My Crazy Brother

A personal look at the West's suicidal tendencies

 

I used to get mad at my brother for being crazy.

Because some of the time, he wasn't crazy. Or he didn't act crazy. In those good spells, he could be the together older brother, a guy who was good with tools, had a precise pool shot and a talent for massaging brown clay into sculptures of beautiful women. He could take apart the engine of a car or motorcycle, lay out the pieces in neatly labeled envelopes, fix what was broken and put it all back together so it worked. He could talk physics and chemistry and make a good spaghetti. He could see into people and make perceptive remarks.

Most of the time, though, he could barely function. He would hang from a cigarette as if it alone sustained him, and pace back and forth because he couldn't be still and couldn't figure out where to go. He would stare at people and things too long and not answer when spoken to.

In his worst times, he acted completely crazy. Hallucinating, he lined his walls with crinkled aluminum foil to try to block out the voices only he could hear. His movements grew stiff and jerky. His stare seethed with anger.

Or even worse, he would soar on optimism, exuberantly telling me he'd finally cured himself and would be all right from now on - that look lighting his eyes.

I would look at him acting so crazy, and sometimes I thought: Come on, John, knock it off.

You're probably also involved in craziness somehow. The issue cascades through communities and families. Most of us don't talk about it much, because it's too personal. Too burdened with despair and desperate hopes, guilt, blame, feeling sorry for others and ourselves. We're not even supposed to use the word "crazy." It's politically incorrect, but it's the most succinct description I know.

This story needs to be aired because it has meanings beyond vicious fate and one family struggling to cope. It's about people needing help in general, and how that isn't much in fashion these days. And it illuminates dark aspects of Western culture that we prefer to keep hidden.

 

One out of every six people in this country will suffer a diagnosable episode of mental illness this year. One out of every 17 is seriously mentally ill, a category of disasters that includes bipolar disorder, major depression and schizophrenia.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness, an advocacy group founded in 1979, gives the United States the grade of "D" for our systems of mental-health awareness and care - nearly complete failure. Nationwide, we spend more than $100 billion per year on it. The total keeps rising, and the number of people being treated keeps rising. The wider impacts on society - the annual costs of untreated mental illness - total another $100 billion.

The only feel-good rush on this issue came during the 1950s to the 1970s, when nationwide reforms freed many people from long-term warehousing in mental hospitals. Now we have one-tenth the number of hospitalized crazies we had back then. But we traded one set of failures for another - we have more mentally ill people in jails and prisons than in hospitals. And in our communities and on the streets, the billions of dollars have fallen short, and mostly we've chosen to look away from the sick rather than set up adequate treatment and support.

I'm focusing on the deficiencies in our systems of public care, for those who can't afford private psychiatrists and thus fall onto the ragged safety nets. Even for the wealthy, though, there are no easy answers, if there are any answers at all.

For my brother, it worked like this: John was born in 1947 in Tucson, Ariz., where our parents had moved for the healthy, dry air. Then they moved to California, where I was born in an ambulance, and then Indiana, then Illinois, where my younger brother, Mike, was born. Our father, Ray Sr., was an entrepreneur who chased opportunity while suffering physical illnesses and subtle symptoms of craziness, including unpredictable moods and an inability to stay in one place. As Ray Sr. failed in business, he aimed his demand for perfection and his angry frustration at his first seed - John. In his eyes, John could never do anything right.

Like many crazy people, John probably had his illness encoded into his genes, and childhood stress activated it. From the time he was an infant he rarely smiled. By fourth grade, he had trouble concentrating. He was hearing his own thoughts. Our mother, Kate, took him to his first psychiatrist. More clouds emerged. When John was 13, Ray Sr. went into the hospital for an operation for symptoms that turned out to be cancer, and John punished himself: He took a baseball bat into his bedroom, locked the door and began smashing his toys. Kate and I stood outside the door listening to the breakage, calling to him, getting no response. Kate didn't know what to do and phoned an Episcopal priest, who came in his black outfit and called through the door, "John, do you know who this is?" John's voice came through the door, "Santa Claus?" and he kept on with the bat. I remember grinning at his crazy humor. Smiling was my nature, and I did it so much that Kate thought something might be wrong with me.

Our father finally killed himself with cigarettes and lung cancer when John was 15, I was 13 and my younger brother was 10. Kate finished raising us, taking a series of jobs, including elementary school teacher, editor of educational materials, real estate agent, and finally an adjunct English teacher at a community college. All of this has been toughest on her.

Anonymous
Mar 28, 2008 01:46 PM

Wow.  Thanks, Ray, for a brave, powerful piece.

Parry
Parry
Mar 28, 2008 06:14 PM

I can't help but wonder how much mental illness is the result of living in a society that has itself "gone off the rails."  

 

Juniper 

SocraticGadfly
SocraticGadfly
Mar 28, 2008 08:29 PM

As a newspaper editor who has written about the "warehousing" of the mentally ill even in small county jails here in Texas, let me offer major kudos on a touching as well as insightful story told from a personal angle. I know there is no simple solution, but without awareness, there will be no solution at all.

Anonymous
Mar 31, 2008 01:29 PM

Thank you for sharing your personal story. I too have a brother who is mentally ill as well as mentally retarded and epileptic. One day friend relieved some of my pain when he pointed out that my brother may be blessed because he doesn't completely fathom his lot. Maybe he's the lucky one. Loren, too, has been in and out of a myriad of mental institutions as well as group homes, adult family homes, and on and on. He takes a plethora of medications which sometimes turn him into a zombie to keep him from getting violent. He's 49 now and I still don't have a close relationship with him. I think it's because he represents the constant chaos forced upon me as a child. Back in the 60s no one talked about this stuff and the family shame was overwhelming. And no one ever explained to me what was happening- that has come back to haunt me today. I have had to face my own depression and migraines as a result of family genetics and learned behaviors. Fortunately, I seek to understand myself, and I seek serenity. However, that didn't seriously surface until someone I loved committed suicide. And no one had any clue he was mentally ill. But that is another long and painful story.

When I talk to people about these issues, most look at me as if I'm exaggerating or crazy- they have no idea or they are in denial. Until more people bravely speak out about their experiences (both siblings and parents and those who live with mental illness) society will continue to shame and deny us. 

Anonymous
Mar 31, 2008 01:30 PM

Absolutely brilliant!  You write what many of us have experienced, yet you put it into words for us.  Thank you.

 

Anonymous
Mar 31, 2008 01:39 PM

I only hope that people who read your piece are not just the ones, like myself, who have had a family member kill themself. Others need to read this, too. In our last issue of the newspaper we ownI ran a commentary on veteran's suicides and caught holy hell from one reader as if we're not supposed to talk about the stigma. I find it unfotunate that concerns for our suicides seem to rise and fall with the tide. Maybe now is the time to put together an anthology of writings by people who share your beliefs. You find the publisher and I would contribute. Ray A. March www.modocforum.org and www.redroom.com -- Surprise Valley, CA

Anonymous
Mar 31, 2008 01:42 PM

I sit in stunned silence after reading your piece, Ray. I can only imagine how painful it was to write this story and how cathartic it must have been once done. I too have a crazy brother but not one that I have been as generous to as you were to yours. I haven't spoken with him in at least 5 years. I think it is my notions of personal responsibility and accountability for one's actions that get in the way of my compassion for him. The extended hand got bitten one too many times. The last time it was bitten, I swore would be the last time extended. Now I sit with tears in my eyes, questioning my humanity. Though he is still alive, he isn't to me and I see his ghost in my dreams and in that dusty corner of my heart where unresolved pains reside.

Thank you for your courageous piece. Perhaps it's the catalyst I need to thicken my skin, count my blessings, and call him to see how he's doing. Getting the call that he had committed suicide because his life was so unbearably lonely without having known I tried again may be in turn too much for me to bear. Simulataneously though, my perhaps western ethos of personal responsibility is also informed by a Buddhist sense of cause and effect - karma - wherein our lives are the fruits of our actions, both in this incarnation and previous. Thus in some sense, the soul that is my brother is wrestling with an accumulation of choices he's made that are now bearing bitter, painful fruit. I've seen some of those choices and been on the blunt, receiving end of them. And that is not a place that I relish being again. I am not yet evolved enough that my compassion is stronger than my sense of self preservation. Maybe I can get there in time to offer somehting useful to my brother before it is too late.

Anonymous
Mar 31, 2008 01:43 PM

This is my brother,too, although he lives as far north and east of the west as you can, and still be in the United States.  He was born in Arizona.  Everyday I wonder if I will get the call.  There are so few answers.

 

Jo Ann

mtnmom
mtnmom
Apr 02, 2008 11:08 AM

As I was reading your article, my husband got a call from a friend who told him my husband's older brother -- who is bipolar and an alcoholic -- was incoherent and stumbling at a local bar. He had been put on a taxi to nowhere. My husband had to call the taxi company to give them his brother's address, otherwise he might have ended up in detox at the local jail -- which we realized later was probably a better alternative.

After a long day of work, my husband was at a loss for words about his long-suffering brother, who has had multiple DUI's, caused car accidents and been through expensive treatment for his disorder and alcoholism. He went off his meds years ago and hops from one extreme mountain town to another, scheming about the next big deal, but never holding a regular, stable job. His public drunkeness eventually threatens any good reputation or relationships he manages to build. 

I read parts of your article to my husband, and it helped open up a conversation about his brother, his brother's life-long compulsiveness, and how their relationship has never been a great one. We talked about my husband's feelings of hopelessness concerning his brother's future and his anger at the pain his brother is causing his family. It's an endlessly complicated issue with few answers and little hope -- what really can you do when the person in question will not even talk about his issues, and when he does, he threatens suicide?

Thank you Ray, for sharing your story about John and opening a dialog about this issue. It helps to know others (many others) are going through similar circumstances. Hopefully this will facilitate more understanding, resources and programs for mentally ill individuals and their families. 

Anonymous
Apr 02, 2008 11:20 AM

My mother had bipolar disorder. My daughter has bipolar disorder. I am a psychologist who studied medication and an expert, now, in bipolar disorder. I do seminars around the country and have trained 0ver 16,000 mental health professionals.

I know exactly what you are saying. I have experienced the powerlessness, the shame, and tried as much as I could possibly try to make it right. But like I said, I have experienced the powerlessness. We spend a lot of money (ie: WASTE a lot of money) on the "D" rated system and it hasn't changed much in decades. There is very little foresight, insight, and hindsight. The head of the snake is dead, but the body is still wiggling. I am not sure the head was ever alive.

We have dedicated people who burn out with the same powerlessness I have felt. There IS a better way, but not with the system we have today. Your article is poignant. You love your Juuuuaan, and I loved my "Ma". Thank you for this.

 

Dr. Jay Carter 

 

Anonymous
Apr 03, 2008 11:27 AM

Thank-you for a beautifully written truth...my son has attempted suicide twice, nearly succeeding the second time.  We MUST continue to advocate for those who need our help, and continue to talk about this issue in order to break down stigma associated with mental health needs.  Perhaps if I hadn't been so fearful of 'the system' years ago, I could have asked for help for my son when it might have made more of a difference.  As it is now, he is 26, in prison, and wants nothing to do with anyone who cares about him for fear of disappointing us again.  No way will I give up on him - I fear he will eventually succeed in suicide, however, I won't stop telling and showing him how very precious he is.    A mom in Southeast Idaho

Anonymous
Apr 03, 2008 12:35 PM

Dear Mr. Ring, 

I wish you had the courage to use more accurate and compassionate language for describing mental illness. Using the term “crazy” to categorize people who live with mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, depression, or schizophrenia lands you many miles away from your stated goal to “change the way we think about mental health.”

As someone who lives with chronic depression, which I’ve spent years learning how to manage, the last thing I need is for people to call me crazy. Actually, I take that back. The very last thing I need is a “whore.” (I find your term derogatory and your program idea ridiculous and sexist.) I live a full, balanced life; I have a loving partner; and I am part of society, not apart from it.

What your article circumvents are the diverse and nuanced ways that various mental illnesses affect individuals, and the myriad ways those individuals are or aren’t able to get the care they need. Reducing the solution simply to better funding for crazy people, plus a burrito and paid sexual encounters, furthers the stigma and invisibility that so many of us who live with mental illnesses endure.

You’re thoughts about “craziness” are not only unwelcome, they are hurtful.

dakuaaina
dakuaaina
Apr 03, 2008 12:51 PM

As a Tucsonan with a brother battling drug abuse that may, in fact, be attributable to nondiagnosed mental illness, this poignant piece - punctuated as it is with vividly similar experiences of spending time together in the local mountains and desert with my brother - moved me to tears. stu williams

Anonymous
Apr 03, 2008 04:41 PM

I work for the state Idaho as a social marketer in the children's mental health arena. It is my job to help build awareness about mental illness and to deter stigma within communities and cultures. This is not an easy task, as you probably know, Ray.

First you have to get the parents or individuals themselves to admit there is a problem. Then the community, as many are rural here, needs to understand its role in supporting the person with the diagnosis (if one has been made). Most people will not go into a clinic in a small town because everyone will know within days of them doing so and will treat them poorly for it. Many kids are looked upon as troublemakers, not capable citizens, and react accordingly ending up either in jail or in an institution. Having worked with some of these youth, I know very differently.

Then you deal with the cultural aspect. We have six tribes within the state, large populations of faith-based communities, a large Hispanic community in the southwestern part of the state, many farming or ranching families in outlying areas, not to mention large numbers of military folk. Each of these groups sees life in different ways and each has difficulty in acknowledging that mental illness even exists.

To me, we are all responsible for seeing the world, not only through our eyes, but from the point of view of those we come in contact with. It shows respect for others, helps us learn from a new perspective, thus allowing us to grow as individuals, and breaks down stigma -- something that is a waste of time and energy for us all.

Thanks for speaking out Ray. This will continue to be a problem in our country until more people stand up and say 'enough.'

rebook
rebook
Apr 06, 2008 02:23 PM

 I write through my tears, realizing that there, but for the grace of ???,  go I.   anon

Anonymous
Apr 07, 2008 11:42 AM

Ray,

 

I know I'm not the only one who appreciates the stones it takes to put something this personal, and painful, out there for the world to see.

For a writer, musician, or most any kind of artist to make people cry, you have to either be really bad... or really good.  I don't think there's any question in this case.

More power to you,

 

Bill O'Connell 

Anonymous
Apr 22, 2008 12:10 PM

Ray and High Country News,

 Thank you for writing such a moving piece of personal journalism and thank you for publishing it.  It has taken me some time before I could respond. I was, and still am, overcome by emotion that is still raw, even after many years.

 I cannot do justice in providing comments on Ray's article because perhaps, after all these years, I do not have Ray's strength, and I know I do not have his eloquence.   But I can add my voice and say that you are not alone in losing a loved one to mental illness. In my case, it was my husband.

 And after thinking about this for many weeks, I will add my name as "anonymous", as so many other commenters have, because we are not as strong as Ray.  Someday I will find the strength.

 Keep up the great work.  We are a better people because of it.

 

 

my brother's suicide
denise choumont
denise choumont
Feb 22, 2010 12:38 PM
hi my name is denise and july28/09 my only living brother shot himself right before my eyes. im a full time student and im doing a reseach paper on healing a loved one's suicide. it is not easy to find story's similar story's to mine...infront of them.
sharing is difficult
Ray Ring
Ray Ring
Feb 22, 2010 03:07 PM
Thank you, Denise, for sharing a glimpse of your family's troubles. I hope your own writing about it helps. Good luck. -- Ray
Anna D
Anna D
Jun 16, 2012 03:21 PM
I came across this article after loosing hope at 3am this morning and typed "why is my brother crazy?" into the google search engine ..

This article was 3rd from the top. I cried my eyes out reading it.
Your recount of your brothers life is so similar to my own brothers, however my brother has attempted but not managed to take his life yet.

I am at a loss. Feeling useless and at the end of my tether. Your article gave me such a feeling of hope and light that I am not alone.

Thank you for sharing your story.