Part I – My Introduction to Mental Illness
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.