"Stratmoor Hills" by Myron Wood, September 1961. Copyright Pikes Peak Library District. Image Number: 002-835.

The Middle Distance 3.30.12: A Stranger There

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Photo by Sean Cayton

The broad middle distance of parenting has no end. A friend and I were talking last week about how, in our late 50s, parenting adult children is sometimes more challenging than when our kids were young, living under our roofs, and dependent upon us for their every need.

At least back then, most days we knew whether or not they were OK. Now, when our adult children face adult-sized difficulties, and we are being careful not to hover too closely, we’re often left to guess about their well-being. We know how tough it can be out here in the world of grown-ups, and we have to let our kids learn it for themselves.

Imagine then, the struggles of a parent whose adult son begins to develop severe mental illness just when his adult life is about to take off, say, senior year in college. That’s the situation former Washington Post reporter Pete Earley and his son, Mike, confronted in 2005. Mike’s first symptom was that he couldn’t eat. Earley took him to a doctor who said: “If you’re lucky he has a drug problem; if you’re unlucky, he has mental illness.” Mike took medication for six weeks, then quit, and a year later, experienced a psychotic break that got him arrested and enmeshed in the legal system, a rapid cycle that too many mentally ill young adults fall into, from hospital to courthouse to jail. Confounded and alarmed by what he calls “America’s mental health madness,” Earley wrote a book, Crazy, that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. Since then, he has crossed the country tirelessly, advocating for better treatment and broader public understanding of the problems the mentally ill and their families face. This week, Earley visited Colorado Springs on behalf of the local chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“You picture your kid will do what you did — finish college, get a job, get married, have a family, then suddenly you have a stranger there, someone you don’t even know,” Earley said, describing Mike’s first psychotic break. He would experience two more over the next few years until finally stabilizing with good housing and case management, and a job in a peer-to-peer program, counseling others in crisis.

“Look, people with mental illness want the same thing everyone wants,” Earley said. “A safe place to live, someone to make them feel loved, and a job that makes them feel useful.”

In his book and in his lectures, Earley frequently focuses on the difficulty of getting an adult child hospitalized when he’s in crisis, because of legalities such as proving to a judge that he is in danger of harming himself or someone else.

“I lied to a crisis-trained policeman and told him my son threatened to kill me, just to get him placed in a hospital,” Earley said. “That’s not something you expect a good parent to have to do.” This father and son, like many others in similar situations, became adversaries living under the same roof when Mike returned home from the hospital, a result of the minefield of the legal system, the labyrinthine path to treatment, and that breech of trust. Had Mike been a child, it would have been difficult to find proper treatment, but because he was an adult, it was near impossible for Earley to get it for him.

“It’s tough to deal with serious mental illness at this stage in life,” says Earley. “You have to admit something’s not working right in your brain, and that’s no good, and then you have other people telling you what to do.”

What’s needed, he says, is the same opportunity for effective treatment for someone in a mental health crisis as someone needing treatment for an acute physical problem. But for that to happen, awareness at every level needs to be raised, from the legal system to the mental health care system to the neighbor next door.

“Listen, I get away with what I do, talking to people about this, for two reasons. One, my son’s crime wasn’t violent and didn’t hurt anybody.” Mike, he explains, broke into someone’s house, who wasn’t at home, to take a bubble bath.

“And two, because I look like I do — I worked for the Washington Post. I’m a suburbanite. People look at me and ask, ‘How did this happen to him?’ It’s the perfect way to make the point: this can happen to anybody.”

In the great middle distance of parenting, Earley finds himself stepping back and letting Mike live his life, but like the rest of us, he’s always looking over his shoulder, watching carefully.

— For more information on the Colorado Springs chapter of NAMI, visit www.namicoloradosprings.org or call 473-8477
— To read more from Pete Earley, visit his blog at www.peteearley.com

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.


21 Responses to The Middle Distance, 3/30/12: A Stranger There

  1. Nancy Wilsted says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. People with mental illness not only want what everyone wants,but they deserve what everyone deserves. Sometimes they need a little extra help or consideration. Is that so much to ask?

    Many years ago I employed a person who was mentally ill. She was a kind person and a fantastic and competent worker. One time she called and timidly said, “I can’t come to work today because I’m feeling sharkish.” Her message could not have been more clear. She took some time off until her sharkishness abated. No different than having the flu.

  2. joyce cheney says:

    Thanks to Peter Earley, to NAMI and to you, Kathryn, for talking about a still-taboo subject. We all know someone who is seriously mentally ill, whether we face it or not. Shame and fear.

  3. Kathy Brandt says:

    Thanks Kathryn! We need to take every opportunity to educate the community about mental illness in order to change perceptions. We want people to know that mental illesses are illnesses like any other–that they are biological brain disorders. With treatment those who suffer can and do recover. As advocates for the mentally ill and their families, NAMI will continue to fight the stigma that surrounds these illnesses. Pete Earley’s lecture at Colorado College Wednesday evening was a part of that effort. With the community engaged, we will all be more successful in those efforts and in improving access to treatmentas well.

    Kathy Brandt, President
    National Alliance on Mental Illness-Colorado Springs

  4. hannahfriend says:

    Mental illness is so heartbreaking because, at best, it can be managed, but it can never be cured. In this way, it is very different from the flu, but more like diabetes. What someone like Nancy describes is the best situation, when the ill person is self-aware, compliant to treatment, and able to function in a job. Society fears people who are unpredictable, even though they deserve our compassion.

    • Liz says:

      As a nurse and now a practitioner, I have come to understand that mental illness is very much like having diabetes. That person must make lifestyle changes, take medication, and face society’s gaze about being different. Unfortunately, having diabetes is much more tolerated than having a mental illness. But mental illness is just like “body illness”, it just occurs in the brain. In our society, we still don’t think the brain and the body are connected. I would never tell a diabetic to stop taking their insulin and to start eating sugar because they are feeling good, and just maybe their diabetes has gone away, and the same is true for mental illness – medication and therapy are needed for life, and can be extremely helpful. Thanks for broaching such an uncomfortable, yet very real problem. I think our society is understanding it more and more, but there just can’t be too much awareness.

  5. Rose Enyeart says:

    I’m glad that you continue to serve the community by extending education on important issues in your column. As we try to include civil rights to all, we must remember that we include those who need our understanding and support.

  6. Sam Lipsyte says:

    I’ll admit that I’m a little wary of the mentally ill but I’m not proud of it. I’m ocd & lactose intolerant so I’m not exactly nonmentally ill myself! It’s a difficult topic & so I thank Kathyrn for taking a brave stand on a very non pc topic.

  7. Mark says:

    Read Foucault’s “Discipline & Punishment”. Maybe we’re defining our own sanity by defining others as insane.

  8. Mark says:

    “Madness & Civilization” was the Foucault book that I meant to suggest as a read. Sorry about that! both books cover similar themes, but this one is more relevant to our discussion about being nuts ”vis-a-vis’ society.

  9. Thanks, Kathryn. Improving mental health treatment–right here in Colorado–could bring all of us great dividends. Few people seem to know that Colorado’s primary treatment modality for the mentally ill is to send them to prison. A warden from one of our major state prisons told me that he thinks 40% of those incarcerated suffer from serious mental illness. That’s over 8500 mentally ill prisoners, very few of whom are housed in the Pueblo forensic facility. And the cost of our approach is unconscionable. Contrast the annualized $21,000 per bed cost at the state’s Fort Logan facility with the annualized $33,000 per bed cost with the Department of Corrections. Consider that many of Colorado’s prisoners are non-violent. Often incarceration results from substance abuse problems, which so often plague those with emotional problems. Worse yet, those whose legal issues arise from such problems will find that incarceration may run far beyond the time it may take for recovery. Pete Earley’s desperate move to gain treatment for his son may have gone very bad. In some Colorado jurisdictions Mike’s crime (breaking into a house to take a bubble bath) might have resulted in a conviction as a sex offender and a prison sentence of indeterminate length, possibly life.

  10. Lesle says:

    Thanks Middle Distance. I think that we are surrounded by illness – mental and otherwise. I have nerve damage in my left hand and right index finger but that is not mental.

  11. Rally says:

    I think that that guy on Curb Your Enthusiasm might be mentally ill. If everyone in Hollywood pretends that he’s okay then I think that it will be nearly impossible to throw up a mirror to him. That’s just one example. I have others.

  12. Florence says:

    Very good information. As a culture we try to ignore what makes us uncomfortable. Maybe next time we run into one we’ll stop and try to embrace him.

  13. Yaley says:

    I gotta say…that this is the best Eastburn yet!

  14. Walter Abish says:

    Curious. Why bubble bath I wonder. It is as if child wanted to burst thru the man.

  15. Libby says:

    Thank you, again, Kathryn, and to all contributors. “Mental illness” is a very broad category,
    subject to mistaken generalization and unfortunate stigmatization. As I am citing in proposal for
    my memoir/exposé:
    ‘Mental health’ and ‘mental illness’ are points on a continuum. One in five Americans experiences
    mental health problems in any given year. . .
    –Disability.gov; National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 2010
    Depression is the most common of all mental illnesses. . . .
    –World Health Organization, 2010
    You have rights regarding your mental health services. You have the right to:
    *Be treated with respect and dignity. . . .
    –State Health Partnerships; numerous other, 2010
    Certainly not every person who ever has suffered major depression requires lifelong medication and
    therapy. Indeed, since my patient/client/human/legal/civil rights were easily, severely and repeatedly
    violated by mh and legal practitioners, and with consequences to this day, I write from my perspective.
    Earley remains on my reading list, and I’ll check out Foucault. I also recommend Luxenberg’s
    Annie’s Ghosts, 2009; Greenberg’s Manufacturing Depression, 2010; Ronson’s The Psychopath Test:
    A Journey through the Madness Industry, 2011; and, of course, Dully’s My Lobotomy, 2007.

    • kathryn says:

      Libby: Thank you for clarifying some of the more complicated issues like misunderstanding and generalization when the range and degree of mental illnesses is so large and doesn’t all belong beneath the same treatment umbrella. Also, the physicians’s responsibility must be addressed when we live in a culture where patents in crisis can’t get in to see someone for four hours and are then told there’s nothing they can do for them. Would that be the case with heart disease, a broken leg, a complicated digestive disorder? Probably not.

  16. Hellena says:

    I cannot help but think of how we JUDGE OTHERS when it comes to life. Europe is more tolerant when it comes to what makes us different/WHAT MAKES US UNIQUE!!!

  17. Taze says:

    no whats not gonna go away? mental ills no whats gonna happen nexxt? action

  18. Mitch says:

    People steal my Tabasco from my restaurant and I think that they are disturbed. Why would you do that?

  19. Libby says:

    Thank you for acknowledgment, Kathryn, and I found no stereotyping in your important, informative piece. Readers/listeners/contributors may be interested in another source I cite: a very successful pvt. psychiatrist (circa 2000)who acknowledged, “WE’RE ALL mentally ill; it’s just a matter of degrees.” Some who most need/would benefit by legitimate mh treatment never seek it, some who seek don’t obtain,some who don’t necessarily need are given hasty, blanket referrals by other Practicing professionals, others.Your attention to this important topic is much appreciated.


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