Families who care for members with chronic illnesses often find themselves overwhelmed with the responsibility of making life comfortable and bearable for their sick relative. But when that illness is a mental illness, the difficulty increases exponentially until it flies off the top of the charts. The simple truth is we are no better at dealing with the effects of mental illness on the family and society than we were 100 years ago except for new drug therapies. Of course, those drug therapies require the cooperation of the ill individual and, as anyone knows who cares for someone with a mental illness, cooperation on any given day is not necessarily a given.
Families who deal with this problem are often stressed and stretched beyond all comprehension. So an organization like The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a godsend for these families; it both understands the strains and provides a supportive community to help deal with the illness and its consequences. This support is especially needed by families suffering the loss of a loved one through suicide. The guilt, regrets, second guessing and simple pain of loss are hard to comprehend for anyone who has not experienced it.
Anchorage School Board member Kameron Perez Verdia lost his sister to suicide. She had led a life of both joy and pain and, in the end, it was the pain that won. Given that her family is financially secure and well educated, you'd think they could have found the help she needed. But this is where mental illness cuts across all of society's stratifications because you can't buy help that isn't there. You can't cure an illness when the cure is unknown. You can't stop the pain if the person in pain won't let you in. Sometimes all you can do is watch the train wreck happening in front of you and wait for the inevitable result.
With Kameron's permission, here is some of what he wrote about his sister Kathleen for a remembrance last year.
Kathleen. My sister. My big sister. You are so cool. I want to be your friend – I want you to like me. Why do you hate me? Why do you hate our mom? Our dad? Who is the real you? I want to help. ... I want to save you. You are so beautiful. Why do you hurt everyone around you? Why do you make such bad choices? This is getting really old. Stop hurting our mother. Stop hurting your children. Where did you go? I don't know who you are. Why do you act this way? Another crisis? You are so brilliant. So loving. You're such a good mother. You are awful. You're manipulative. Where are you? Why did you leave? I want to save you. I want to save your children. I don't want you around us anymore. I can't let you out of my sight. I think things are getting better. It seems like your doing better. I'm so proud of you. I'm excited for Christmas.
You're gone… You're gone… Pills… Alone in your car… You're gone… What do I do now? How do I deal with this? How do I support my mother, father, my brother, my wife, my children, your children, and your friends? How do I explain this? How do I feel about this? Is it my fault? How do I carry on?
Kameron's mom is Shirley Holloway. Anyone who knows her knows she doesn't sit back and accept things the way they are. She fights to change things that need changing. So Shirley and her family turned their pain into action through their activities with NAMI Anchorage. One of NAMI's goals is to reach out to families with an ill member and provide them with support, love and an understanding community as they cope with this destructive illness. NAMI knows that no matter how hard you try, sometimes you simply can't save your loved one from themselves
Thursday, Sept. 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. Given Alaska's depressingly horrible statistics on suicide, it's a day when we should all take a moment to think about what we can do to help those who sometimes simply can't help themselves. And if we can't always prevent the tragedy, then at least we can surround the survivors with love and support. You can connect with NAMI Anchorage at 907-272-0227.
Elise Patkotak's latest book, "Coming Into the City," is available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and at local bookstores.