He was a Marine, through and through. Although as a child the movie Rambo with Sylvester Stallone had not yet been written it could have been the story of my uncle. He was a large man with a serious look and a stone chiseled face. Vietnam had made him into the man he was, yet unlike Rambo he was intelligent. Always reading a book, sometimes a dictionary or a bible. Many times even after his tour of duty ended he still read army manuals. Books about infiltrating enemy camps or out thinking the enemy on the battlefield. After Vietnam his intelligent side kicked in. He went to work for defense contractor McDonnell Douglas building bombs and missiles. Still contributing to the war effort. At the time he was the successful one in the family. The one with the nicest house and the pool in the backyard. He lived near Los Angeles with a wife, two young girls and what appeared to the rest of us as a perfect life.
I was about 14 or 15 when I first realized things had changed. I soon learned that after Vietnam my uncle came back with addictions. Addictions to marijuana and alcohol. While he was functional for many years eventually it caught up with him. He lost his job, and then his wife, the house with the pool came next. By the time my mother got involved he was deep into a mental illness that turned him from the most successful Solano to the homeless Solano. That's when he arrived at our house. For the most part he still looked like the big strong marine. He even still walked around with large books, reading intensely as he walked back and forth in the front yard. He often would lift large boulders and carry them back and forth across the yard as a way of keeping physically fit. It was only when you looked into his eyes that you first realized something was wrong. When you looked into his eyes it was as though the soul was no longer there. He was not the uncle I grew up with. He was someone else. In some ways it was only the shell of the man I once knew. Did anyone notice I have been referring to my
uncle in the past tense for the last few paragraphs? I only just now noticed it. He was a marine, he had a nice home, he was married, etc, etc. I guess it’s because all this was pre-mental illness. Its as though he died, only he didn't, he is still around today. Just not the man he once was.
My mother worked two and three jobs to raise her two boys and two girls. A single mother who was intent on keeping her family off welfare. I remember as a young boy going to the grocery store and paying with coupons, food stamps. No fancy debit cards like today, In those days you separated the food and non food items, pulled out your book of food stamps and payed with the different denominations. Everyone in line knew that you were paying with food stamps. My mother hated it; I could see it on her face every time we went to the store. Now we had another mouth to feed, my uncle, her brother. My mother tried to get help for my uncle. He had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD was a new thing in those days although it really existed for centuries. In World War I it was called shell shocked, Later Combat Fatigue, now PTSD. Different names, same ruined lives. He received medications which seemed to work, when he took them. He would go though bouts of getting better only to go though bouts of drinking and not his taking medications. The cycle ended with him going to jail. Jail, for those of you who don't have immediate family members with mental illness combined with drug and or alcohol addictions, is where we send our ill family members. That is where they stay until a bed opens up in a short term treatment facility.
The more my mother learned about his illness the more she wanted to help, not just my uncle but others as well, the future mentally ill who maybe could be saved before they lost it all. One of my mother’s jobs was with the State of New Mexico as a clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles. While working for the state she learned of a state funded program called Sangre De Cristo Mental Health. A small clinic which was trying to provide outpatient treatment for those with mental illness. She applied for and received a job there, first as a secretary and later she progressed to a case worker. All while armed with nothing more than a high school diploma. While making mental illness her job, she still kept working to help others outside of work. At one time she traveled to Washington DC to learn about a new group called the National Alliance on Mentally Illness. Her travel companions and her returned to Santa Fe and began forming the local chapter. Meanwhile my uncle was still in and out of jail. Most of the time he was arrested for Protective Custody or Public Drunkenness. With no other place to take those intoxicated or mentally ill, police could only take them to jail. My mother next began work on a sobering center. A place where the intoxicated could be taken to sober up, get treatment and get back on their medications. A very early edition of the Newspaper the Santa Fe reporter chronicled her attempts to make the sobering center a reality. I was now 21 years old, just married and beginning a family of my own. I had moved into my own small, actually really, really, small mobile home with my new wife.
I remember the phone ringing in the middle of the night. You know one of those wake you up in the middle of the night calls that can never be good news. I reached over for the phone and it was one of my uncles. One who hardly ever called me. My mother was dead. She had taken a van load of staff from Sangre De Cristo Mental Health to a seminar in Taos. She dropped them off and then headed back down the canyon. The theory is that she swerved to avoid a boulder in the road, lost control
and went off the cliff above the Rio Grande. My life was never the same. My uncles only got worse. While family member after family member tried to care for my uncle no one could get the cooperation from him my mother could. His daughter moved to Santa Fe just to care for him. This ended in frustration and despair. Today you can still see my uncle, you can catch him at the St. Johns food Kitchen for lunch. You can also find him walking Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe. He refuses to live with
anyone and seems to be complacent living on the streets. He hardly recognizes me or anyone else.
Sangre De Cristo Mental Health closed down a few years after my mother died. Other Mental Health Centers have also come and gone. Those with mental illness still go to jail awaiting a bed in a mental health inpatient facility. Twenty three years after my mother began efforts to open a sobering center, the center came to fruition. The joint City, county sobering center opened last year. I am a conglomeration of my experiences growing up. The struggle my mother went through with my uncle and his mental illness taught me a lot about love and devotion. My uncle’s illness became my mother’s life. Her career developed out of her efforts to support him. In a way her death came in the same manner. While I can’t say that I began a career in law enforcement because of these experiences, they have definitely shaped my policies and issues. I can never forget seeing my uncle go from the most successful in the family to the homeless one in the family. I will always remember the love, devotion and sacrifice my mother endured for her brother. As I write this I struggled for a way to end this monologue and then I realized my family still struggles with my uncle’s illness and we pray for his safety while grasping for answers. There is yet no end to this story.
Saturday, March 22, 2008
Minds Interrupted: Stories of Lives Affected by Mental Illness
On March 15, 2008 I took part in Minds Interrupted: Stories of Lives Affected by Mental Illness. It was an evening of monologues featuring stories of people affected by mental illness. The pieces included performances by people both with a diagnosis of mental illness as well as family members living with this disease. The event was produced by the Santa Fe Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Project Life Stories. It was interesting from a writing perspective because other than this blog most of my writing has been fiction. It was one thing to write the monologue but performing it became an emotional event. I still choked up a little when I got to the part where my mother passed away. The house was sold out and all the monologues were inspirational. Those who are afflicted with mental illnesses were particularly inspirational and their bravery in standing up and telling their stories was indescribable. It was one of those things that you just had to be there. Here is my monologue.