Across The Savannah
A Blind, Unkind Law
In the summer of 2008, a manuscript crossed my desk. Sylvia, a mother in need of an editor, had written a 200-page memoir about her son’s battle with Bipolar disorder. You may know it as Manic Depression.
Sylvia’s son, Bryan, was 27 when diagnosed with Bipolar disorder. Like an earthquake, Bryan’s illness struck without warning, shattering his and his family’s life. From the start, it was sheer chaos. The first time Bryan was hospitalized, he told his mother, “This place is not really a hospital. It’s a training ground for the CIA. My room is bugged. All my conversations are monitored. These people are not doctors and nurses. They’re actors.”
Today, Bryan’s mother is an advocate for the mentally ill and she champions a burning cause: changing state laws that overprotect mentally ill adults’ rights and force their family to watch helplessly as their love one falls deeper into mental illness. Most states have a law that says, in effect, you can’t hospitalize mentally ill adults without their consent unless they present an imminent danger to themselves or others. The law’s intent is to keep people from being confined just because someone says, “they’re crazy.”
That very thing was common in the Soviet Union. During Stalin’s reign, for instance, a Moscow court found a young woman, a writer prominent in civil rights, to be unstable. Her real crime was protesting illegal trials. Tried in absentia, she was declared mentally ill and placed in an institution.
We’d never tolerate such an abuse in this country, and that’s what this thorny law tries to prevent. In Sylvia’s view, however, laws protecting genuinely mentally ill adults go too far. Suppose you have a child who is bipolar. Put yourself in her situation. Who is a better judge of your child’s behavior? You or some judge with an overloaded docket?
Sylvia raised Bryan. She knew when he was slipping into mental illness. She knew when he was not taking his medications and deceiving the doctors, judges, and others who let him roam the streets manic. Trust me, she knew when he needed to be hospitalized.
A mother’s tears have fallen on every page of Sylvia’s manuscript. The experiences she shares break the heart. Many nights Bryan would call his mother at 3 a.m. to tell her he was the president of the United States. He’d give his credit card to homeless people. He would quit taking his medications. When he did, bizarre things took place: He’d dump several hundred dollars’ worth of coins all over his church parking lot and write a $10,000 check to his minister. He told his mother God had commissioned him to write another book for the Bible.
He’d disappear for days and his family would fear the worst. Then he’d resurface in a full-blown manic state and accuse his psychiatrist of trying to poison him with prescriptions and fire him. He threw away his cell phones because he believed the Secret Service had bugged them. He grew more and more delusional, would take off on long drives across several states asking state troopers to escort him because he was the president of the United States avoiding Russian agents who wanted to kill him. He told people he was in the witness protection program. He sent a woman 48 dozen red roses—a dozen an hour—for 48 hours to the tune of $2,300.
The really bad episodes enabled his family to get him before a judge, but the judges released him, fooled by his ability to act normal. In fact, he became an expert at fooling doctors and judges, but he couldn’t fool his mother and family. Blindly enforced laws left Bryan and his family headed for catastrophe, but he’s not alone.
Perhaps you saw A Beautiful Mind, a movie based on the true story of John Nash, a Noel Laureate in Economics who had schizophrenia. The film takes up the story in Nash’s early years at Princeton as he develops an extraordinary idea that will revolutionize mathematics. The storyline deals with mental illness. Nash developed paranoid schizophrenia. He believed he possessed top-secret Soviet codes and feared Soviet agents were trying to kidnap him. This illness and its grandiose imaginings that struck Nash and Bryan is more common that you think.
I had a neighbor who was Bipolar. When he got off his medications, he’d grow delusional and paranoid. He stuck the barrel of a loaded handgun to my chest one day and other neighbors and I had him committed for observation and treatment. He had become the law’s “imminent danger to others.” I moved eventually, in part to get away from this man, who himself moved to Georgia up near Atlanta.
And Bryan? What became of him?
Early one cold February day, Bryan got in his car in his garage and started it up. He never bothered to open the garage door. His destination was far beyond anything on the other side of that door. At the age of 40, after 13 years of Hell, he slipped the surly bonds of earth, free of his terrible illness at last and was no more. Tears continue to fall on every page of Sylvia’s manuscript to this day.
Friends, you never know what’s down the road. Sylvia and Bryan’s sad story could be yours someday. For many, it will. Something like 15 to 18 percent of Americans possess a diagnosable mental disorder. No socioeconomic group is free from the sting of mental illness. Mental illness affects one in four individuals. There but for the grace of God go you and I …
When passing laws to make it illegal to force mentally ill people into treatment, lawmakers failed to make provisions for people like Bryan. He didn’t think he was sick, but he was. Very sick. If you don’t realize you’re sick, how can you make rational decisions regarding your treatment? The answer is you can’t. It’s the families of mentally ill people who are the first to recognize their loved ones are ill, but the law renders them helpless.
It makes sense to amend such laws. A judge sees you for 30 minutes but your family has known every fiber of your being for as long as you’ve lived. If you or someone you love spirals down into the deep, dark abyss of mental illness, wouldn’t you want your family to be able to intervene on your behalf? I sure would.
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