I See Crazy People

I have quite a bit of experience with mental illness. My dad has never been what one could describe as “mentally stable,” and many of his brothers and sisters also show distinct signs of psychopathology. In addition to his probably clinical levels of anger, 3 was also a pathological liar. I’d say he was a bad lair, but then again, who knows how many of his lies I actually caught? All of his stories could have been fictional. Who knows?

Growing up in the shadow of such a prime example of mental illness is bound to leave an impact on a girl, let alone living through a sibling’s suicide, the epitome of unhealthy behavior. I know Dad’s persistent refusal to acknowledge reality has made me less trusting, and 3’s suicide has heightened my control-freak nature, but, this past weekend, I added another quirk to my list of family-influenced behaviors.

I see crazy people. Everywhere. I mentally diagnose others with all manner of psychopathology, praising those who seek help and judging those who seem to lack the self-awareness necessary to get better. I came to this realization while collecting data for my current research study. I’m working with families of children with intellectual disabilities to improve sibling relationships. As I visiting one such family, the mom chatted at length about the new job she was applying for describing in detail her myriad skills that aren’t being utilized at her current job. Now, I don’t know this woman very well. I’ve only met with her 4 or 5 times. She’s incredibly nice, and I love working with her kids, but I didn’t believe her. While the mom was talking about her work history, I kept thinking “You’re not as good as you think you are. You’re probably a bit narcissistic, tunnel vision, blaming others for your problems,” etc.

As I walked back to my car after completing the visit, I considered my reaction. How very unfair I was being. I have no right to silently judge this woman, to paint her with the same brush as my father and his siblings, to think her a liar like my brother. Yet, I do this kind of thing all the time. A friend discusses her husband in aggrieved terms? He must be depressed. Get him help or divorce him as soon as possible, lest your poor infant children grow up to resent him the way I resent my father. Someone tells a marginally strange story? They must be lying. I bet they lie about everything. No one can be trusted.

Of course, I am not exempt from my own mental diagnoses. If I get caught in traffic and show up late or forget to return a phone call, I assume the offended party won’t believe my excuse. They must think I’m lying. Who really gets stuck in traffic? Sophomore Year Roommate can’t possibly be OK with the fact that I rescheduled a trip to see her at the last minute. She must think me terribly self-centered and arrogant.

It’s exhausting see crazy everywhere. I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t even know if I’m wrong in all my judgments, but I do know I’m not doing myself any good by making them. Some people are healthy; not everyone has to deal with the same psychopathologies that seem to permeate my existence.

Eerily Similar

Back in Ireland, when the Phillips family visited me, I got to spend time with their son, D, for the first time in a few years. I’ve known D since he was in diapers and I spent many summers babysitting him and his sisters. Being the only boy, he would get into his fair share of trouble. I remember dragging him home from the neighbor’s house once after he responded to my initial request to leave with “Up your butt and around the corner!” He was maybe 7 at the time.

D is about 6 years younger than 3, but it was clear pretty early on that they had quite a bit in common. Mrs. Phillips would tell Mom the latest story of what D had done in school, and Mom would laugh, knowing that 3 had done virtually the same thing years before. However, as 3 got older, his transgressions moved from “mischievous” to “illegal.” Now, instead of being funny, Mom’s stories served as a warning. Mrs. Phillips would tell D “You don’t want to end up like 3.”

In Ireland, seeing the little boy I used to babysit as a 17-year-old, I noticed plenty of things that reminded me of 3. Like my brother, D has a great sense of humor, based on making fun of the obviously dumb things other people do. But also like 3, D is prone to fits of sullenness, slouching and staring at his phone in the middle of the restaurant. D’s bursts of anger, coupled with his family’s all-too-familiar-with-this reactions, were eerily similar to the rages 3 would fly into, leaving the rest of us awkwardly trying to pretend things were OK.

Now, of course, no mother wants to hear that her son is similar to 3; they all know how that story ends. Of course, 3 had plenty of admirable, innocuous traits. There’s nothing wrong with someone sharing 3’s love of sports or sense of humor. Hell, even his man-whoring ways aren’t indicative of suicidal tendencies. Still, seeing someone who reminds me so much of 3, and not in a good ways, was pretty jarring. D has a good heart and a wonderful family; I don’t think he’ll end up like 3. It’s just something else to consider now when someone reminds me of my brother.

The Whole Story

Over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten to spend time with friends I don’t get to see or speak to very often. I’m incredibly blessed to know some truly wonderful people, even beyond my immediate circle. As we get older and move apart physically, it’s obviously more difficult to keep in touch, but many of my friends and I have the fortunate ability to pick up where we left off, wasting no time with awkwardness when we do get a chance to talk.

Over Labor Day, I met up with Al, who, having met me in kindergarten, is officially my oldest friend. He and I bonded over being the only two students in the “advanced” reading group in our small, Catholic classroom. I treated our relationship as that of rivals – catty comments, comparing grades, and even shoving a plate of paint into his shirt one time. Al patiently withstood all my elementary school misbehavior, keeping in touch even after I moved away. I’m lucky to have found such a great example of friendship from so early in life.

Anyway! I hadn’t seen Al in about 5 years, though we keep in touch over Facebook and text. In that time, he’s gotten married and had 2 adorable kids. I, of course, got my PhD and lost my brother. Al knew this; being from my original hometown, he’s still part of the inimitable Midwest gossip circle. He apparently, however, did not know the full story. While we were eating lunch, I chatted about my upcoming vacation. Referring to it as I usually do, Al started at my reference to 3 shooting himself. With admirable composure, he commented that he didn’t know 3 had committed suicide. Oh.

I guess I just assumed that everyone who knows about 3’s death know the whole story, or had guessed as much by reading the “died in his home” part of the obituary. As we were saying our goodbyes (Al’s wife was putting the kids down for naps), Al again expressed his shock and sympathy that 3’s death had been worse than Al imagined it to be. I pointed out that I had not actually been the one to find 3’s body, as Al had done when his own father died a few years ago, so he and I are pretty even when it comes to unthinkable tragedy. It’s probably one of the many reasons we get along so well after 23 years of friendship.

In just the past week, I’ve also gotten to catch up with a few other friends: Dez and her husband, and E. First, I had a scheduled phone call with E, after not being able to meet up with her on one of my recent trips. I knew E was still struggling in her marriage, but I was convinced that I was going to talk about 3, just to make sure she knows. Yet, after an hour and a half of conversation, understandably mostly filled with descriptions of E’s unenviable living situation, the most I had managed to get out was an oblique reference to my father “losing his son” because of his own mental illness. Therefore, I still don’t know if E knows about 3. If she does, she hasn’t said anything.

Then, just yesterday, I met Dez at a football tailgate at our old university. I had obviously told her about 3, and I made an educated guess that her husband had read my essay in our alumni magazine (he’s a pretty involved alumni), so I had no qualms about using my “My brother shot himself, so I get a vacation” line. They both laughed; their appreciation for dark humor is just one of their many admirable qualities. I suppose after not being able to talk about 3 with E, I wanted some acknowledgement from friends that, yes, they know my brother shot himself.

I don’t know why this matters at all to me. Maybe, after almost 2 years, I still want sympathy, so I have to search for it in new places, from friends who have yet to tell me they’re sorry my brother died. Maybe part of me still feels deceptive for not sharing such a big part of my life with these people. I don’t know. I still don’t know how much my friends think about it, and never will. As I write this, I’m sitting in Not-Father-Pete’s apartment after spending the night here with Mr. & Mrs. MK after the football game. Somehow, last night, part of our conversation included numerous joking references to suicide. It took me a second to even remember that, hey, I have an intimate connection to suicide and maybe shouldn’t be laughing about it, but Not-Father-Pete kept going for a bit longer. I joined him, both out of habit and not wanting to awkwardly interrupt the flow of conversation, but it made me wonder: did Pete realize that any point that he’s joking about the thing that killed my brother?

I don’t think I’ll ever know. Pete’s not the kind of guy to bring things up later. (“Hey, remember what I said yesterday? That was kind of insensitive. Sorry.”) Were Dez and her husband uncomfortable with my glib reference? Neither of them would ever tell me if they were. And at this rate, E and I might never talk about 3. These different experiences with friends certainly make me grateful to be surrounded by such wonderful people, but they also make me more aware of the uncertainty that comes with suicide. No one knows how to react, and no one person is ever going to react perfectly. I obviously don’t.

There’s Luck in Isolation

I’ve written before about my increased need for control and my gratitude for not living back home. Since I moved back from Ireland, these feelings have only become more salient. This evening, I’ll fly back from Florida, hop into my car, and make the 3 hour drive back to my apartment, resettling into my comparatively solitary life. It’s been a truly fantastic vacation – I swear, I went entire days without thinking of all the work I have to do when I get back – but my isolated living situation has some therapeutic benefits, too.

In the past year, members of my family have faced more than their fair share of stressors. J’s husband had trouble settling into life in a new state, putting pressure on their marriage. RJ’s vapid roommate decided to move back in with her family, leaving RJ with no way to pay for the apartment and necessitating her move back home. RJ even considered moving in with Dad, but just before she could, she totaled her car, which ultimately led to her moving back in with Mom and Stepdad. SL bought a new house, which is exciting, but obviously, moving a family of 4 with two toddlers to a new city is not an easy or relaxing experience.

Then, there’s me. I’ve been loving being back at my home university, but things are certainly hectic. Applying for jobs is terrifying, and running a study on my own, however small, is an enduring test of my organizational and people skills. Yet, because I live on my own, I only have to worry about me. While J told many of her siblings about the bumps in her marriage, and Mom pretty much told everyone about RJ’s car crash, I have the luxury of sharing only what information I want to share. Yes, I can tell my family about applying for jobs, but I can water down the stressful aspect of it. If I have a bad day, I can deal with it by myself, without worrying anyone else. I just buy myself some Starbucks and watch TV at home until I fall asleep.

That sense of independence not only satisfies my desire for control, it also serves to minimize my opinion of any stress in my life. If Mom isn’t worried, if my sisters aren’t sending me supportive, consoling texts, then life can’t really be that bad, can it? And it’s not, obviously. I’ve got a TON going for me. 3’s death gets further and further away, and I feel like I can handle anything. By isolating myself to at least some degree, without people feeling sorry for me or acknowledging any difficulties, however minor, I get to act life everything is fine – there’s no one around to tell me otherwise :)

Marketable Coping Skills

I’m 10 days into my incredible vacation, relaxing in a Florida hotel room with Kay, watching TV over the too-loud air conditioner. Tomorrow, we’re headed to DisneyWorld to be big kids for a few days. Very exciting :)

Like I said last week, one of the things I’m escaping from on this trip is the pile of job applications I have to complete. Tenure-track professor positions require a lot of materials – a resume, cover letter, teaching statement, research statement, and letters of recommendation. I am fortunate enough to have plenty of wonderful advisors who agreed to write letters for me. However, my grad school mentor is very busy, so she asked me to write an outline of a recommendation for her to work from. What would I like her to say about me?

What can my grad school advisor say about me? What impressive things did I do in grad school? Personally, I think that writing and defending a dissertation within 2 months of my brother’s suicide is pretty good. I think holding it together, completing the culmination of 4.5 years of work and presenting it to a committee, half of whom didn’t know what I was going through, makes me a focused, dedicated researcher.

That’s not how it works, of course. Compartmentalizing your brother’s suicide isn’t a marketable skill, even if it’s a useful one. I can’t ask my advisor to write about what happened to me last year, and I can’t really bring it up in interviews. It’s been almost 2 years. I suppose it’s well past time I stop searching for positive things to come from 3’s death, for how his suicide can benefit me. It’s selfish.

Still, I do wish. I’m proud of how I worked through 3’s death, and I’m proud of the work I did that semester. I know everyone deals with their own shit all the time, and we shouldn’t get extra credit for doing our jobs, but since 3’s death is still the biggest thing that’s happened to me, I  kind of want it to apply to everything else, even my job search.