Madhouse Stories

 

No One Cares About Crazy People by Ron Powers, is written by a father whose two sons have been afflicted by schizophrenia. One of his sons committed suicide. The book alternates by chapter between giving a factual history of society’s treatment of the mentally ill and telling the story of his sons’ descent into mental illness. Powers says in the introduction that he initially planned on only writing the factual history of mental illness and leaving his sons’ story out of it. He then realized that he could not tell one story without telling the other. I could not read either of the stories without reflecting on my own or my cousin’s story of mental illness.

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Last May my cousin Stefan died by suicide. When my mother told me the news I gasped in horror and I cried, and I grieved but the truth was I was not entirely surprised by Stefan’s death. In fact, I had long feared he would die by suicide. Stefan suffered from schizophrenia. I knew the rate of suicide among those afflicted by schizophrenia was high and I knew Stefan had attempted suicide before.

When I told a friend about Stefan’s death she asked if we had been close. We certainly hadn’t been close geographically, as he lived in Romania and I lived in New Jersey. We had not seen each other since I was twelve and he was eleven, when our families spent a vacation together in the mountains of Romania. We never saw each other again after that vacation and for many years we did not speak to each other either. About two and a half years before his death, we reconnected on Facebook. While we didn’t have some of the more traditional markers of a close relationship, we did form a bond over something we had in common: mental illness.  One of the first things he said in his initial Facebook message to me was “I think maybe you and I are the normal ones.” Then he directed me to a song he related to. It was the Gnarls Barkley song “Crazy.”

When Stefan first contacted me, he was in a mental hospital in Romania. I was surprised that he was allowed to use the internet from a mental hospital because that had never been an option for me when I was in mental hospitals. I was even more surprised when he posted pictures of the mental hospital, its surrounding grounds, and the other mental patients with the hashtag “madhouse stories” because in the United States that would be considered a serious breach of privacy. Within the mental health system in Romania, he seemed to have a level of freedom that was unfathomable in the United States. Stefan wondered which system was better and said he would go mad in an American mental hospital.

Stefan read my writing about the time I’d spent in mental health facilities. I’d expressed how isolated and dehumanized I felt by my lack of freedom; I’d been put in solitary confinement for days, I’d lost control over what and how much I ate, I was told that I could not hug my mother when she visited me in my prison. He said I’d been treated like shit and that perhaps I’d been treated worse than he had been. I felt that regardless of how he was treated, he had suffered as a result of his mental illness more than I’d suffered as a result of mine, for he had schizophrenia whereas I had depression. Powers says “But even among the many devastating diagnoses of mental illness, schizophrenia stands unique in its capacity to wreck the rational processes of the mind. It is to mental health as cancer is to physical health; a predator without peer and impervious to cure.” (xv)

I know that many, if not most people with mental illness have been treated much worse than either Stefan or I were. Society is not and never has been kind to the mentally ill. In chapter after chapter of No One Cares About Crazy People, we see just how cruelly the mentally ill were and are treated. We see countless examples of the mentally ill being abused, abandoned, neglected, persecuted, demonized and dehumanized.

We see that contrary to stereotypes of the mentally ill, both of Powers’ sons are kind, caring, charming, intelligent, hard working and talented. I remember how charmed I was by Stefan when he was a child and how devastated I was to learn that he had descended into schizophrenia as an adult. Yet I learned that schizophrenia had not changed his essential goodness and that I was still charmed by who he was as an adult.

A chapter of No One Cares About Crazy People addresses the deinstitutionalization movement. On the surface it seemed like a good idea because many institutions were awful places and this would give the mentally ill a chance at freedom but the movement ended up being a disaster because society failed to provide the mentally ill with appropriate supports in lieu of mental hospitals, so many mentally ill people ended up homeless. Stefan told me he feared ending up homeless one day and could picture himself deliberately getting committed to a mental hospital just so he would have something to eat. Both of us were dependent on and living with our mothers as a result of our mental illnesses and the fear of homelessness has crossed my mind.

I always knew a problem in the treatment of schizophrenia is that schizophrenics often decide that they don’t need to take their medicine because they feel there’s nothing wrong with them but until I read Crazy People I didn’t realize that denial of one’s sickness had a name-anosognosia. Anosognosia can strike after long periods of wellness and compliance with medication. It happened with Powers’ sons and I noticed hints of it in Stefan. He told me he’d been free of symptoms for three months and was preparing to start work again but that he missed his hallucinations because they kept him entertained. He posted statuses and messages that I found alarming, but I felt helpless to do anything about it. Those who are much closer to their schizophrenic loved ones often feel helpless as well.

I cannot begin to fathom the levels of pain Powers must have experienced at losing a son to suicide but losing Stefan was hard for me because I’d lost a flesh and blood connection who knew what it was like to walk the lonely and terrifying road of mental illness. I was furious to learn that the Romanian Orthodox church would not officiate Stefan’s funeral because they considered suicide to be an unforgivable sin. He had died from a very serious mental illness and I couldn’t blame him for his death any more than I could blame a cancer patient for their death.

Powers’ surviving son is doing well now. He has recovered from the worst of his mental illness and in many respects is thriving. I’ve also recovered from the worst of my mental illness and am mostly doing well now but recovery is not an all or nothing linear process and I did end up in the psych ER a few months after Stefan’s death. Once the terror of the episode had passed and I realized I was going to be discharged from the ER and returned to my regular life, a second wave of grief hit me as I thought about Stefan and how he would never have that chance. I do not hear voices in my head like those afflicted by schizophrenia do but as I walked into the sunshine of the hospital parking lot, I could hear eleven-year-old Stefan’s voice ringing out through the mountains of Romania.

In the forward of Crazy People Powers says he hopes you do not “enjoy” the book but are wounded by it. Indeed, it would be hard to enjoy a book that depicts such real and bleak suffering and I did not “enjoy” it, but I am glad to have read it.

The last chapter of the book is titled “Some one Cares About Crazy People” and in it Powers takes a cautiously optimistic tone about advancements in the treatment of and attitude toward the mentally ill. I hope those advancements continue, for the sake of people like Stefan, for the sake of people like me, for the sake of people like Powers’ sons, and for the sake of all those who battle mental illness.

A Portrait of my Father

Last week on my father’s eighty- third birthday, I told him I planned on interviewing him. That was a gift he really appreciated, even more so than the food basket my mother and I left on his doorstep. My father has often asked me to ask him questions, stressing that he has so much he could tell me and that he’s not going to live forever. I originally planned on interviewing him in his home but since COVID restrictions have made that inadvisable, we have to do it by phone. No one was truly prepared for this COVID pandemic, but my father was more prepared than most. In fact, he predicted it back in October.

I’m not the first person to interview my father and I won’t be the last. He was interviewed in October by a Romanian TV station about his research in virology. He was asked about the possibility of a pandemic and he replied that it was inevitable. That comment proved so prophetic, that he’s now been scheduled for another interview. He’s eager for me to watch the first interview but unfortunately, it’s done in Romanian and unlike my father who speaks several languages, I only speak English. I do know the interview began with the interviewer referring to my father as a savant and my father modestly brushing it off.

Our interview starts off with a fight. Since I’ve known my father my whole life, I figure I can be pretty laid back with this interview and make up the questions as we go along but my father tells me he’s angry that I haven’t prepared a formalized list of questions beforehand. My father’s unpredictable and explosive temper is something I’m all too familiar with. His flashes of anger exist alongside his kind and generous spirit. I find it difficult to explain a man like my father to people who haven’t met him. “He sounds like a character” my therapist said. I’ve referred to him as having a Dr, Jekyll/Mr. Hyde personality. We get disconnected in the beginning of our interview and I figure it’s best to wait later, until Dr. Jekyll comes out.

I’ve always been acutely aware of my father’s flaws, but I’ve also always been aware that my father is an amazing human being. I know that his flaws, like his temper and his refusal to throw out expired food likely have their roots in his tumultuous childhood.

When he calls back a few hours later to resume the interview, he’s in a better mood and eager to tell his life story. He begins by telling me about his own father, Vasille, who was a true renaissance man. He had degrees in law, theology and literature. He was a lawyer, minster, topographer, mayor and senate member.

My father was born in Slobozia, Romania on March 15th, 1937. However, his birth certificate says he was born on March 18th and that’s when we’ve always celebrated his birthday. His father knew that the war was coming and that the cutoff deadline for the draft was March 15th. He figured if my father was eighteen rather than seventeen when he was drafted, he would be more mature and prepared for the war.

He was named Constantin, but he’s always gone by his middle name, Mircea. Although everyone in the United States pronounces his name Mur-SEE-uh on the first try, it’s actually pronounced MEER-chuh.

For most of my father’s early childhood, his family lived in wealth and comfort. Then when he was six or seven years old, he started to hear his parents talk in concerned tones. One day his father pointed to a map of the world and drew lines showing the red army was advancing toward Romania. Then the communists came and arrested his father. I ask my father if he remembers the day his father was arrested. He says he doesn’t, but he remembers the day his father was released from jail six months later. He knocked on his door and my father couldn’t believe how skinny he’d become.

His father tried to keep the family afloat, but the communists imposed such heavy taxes that it became impossible. They knew the situation was really untenable the day my father was beaten by a young communist soldier, as were his two younger brothers. The communists forbade members of the upper class from going to school so in order to continue their education, my father and his brothers were adopted out to poorer families. After high school my father applied to medical school and was initially rejected because of his father’s background but was accepted the second time he applied.

Meanwhile my grandfather had fled to a different part of the country and began a career as a topographer. He and my grandmother had gotten divorced. My grandmother was evicted from her home by the communists and found refuge in a cousin’s garage. I learn that the garage has since been converted into the house I stay at with my father when I visit Romania. My father spent his years in medical school living in the garage with my grandmother, making sure she only went out at night, in order to escape the notice of the communists.

My father successfully completed medical school but the communists forbade him from doing clinical practice so he went on to get a Ph.D in virology. He became a renowned researcher, traveling to Germany and Israel for research positions. He married a doctor named Ileana, who gave birth to my sister Ilinca. When my father was offered a professor position at the University of Illinois, Ileana said there was no way she was going to America, which had a bad reputation in Europe. The communists were reluctant to let my father leave the country and my father realized that his only way out was to join the communist party, which he did. He was thrown out eight weeks later and threatened with prison. By this time my father had arrived in America and found it to be much nicer than expected. At the University of Illinois, he met my mother, a graduate student who he eventually married. My father forged a path of success in the United States, founding a biotech company in New Jersey. He faced some obstacles to U.S. citizenship but eventually obtained it when I was five years old. I remember his citizenship party in our dining room decked out in red, white and blue streamers.

In third grade I went on a field trip to Ellis Island. I traced the names of my father and sister (my sister joined my father in the U.S. when she was a teenager) on the wall of immigrants and was proud to have such close relatives on the wall, while my peers only had distant ancestors. Although my father came to the United States through Newark Airport rather than Ellis Island, his story is no less interesting.

The interview goes on for hours and I listen raptly. I interrupt periodically to ask clarification for details. My father has been to so many places that it’s hard to keep track of them all and I keep asking why the communists kept terrorizing him and his family but their reasons seem to defy logic; they terrorized him because they could and for the crime of existing.

Ironically the communists touted him as an example of communism’s success. Obviously, my father was successful in spite of communism. At every turn the communists tried to bring him down and at every turn my father resisted through his hard work, dedication and resilience.

Our interview is also interrupted by calls from other people. One is a woman named Carmen. When my father gets back on the phone with me he says “It’s amazing how popular I am with the ladies at this age.” The other is his business partner, Tony, because at eighty- three my father is still working on a biotech company he founded a few years ago. It was around the same time he was named an honorary citizen of Slobozia.

As I listen to my father’s story, I’m filled with the warring feelings of pride and shame. Pride that my father has accomplished and overcome so much and shame that I haven’t accomplished as much and wouldn’t have been able to persevere in his circumstances.

Now we’re all in trying circumstances that remind us of our vulnerability. My father’s age makes him especially vulnerable to COVID and as we hang up the phone, I can’t help but be reminded of his admonition that he’s not going to live forever. I hope his story and legacy will.