for many of my family members. Addictions, depression, schizophrenia and bipolar are familiar diagnoses for many of them. Their sufferings and pain because of these illnesses have been heart wrenching.
    My personal story is not without its struggles, of course, but, I can say with unwavering certainty that a STRONG FAITH, healthy coping mechanisms, including all strategies to keep your mind free from negative thinking patterns, is better than gold. God bless you!

  4. Marc Rios-Klein says:

    Dear Angela,

    Thank you so much for your sharing as well, and I am very happy for you that you have found a path toward a happier, healthier, more socially-connected life than not by using your effective coping skills and STRONG FAITH! That faith may be religion, it may be a form of spirituality, or it could be the faith that one has in themselves and their belief that they will follow their convictions and plans to take care of themselves to the best of one’s ability. The faith can also be the trust we build with others who can and will be there for us in times of crisis.

    I also couldn’t agree more that having a solid, personalized plan for coping effectively with life’s twists and turns is CRITICAL. It has to be realistic and lead to enhanced functionality for it to be of value, and it sure sounds like you have established that! It should have lots of options as to how one can be safe physically, emotionally, and mentally. I am sorry to hear that other members of your family are struggling with both addictions and mental illness as well. It appears that some may be dealing with significant issues of denial which can completely stimey a person from seeking out exactly what they need to take care of what ails them. Admitting that there is a problem is the sore spot; especially if the person isn’t changing any other behavior, and blaming and/or externalizing the responsibility of their life difficulties onto others. I’m sure you are well of aware of all of this, or you wouldn’t have your own life and situation in such a healthier place; but as you know, you cannot make choices for others. You can role model (which you have) and continue to demonstrate what happens to your functioning by virtue of the positive choices you have made.

    You sound like a very strong person Angela, and have so much to be proud of in claiming yourself and your right to have mental health in your life. Good for you, and good for the rest of us!! Keep up the great self-work; it has truly paid off for you. Also, I want to appreciate you again for your openness and shared personal disclosure. This is how we are all going to heal with regards to mental illness. It’s this dialogue that matters the most. Nothing to be ashamed of and everything to be gained by taking these emotional and psychological risks; that’s my mantra! Take good care, Marc

  5. Dee S says:

    Hi Marc,
    It’s Dee I met you the other night at the concert. Thank you for all the information and for this site. If possible I would like to talk to you somemore in email. I have more questions and maybe some have some ideas for me about my daughter. Thank you again for all the information you gave me in the short time we talked. I have passed on the information to the rest of the family. So hopefully all of this will help. It was great meeting you. Your a great person with a real comment and a love for your work. It’s a joy to meet some like you that give someone hope for there love ones. Keep up the good work.

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