It seems that life has a way of pushing me in to contact with mentally ill people. I don't mean this in a funny way, I mean real mentally ill people. I'm not sure if this happens because there are so many, or if because I am supposed to learn something from them. I have learned much, although I doubt I will ever really understand what goes on in their minds.
I have two mentally ill brothers in law. The first is actually a step-brother in law. His name is Ernie. He is more what most people would consider "crazy". I'm not sure of all the numerous diagnosis that have been made of him, I don't know the technical names for his disorders. I do know that he is extremely paranoid to the point that he can't function in society. By choice he lives in a homeless shelter in Alaska. He has tried to live in normal apartments, but is too fearful of the other tenants. I'm not sure why the homeless shelter is different, but he feels more comfortable there. At one time he lived in our home. He was quiet, not a problem. But I think he felt stress to mentally "hold it together" while he lived in our home, so wasn't entirely comfortable with us either.
Ernie has some interesting dillusions and compulsive behaviors. He also has what would probably be termed as an eating disorder. Ernie is obsessed with not becoming fat. He eats very basic foods, and will only choose foods that have low fat content. I remember him eating bags full of apples, and pots full of beans. He is very intelligent so would research beans to see which bean had the lowest fat content. He read that some professor, I think from UC Berkeley, had developed a hybrid bean that had a very low fat content. Ernie wrote a letter and asked if he could get a sample of this bean. The professor, not knowing Ernie, sent him some beans to try growing. Ernie does like to garden, but instead of growing them, he chose to eat them.
Ernie also had a compulsion about towels. I'm not sure why, but he horded towels in his room. Whatever he was doing, he had to have a small towel close by. If he was reading, he would have a towel placed on the table under his book. If he was eating, he would have a towel nearby. Quite often I had to go in his otherwise clean room and round up towels to wash.
Some of Ernie's delusions were rooted in a small bit of logic, even though twisted, so it was hard to not get sucked in to his delusions. One time Ernie told me that if he ever got married, he wasn't going to let his wife have a car. He said that the Amish have very few divorces, and they don't drive cars. In his mind, it logically followed that the reason they have few divorces is because they don't have cars. Makes sense....I think.....
My other brother in law is named David. David's problems are much more complex. Although he is much more functional than Ernie, he is much more difficult to deal with. First off, David has a genetic disorder called Kleinfelter's syndrome. I don't even know if science fully understands the far reaching effects of this syndrome. And in truth, there are varying degrees, so I"m sure there are many normal functioning people with this syndrome. David, like Ernie, has had a variety of diagnosis. As my husband and I have studied the subject, the best term we have found to describe him is "sociopath" or "anti-social personality". He isn't dangerous in the way we normally think of sociopaths, but he does have alot of problems. If I had to choose between dealing with Ernie's or David's illnesses, I would hands down choose Ernie's.
The last mentally ill person I want to talk about (although there have been many others pass through my life) is a wonderful woman named Carmen. I met Carmen when I was assigned by my church to visit her on a monthly basis. She was a very talented, intelligent, creative person. But she suffered with what some call "manic-depression". Another term for that is "Bi-polar disorder". However, Carmen's illness was slightly different. She had what they call "Uni-polar" depression. Instead of having the manic "highs", she only had the depression. She described it as more like terror. I visited her for several years, spending many hours talking to her. We discussed her illness in great detail. I learned the names of the different drugs that she had tried over the years. I learned which ones worked best for her, and which ones made her ill.
As time went on, I began to see that in addition to her uni-polar disorder, Carmen was also a hypochondriac. This complicated things greatly. People think they know what hypochondriasm is about, but until they have met a true hypochondriac like Carmen, they can't even begin to grasp what that term means. But understanding that about her helped me to help her. We became great friends. We spent many hours talking about our lives. She was very eloquent and open, so it was a very interesting opportunity for me to look in to the mind of mental illness.
Carmen died in November of 2005 from the effects of years of taking many different types of medicines. I will miss her, but I am happy that she can be free of the disease that tormented her for most of her life. And I'm proud of her that she hung in there and didn't give in to the temptation of suicide.
I do think that coming in contact with so many mentally ill people in my life has made me more compassionate. I think it has also helped me to be more tolerant of all people, mentally ill or not. Often I meet someone who tells me that they think they are crazy. I laugh and tell them they aren't crazy. Trust me, I've met crazy.