Dark nights of the soul

  I just finished reading "My Crazy Brother" (HCN, 3/31/08). I cried. I'm a 30-year teaching veteran, 22 of which I've spent in a tiny community college in Colorado, where higher education is 49th in the nation. My classrooms are filled with under-, un-, wrongly and oddly prepared students. Social workers, school counselors, and other do-gooders whose helping hands are tied (by the system you describe) often send their crazies to us. Because I teach writing and literature, many of them "come out" to me, and some have become my friends.

We also make contact because I'm a lifelong depressive. My 20s were a blur of anxiety attacks and cycles of sleepless, paralyzing sadness. At the end of them I married, and my 30s and 40s were spent raising a family and making my life as a teacher.

Periodically across the decades, depression has dependably struck me down. Outside my immediate circle of family and close friends, few ever know of my "dark nights of the soul." My daughters and my wife, however, have paid dearly; without them, and a handful of other family members and friends (as well as medication and therapy), I would not have survived any number of these episodes. I'll be honest: Suicidal fantasies have often been my only comfort. Ray Ring came to understand this about his brother; that meant a lot to me.

Pushing 60, I've been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Depression is one of the most common symptoms. For the rest of my life, then, I'm not likely to "beat it." I do what I must and what I can to endure my depression. I work hard. I keep my family close; almost no one else knows. Until now.

Ray Ring, thanks for sharing your story, your research, and your passion and pain. I doubt your call for meaningful mental health services will be heeded, but I hope so!

Wayne A. Gilbert
Aurora, Colorado
May 19, 2008 11:31 AM

I'm sorry for your ongoing dance with depression, Wayne.  I have to endure the same dance.  Periodically it slams me to my knees.  Those who have never experienced it have absolutely no idea how to relate, and often that appears as judgement.  When I hear of a suicide, my heart aches for that soul, as I know that kind of pain.  To call it a sin unworthy of prayer...shameful.  To the saints who discovered antidepressants, you have my eternal gratitude.

May 19, 2008 05:03 PM

I printed out and kept "My Crazy Brother" with the intention of aping the author: I'll write my own version, to myownself (as a friend says).  I have a crazy brother--schizophrenic diagnosis since 1968 when he was found catatonic on his bunk in basic training at the age of 23.  I'm the younger sister by one year, and suspected during our teen years that something was wrong with my brother - his paranoia and homophobia were dramatic, and he often acted in inappropriate ways.  However, I was being raised in the same family as he, and I wrote it off to our domineering father, the Catholic schools (Jesuits and nuns), the German heritage, the perfectionism, the demands of being the first born, school stress, you-name-it.  Seventeen years ago I became his court-appointed guardian, though I would gladly perform the duties out of my heart's longing even without the legal imperative. We live in Denver and Boulder, so I see him monthly and doubt I could endure more than that--it can take days for me to recover from our visits.  

Though my brother is now 62 and as wretched as ever, he is in an assisted-living home where they closely monitor his meds; it is paid for by his 100% medical discharge from the military.  When I write my annual April 15 check, I tell myself the taxes are going to support my brother. Were it not for that monthly check, he'd be on the street or dead by now, though probably not a suicide. 

Schizophrenia is a devastating disease that manifests in dozens and dozens of different ways.  Today, it is apparent in pain and loneliness: thanks to proper medication he remains stable, but that also means he is aware enough to know how helpless he is, which leads him to depression and hopelessness.  No wonder he tries to reject the meds--at least in full-blown schizophrenia he may not be quite as aware of his own pain, even though other terrors drive him.

Entire families suffer with the schizophrenic.  I appreciated Ring's attempts to communicate with and enjoy his brother's company.  These days I look at my brother and see only his suffering soul, lightened at times by a brilliant sense of humor, delightful word play, uncanny memory and bottomless compassion.  He is one of the kindest people I know, and my hours with him are a blessing, though I hurt thoroughly at the loss of "him."  The high school athlete, college scholar, graduate school writer/editor, musician and adventurer is in the past, but I remember him well and take great pains to let others who meet him know that my brother is a person, a full person, though his physical presence and mental absence would belie that fact.