April 15, 2006, 8:05 pm

The Impact of Mental Illness: A Story

A woman wearing her mother’s nightgown and carrying a pot of coffee enters the room and finds a man slumped over on a desk.

She does a quick check of the “NBC”s of initial assessment: neck, back and collar.

Neck: present, discoloration to right lateral aspect, r/o hickey vs. birthmark

Back: present, shirt intact, alteration in fashion sense secondary to style and color noted.

Collar: alteration in cleanliness secondary to poor detergent selection resulting in “ring-around” syndrome.

What is your diagnosis?

a. Scapular arrest

b. Hysterical syncope secondary to the viewing of gram positive cocci and the inability to distinguish it from the couscous he had for dinner.

c. Pseudo-syncope secondary to not wanting to engage in marital relations due to wife wearing her mother’s nightgown

d. Acute onset of somnolence following completion of compiling Grand Rounds submissions

This story violates no HIPPA violations.

I won’t use real names.

The person involved was not my patient.

She was our next-door neighbor and gave me my first experience with mental illness.

I was twelve years old.

The summers are hot in the Stockton/Sacramento area and that year was no exception.

I spent most of my time outside, sitting on the grass with my transistor and listening to AM radio, having not yet discovered that “weird” stuff on FM. I would memorize the American Top 40 every week.

My life consisted of eagerly waiting for my Tiger Beat and 16 Magazines in the mail and running to the local JC Penneys to buy my 45s whenever I had babysitting money.

Bobby Sherman lined my walls. Three Dog Night was the coolest band ever.

I wrote to every single diploma nursing program in the United States that summer and received a bazillion catalogs back. I’d pore over every one and decide who had the best cap.

One must make informed decisions, even at the age of 12.

Other than people who “went” crazy due to drugs, mental illness was never on my radar.

We lived next door to a young couple, Amy and Dave, relative newlyweds. My parents became friends with them. Our cookie-cutter tract houses had opposite floorplans, so our front yards were sandwiched between the garages. We saw a lot of them as we came and went through our daily routines.

Everyone was very excited when Amy became pregnant. She had a baby boy.

And then it started.

She invited me over to see the baby. But she was talking in an odd way and the baby, just a week old, was laying in the bassinet without a diaper and urinating everywhere. I may have been a kid, but I sensed something wasn’t right. I got out of the house as soon as I could.

And I told my mother what I had seen.

My parents were already suspicious as Amy had shown up at our door without the baby a couple of times that week. They had tried to talking to Dave, but being at work all day, he did not believe that there was anything to be concerned about. My parents could not believe his attitude, but didn’t want to interfere in their business.

And, then as if my observations weren’t enough to clinch it, the next day I was out in the front practicing cartwheels and gymnastics on the grass when Amy comes running across the street from another house and begins doing cartwheels next to me. I ran for my mom.

That was it. We got involved.

We went over and got the baby, brought Amy into the house, called my father (a police officer) to come home from work and called Dave home from the office. I guess there was no CPS back then.

We cared for the baby until that night, when Dave called Amy’s family and his family and they all came over. My parents discussed their concern over Amy’s odd change in affect and behavior. My dad, being a police officer had seen mental illness and was pretty sure that Amy had had what was then known as a “breakdown”. This was hard for the families to accept as the idea of mental illness was even more “hush-hush” in their particular culture than it was in the general population back then.

All I remember was seeing these ten adults (including Amy) sitting in my family room discussing the situation in somber tones. Being twelve, I was told to go to my room. I went.

Amy was diagnosed with schizophrenia and hospitalized. Her family took over care of the baby until she was able to do so.

This story has a happy ending.

Amy and my mom have kept in touch since we moved away a couple of years later. Amy has had good periods and not-so-good periods over the last 35 years and my mom can tell by her letters how she is feeling.

She and Dave are still married and the baby we took care of that night was eventually joined by two siblings, now all successful adults. My mom gets pictures every year and Amy never fails to ask how we “kids” are doing.

I tell this story because I believe it has a lot to do with my ability to see the humanity behind “psych patients” and others who suffer with a mental illness.

A sense that mental illness was not something to be ignored or ashamed of, but something that could (and should) be dealt with.

This attitude followed me throughout my nursing education, throughout my life.

Not only because I saw the suffering, but because I witnessed compassion in how my parents responded.

Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, I was a lucky kid.


  • TC

    April 16, 2006 at 5:48 pm

    You were a lucky kid and Amy was a lucky woman…to have people who looked out for her and her family and really helped instead of a)judging her or b)not getting involved. People with mental illness get the short end of the stick in our society and it’s a real shame.

  • kenju

    April 16, 2006 at 8:41 pm

    Indeed you were and so was she. I am glad the story had a happy ending.

  • Kerrie

    November 11, 2008 at 1:05 pm


    I am conducting my own private research online, on the impacts of parental mental illness on families.
    I have suffered long and way too hard due to the stunning realization that my mother has always been mentally ill. I now realize that my suffering is very different compared to the reality in which she lives, of course.
    It sounds and certainly is true in my experience that way too many people’s mental health “condition” is denied within the family or never confronted in healthy and constructive ways within communities. My mother has lived a very high-functioning yet manipulating life with full support from my siblings, who also continue to live in denial of the reality of her clinically diagnosed pathologies. We are not connected to one another and this separation has only increased over the years.
    While this brief personal description sounds painfully common, I have lived a number of years of my life accomplishing amazing things to turn that legacy of impact around in my own life and that of my family’s life.
    My child today is a very healthy “foreigner,” psychologically and emotionally, to the family historical mental health fabric. I am proud of this reality.
    I have worked very hard without familial support to make this so. For one, by heeding my own realization at age twelve that I was not safe, and moving out of physical proximity to my family-of-origin. By dedicating myself to the years of therapy that belonged essentially to my mother to do and thus accomplishing this for myself, I am now my own beneficiary of this work. Yet, I am currently emerging from too many years of self-imposed social isolation that in the beginning had a healthy context of personal need to it. Never-the-less, to do this focused healing work that social isolation went on too long mainly due to personal financial limitation.
    Now, I am struggling to wind my way back into the world of work, and healthy adult relationships of all sorts. The transition is hard without friends or community employment reputation, after full time, single parenting since my daughter’s day of conception. Not that I have not done many volunteer projects over these years that do in deed enhance my résumé now.
    I want you to hear my story, because I am constantly looking for healthier places to feel connected, as a family member of this legacy of mental illness and its impact.
    The social scope of support in community does not exist to my knowledge, even with all my background in the personal healing work now. I find this shocking and potentially further isolating for the moment.
    Your responses, inquiries and suggestions are most welcome.

About Me

My name is Kim, and I'm a nurse in the San Francisco Bay area. I've been a nurse for 33 years; I graduated in 1978 with my ADN. My experience is predominately Emergency and Critical Care, and I have also worked in Psychiatry and Pediatrics. I made the decision to be a nurse back in 1966 at the age of nine...

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