Battling the pain of mental illness

October 4, 2011 

Mental illness is a baffling affliction that hits many families, causing much pain and distress. It hit my family with my aunt and her daughter, my cousin, “Maryann.”

Maryann, 62, lives in housing for the mentally ill in Minneapolis, sharing a room with two other women. Her section is by the door and filled with “stuff.”

Two years ago, Maryann and I had much fun together. We drove around the lakes, walked and had lunch out. Another day started silently.

I asked if anything was wrong. She was upset because she thought people in her home were saying bad things about her. She calls it having “bad thoughts.”

I said that most people have such thoughts sometimes, and it’s important to not focus on what we think others think. We went on to have a great day.

Maryann came to our family at age 10 when her mother went into a mental hospital. I was 17. I loved having a “little sister.” We had a lot of fun together. She was cute, smart and fun.

She stayed five years, until my family moved away. Maryann didn’t want to come, because her mother was nearby. She went into a foster home.

Maryann had a mental breakdown at 15 and has been in a home or institution since. She is diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.

This trip was different. When I picked Maryann up, she didn’t greet me or talk. I chatted some as we drove to the lakes. We drove to our favorite lake, but she showed no interest. She refused to go into a restaurant for lunch. I asked what was going on; she answered, “Nothing.”

She didn’t smile once. Then she asked for money. I always write her a check when I see her, but now I felt used.

I told her not now, adding that I might as well take her home, as she wasn’t enjoying our time together. She agreed but wanted a hamburger. We stopped for takeout.

Later I spoke with staff. They said Maryann was doing OK lately, but should always have PRN (take when needed) meds with her. They’d make sure she had them when I came again.

Maryann called the next day to apologize and wanted to see me again. I took her out to lunch the next day, but she was again sullen and unsmiling. I asked what was wrong.

She was thinking “bad thoughts,” she said. She forgot her PRN meds. We drove to the cafe. Maryann silently ate her food.

After lunch, I decided to take her home as she clearly wasn’t enjoying herself. I explained I wasn’t sure when I’d be back to Minnesota. She was silent. I said I wished she could tell me what’s going on with her.

She blurted out, “Do you know why God hates me?” I said, “Oh, sweetheart, God doesn’t hate you.”

“Yes, he does!” she insisted.

I said that her mind was playing games with her, that God doesn’t hate anyone.

I wrote her a check and sadly dropped her off.

For anyone with a mentally ill relative or friend, contact the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which provides a 12-week informational and supportive course. Contact Rae Belle Gambs at 461-6590 or visit www.namislo.org.

Gayle Cuddy and Cynthia Lambert write the South County Beat column on alternating Wednesdays. Reach Cuddy at 489-1026 or nightengayles@aol.com.

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