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Still Learning

This story, by Penny Frese, is excerpted from her talk at the WFSAD Biennial Conference in Kyoto 2002.

Like most people, I grew up knowing almost nothing about mental illness. No one I knew was mentally ill although I had heard my parents speak in hushed tones about some distant relative who had to go to the hospital for a while and how sad it was. His wife had divorced him. There was a man in my neighborhood who wore several coats in the heat of summer and talked aloud to himself. When we children saw him outside, we crossed the street and then secretly made fun of him. That was what I knew.

Fred and I met in graduate school the spring before my final year. He was on the science side of campus and I was on the art side. We became friends over the summer when most of the students had gone home and we stayed on to work on our dissertation proposals. I admired his intellect, his "vacuum cleaner mind", his deep faith, and his wonderful sense of humor. I could speak to him about anything and he seemed to understand.

It was in the fall, just before the new school year resumed again, when I learned Fred's secret. In some ways I forced it from him. I had noticed that he never spoke of personal things and someone had warned me darkly that he was divorced. It seemed strange to me that he never mentioned this and I was suspicious about his intentions in our relationship. The next day we went for a walk in the forest which surrounded our campus. When we had walked about an hour, Fred began his story with a deep sigh. He told me that at the age of 26, as a Marine Corps officer, he had had a breakdown and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Other breakdowns had followed, and he still wrestled with the illness. His marriage had failed because his wife was also diagnosed with schizophrenia. There had been a child, a little girl.

This was not what I had expected to hear. After the word "schizophrenia" everything got blurred. My heart pounded and I felt like I could not breathe. All I could think was "I have just walked for an hour into the woods with a man who is telling me he is insane. Oh, God, get me out of these woods alive!"

That was 25 years ago. We are still very much alive, but I am not yet sure that we are out of the woods. Fred and I were married in the spring of the next year. But I still had a lot to learn; in fact 25 years later I am still learning. Coming to terms with mental illness in our lives has been a process. I suspect every family who must cope with this illness goes though a similar one. I would like to share with you some things about that process so far. You may find they resonate with your own experience. Or that you have some insights to share that I have not yet attained.

Like many people my first response to Fred's illness was denial. Of course, I could not deny that he was diagnosed with the illness. That had happened ten years before and it continued to give him problems. I entered into another stage of denial: bargaining. I thought that perhaps if I were as good a wife as I could be; if I was loving and faithful, supportive and did not complain, that God would take this illness away. I did my best and it took me about two years to realize that the bargain had never been struck. I did my part, I thought, and the illness remained, and I was not very happy about it.

When Fred developed his "Aspects of Coping", he listed denial as the first aspect. When he showed me this, I told him that I did not think denial was a way of coping. "Yes, it is," he told me. I have come to understand that denial is for many of us our first response, our first coping mechanism. It is not a good one, but it is often the first.

There are many reasons for this. Mental illnesses are long term. For years, families have been blamed for "causing" the illness. There was little hope for recovery. Surely, our loved one, our family member could not be mentally ill. It must be something else - lack of will power, a character flaw. We are good people, why would this happen to us?

Not only families try to cope by denying. Whole peoples shun the need to deal with mental illness. We hide the mentally ill away in institutions where we cannot see them, and when we cannot hide them away, we turn away as we walk by them in the street. We exclude them from medical insurance; we cut their services when the economy is poor. We cannot talk about it, and if we do talk about it, we blame someone else for their condition. Unfortunately, we are learning the tragic, and sometimes deadly, consequences of our failure to face these illnesses, especially in our children.

Eventually, I had to face the reality that there was mental illness in my family, it was not going away, and I was going to have to deal with it. That was the beginning of my recovery.

Penny Frese has a Ph.D. in psychology and is Past-President of Summit County Mental Health Association, Akron, Ohio, USA. She is married to Fred S. Frese, III, a former Director of Psychology, Western Reserve Psychiatric Hospital. She has toured extensively with her husband giving valuable advice to family members and the general public.