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.