All of our lives have been touched by the mentally ill. Together we can build structured, therapeutic communities for ALL mentally ill in order to end the crisis of neglect, violence, abuse and homelessness.
On September 8, 2008, a front-page article written by Carol Smith, entitled Gravely Disabled: Broken mental health care system wastes money, chances, lives, appeared in the Seattle PI. It chronicled a young man in his struggles to live with his debilitating mental illness. The article focused primarily on the efforts of his family, especially his mother Liz, in their relentless struggle to obtain the help her son so desperately needed. The article details the frustrating and often futile journey common to many families seeking help for their mentally ill loved ones. This story described a system that is so broken and dysfunctional that it allows some of the most vulnerable members of our society to languish, untreated and often homeless. Following this article, Liz Browning received an outpouring of personal stories from families with similar struggles resulting in the creation of Browning Communities. Click here to read the article.
I have never known a world absent of mental illness. From the time my grandmother began telling me bedtime stories, I heard about my schizophrenic uncle who could play Mozart concertos on the piano after hearing it only once. He committed suicide before he saw his 30th birthday, long before I was born and had the opportunity to hear him play. In 1994, I was 11 years old when a second uncle took his own life after a difficult battle with drug and alcohol addiction leaving behind my two orphaned baby cousins. A few years later, my parents informed me and my younger brother that they were taking our older brother to visit a special boarding school in Idaho for a couple days. I didn’t see or speak to him for the next year and a half. They had taken him to a therapeutic wilderness program, which we hoped could manage his severe psychosis and accompanying drug abuse. Somewhere between my senior college finals and my Senior Ball in New York City, I dropped everything and flew to Las Vegas to help convince my other, younger brother to hospitalize himself as his psychosis and paranoia spiraled out of control. It was the first of many increasingly severe episodes during which my beloved younger brother was officially diagnosed with Schizophrenia.
While I have been fortunate enough to have escaped the clutches of a mental disorder, I have been shaped by the experiences affecting the people I love most dearly. State institutions, psychiatrists, jail, meds, violence, and uncertainty have been a regular part of every day of my life. So it goes without saying that I am, by default, a member of Browning Communities alongside its founder, my mother Liz Browning. I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
When I was four years old, I lost my mother to schizophrenia—that is when she had her first psychotic break. She wasn’t able to leave the house and sometimes she could not take care of her basic needs. When I was six years old, I did her grocery shopping and ran her errands—I was her link to the sane world. There were times when she was so psychotic that she caused me tremendous harm. Even though I was a young child, I knew she was very sick. I knew she didn’t want to have this disease. I knew it wasn’t her choice and it certainly wasn’t her fault. While I was growing up my mother was committed to mental institutions five times. Even though she was sick, she fought a courageous battle. I loved my mother. Still do. She provided the inspiration for me to have compassion for the mentally ill.
After I grew up and decided to have children, it never occurred to me that schizophrenia would be passed on. Statistically, the grandchildren of schizophrenics have about the same risk of getting the disease as the rest of the population. Shortly after my son turned nineteen he began to show symptoms. Immediately I knew what was happening to him. My heart was crushed. I could not believe that lightning had struck twice in the same place. At that time I was taking care of my now elderly mother while I was trying to get my son help for the early onset of this disease. I arranged for my mother to move back east to live with my younger sister. I knew I could not take care of two schizophrenics at the same time. I had to choose my mother or my son. I chose my son.
Not until we learned that our son’s often bizarre behavior had been diagnosed as schizophrenia did the horror of the state-of-affairs for those who suffer profound, debilitating mental illness become apparent to me and to my wife. In seeking care and guidance to assist us in treating our son’s disease, we quickly discovered that very limited services are available to this vulnerable community. Most of the treatment currently available is medication-centric (and it is often difficult for those afflicted to remain med-compliant.) Because many who suffer severe mental illness are difficult to live with and many families simply are unequipped to cope with afflicted loved ones, they often find themselves living on the street, in homeless shelters or in group homes which do little to help them recover what semblance of their lives might be achievable in a compassionate, holistic residential facility engaged in working one-on-one to bring about healing.
It is from this perspective that I have been excited to join Liz Browning and Browning Communities as it seeks to transform care for the severely mentally ill in greater Seattle and bring radical effective healing options into the mainstream.
My family has been immersed in this system for nearly 8 years in trying to care for my oldest son-who is 25. I think many people believe that creating residential facilities for the profoundly mentally ill would be prohibitively expensive-however, I suspect it is much more cost effective than repeated bookings into King County jail, our prison system, and frequent ER visits and hospitalizations. I wish that more people were able to understand the nightmare lives of those who are mentally ill, and recognize that medications often only moderate the symptoms, and can have debilitating side-effects. One of the hallmarks of this disease is often the belief that there is no illness and therefore no need for medication. We keep trying to make these unfortunate individuals fit into a world that is perceived by them to be hostile and frightening and certainly confusing. Then we punish them when they are not able to function properly in this world that is so terrifying and strange to them. Certainly the public should be protected, but those afflicted with mental illness are vulnerable as well, and deserve a safe environment.
I lost my parents in a plane crash when I was three and I lost my older sister, Catherine, to mental illness when I was in my early teens. My loss is no where near the loss of my sister, who through the years also lost her friends, her job and her ability to interact appropriately in society as a result of her untreated illness. My sister is a prisoner of her mind. I am working to help set her free. But, only she has the power to escape, if correctly medicated and supported through therapy and love in a safe and structured environment.
My sister was hospitalized for the first time when she was a teenager. My brother and I had her involuntarily committed when she was in her early 20s. She left the hospital as soon as she could. Somehow, without medication, my sister had it in her to earn a degree in psychology and an advanced degree as a registered nurse. I believe she was trying to gain an understanding of her illness and to self treat it with this education. She also found structure and support in the Catholic Church. My sister was an RN for a decade or more until she started a downward spiral 6 years ago. She became psychotic and unable to hold a job for long.
In her mid-fifties, my sister has been hospitalized four times since May of 2009. She has no way to pay the more than $100,000 in hospital and outpatient bills and finally qualified for state assistance after spending down all of her assets. Had I not been there to shepherd this limited assistance, I don’t know where she would be. My sister is currently a client of a local community mental health care provider, but needs more care. I am doing what I can to support my sister in letting her know she is loved and encouraging her to stay on her meds and stick with and expand her treatment plan. She needs much more than this band-aid approach to become the sister I hope she can once again be to me, the friend she can be to others and the contributor to society that she has the capability to be. My sister is a caring and kind person who needs structured help and support like that which can be provided through the vision of Browning Communities.
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