By far, this was my most challenging blog to write. I chose this topic in my last blog for a reason, and vowed to write about this topic in 3 or 4 blogs. But I struggled to find the words to articulate what I felt or what I wanted to say. So I wrote and re-wrote this blog 6 or 7 times in the past month. Each time with a new direction and focus but I only accomplished filling up my delete folder quickly. Should I share societies point of view on the topic of mental health, or should I make this more personal, about me, my family, or a friend perhaps. We all know someone who has suffered a Mental Illness. Heck, everyone has from time to time. We are human after all. But what defines Mental Health? Wikipedia defines it as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”. Okay. That’s a mouthful of garbage but suppose it’s a good definition of being healthy, mentally to cope with what life throws your way. Since the month of May is Mental Health Awareness month, it is fitting that I finish this blog on the last day of the month. I prayed for direction a month ago on this topic. I deferred as long as I could and now, on this Memorial Day, May 31, 2021, I realize what I need to say.
I am not an expert on mental health, but I’ve had my share of problems and challenges, like most. And in many cases, I was harder on myself than I needed to. When you are struggling with depression, anxiety, or whatever, it can be hard to see or recognize the help you need. Why? I suspect because of the negative connotation and public perception around mental health disorders and illnesses. Which may account for why I struggled writing this blog. I wanted to say something about mental health but wasn’t quite sure what I could offer. It wasn’t that I was afraid of being vulnerable or exposed – I have gotten over that years ago. It was remembering the difficult chapters in my life – chapters in my childhood, rejection from my mother, and the struggles to make it through college on my own, not knowing where my next meal would come from or how I would survive, or make it to adulthood. Those were dark days and one day I will share more. I will, but not yet since those memories are difficult to recall and still sensitive for me, even today.
But on this Memorial Day, I want to remember my brother who gave his all for his country. While he did not die on the battlefield, he did lose something in the service. He and his high school friend joined the Navy shortly after graduating from high school. Both young and eager to see the world. I remember being proud and happy for him but I don’t think I ever told him that. While I was working 50-60 hours a week to support myself through college, he was serving out his term in the military. He chose one path, I chose another. We lost touch in those early years. Being estranged from my family, I did not know how to contact him, nor he to contact me. Eventually we lost contact with each other. There was no internet or cell phone that made it easy to stay connected. Back then, you used land lines and written letters to communicate – that’s how you stayed connected. There wasn’t instant messaging, selfies or other social media. Those were simpler times and it made getting together again much more appreciative than what people experience today. A few times I called the Navy to find him but got the run around – he was out to sea, they would look for him, yada yada yada, but I was always told they would get a message to him. I don’t know if he ever received my messages, but I never heard from him while he served out the remainder of his service. We drifted apart, losing connection which was not unlike so many military personnel back then.
While I went about my life, eventually graduating from college, I thought about my brother a lot – where was he, was he happy, what was he doing……so many questions. I didn’t know and the other relatives that stayed in contact with me didn’t know either. Then one day a cousin called to tell me she found him. He was in a VA hospital and only knew that he had been traumatized somehow while serving abroad…He was in the VA hospital in the USA. She didn’t know why but only understood something happened on a ship while at sea and they decided it was best that he was admitted to the hospital. I called my mother and demanded she tell me more but she would not share anything. She eventually hung up on me when I insisted that she tell me where he was – she knew, she didn’t want to share. That’s what happens when you are estranged from your family.
After a few days of calling around, I found which hospital he was in and took off a few days to go visit him. He was in the mental health ward of the hospital – a part of a hospital that no one should see. It reminded me of the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, a 1975 movie starting Jack Nicholson. I saw first hand the de-humanizing treatment these institutional powers had over these patients. When I saw my brother for the fist time, I could not believe it was him. He physically did not look the same. He was so drugged that he could not speak and his eyes could not make contact with him. Was he in there somewhere? I recall being furious and demanded to see the doctor, to no avail. I eventually learned that he suffered from something similar to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but in his case, it was severe. It took some time for me to adjust to his new life. And from what I witnessed and observed in the few trips I made to the hospital, I’m definitely not a fair critic of institutionalizing and drugging people so they can barely function in society. For me, it became personal. I saw humans at their worst, and it was scary.
I never learned what happened to my brother but the results could not be changed. What’s done is done and he paid his life for his country – just not on the battlefield. It was hard for me to come to grips with his new state. He spent the rest of his life in and out of various VA hospitals and over the years we lost touch again. It wasn’t until he passed away a few years ago that I learned more. He was on full military disability for the rest of his life. He continued to struggle with mental illness until his death.
I learned to accept that mental illness can affect anyone. You see for me, I remember my brother as being a goofball, a funny kid, a follower who never really took life too seriously, but always wanted to be the life of the party. He was happy just getting by and wanted everyone around him to be as happy as he was. But society judged him for that. People would comment. People would say it was sad what happened. But I believe he was happy. He had a son that is now part of my life. A goofball like his dad. A goofball that he and his dad are proud of. My brother will always live in my heart and I will always remember the little boy and childish behaviors and have no regrets in how things landed for him. He lived life his way the best way he could and I was proud to be his big brother.
Thanks for serving little brother! To you and the others that gave it all so that we could live free in America. You are not forgotten.
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