[personal profile] eye_of_a_cat
A relative of mine is - I think, we think - mentally ill. This has been building for a while, with suspicions and secrets and hushed phone calls between those around them, but it has now reached a point where it is no longer possible for this relative to hide the fact that something is very, very wrong. In fact, a lot of somethings are wrong. Personality changes. Memory lapses. Paranoia, impulsivity, anger, obsession, despair.

But they will not see a doctor. They will not hear of it. Nothing is wrong, according to them! Nothing, that is, apart from the family who are harassing them, conspiring against them, trying to steal their money, trying to make them miserable. "Are you feeling all right?" is bullying. Tears are emotional blackmail. Nobody really cares about them, nobody's really interested, it's all just an act to get at them.

And what can you do? You can't drag them to see a doctor, and even if you could it wouldn't help, they can bullshit anyone for fifteen minutes. You can't get health services involved without the patient's consent unless they're a danger to themselves or others, and they're not. (Not yet, at least). So about all you can do is what I've been doing today: write a letter to their doctor, describing all your concerns, and cross your fingers that at some point your loved one will end up in the doctor's office and be helped.

Writing that letter has been... hard. Nothing in it is new information, but seeing it all written down together has really brought home just how very obviously bad this situation is, how the person this is describing is someone very, very unwell. And this is just the stuff we know about; what else has happened that we don't?

They are from a different generation, this relative. We have been telling each other this like it's some comfort - and I think it is in its way. Mental illness is not spoken of, where they come from. Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, those don't happen to them. They would probably tell you - if they were well, if they were speaking to you - that people these days are too interested in taking pills, too keen on medicalising normal human emotions, that all of this wasn't around when they were younger.

In a way they might be right. It's not like the 21st century has reached the ultimate pinnacle of understanding on mental illness; we have our myths and pseudosciences about it, we talk about rebalancing brain chemicals like our ancestors talked about rebalancing humours, we still have a long way to go in many different areas. But they would not be right in telling you that any of this is new. When they were younger, mental illness walked around under different faces and different names. It was 'bad nerves'. It was people taken away to asylums. It was the men back from the war who were never the same again.

In my working life, I spend much of each day reading 18th-century letters to doctors. The terminology is different, the treatments are different, but in all the accounts of melancholia and hysteria and hypochondriasis, the voices you hear sound familiar all the same. These people were someone's relatives and loved ones, too. They're still people's relatives today. Maybe your ancestors, maybe mine, but definitely someone's - just like someone in the same situation was definitely ours.

Maybe this is your 9x-great-grandmother, the wife of a West Indies plantation owner, who every few months goes through 'paroxysms' in which 'the mind is remarkably dejected, despondent and apt to convert trivial circumstances into insurmountable difficulties', accompanied by 'deep sighs, wailing and tears'.

Maybe this is someone's many-time-great-uncle, the young man who went off to seek his fortune in trade, and succeeded - and then began writing to his friends that "his life has become a burden to him", and is eventually brought back home raving and nonsensical, spending his days digging holes in the garden and putting flowers in his hat, and running away from anyone he recognised. "Could anything be thought of that might be a means to his recovery," his sister writes, "we would Gladly have it try'd." He is twenty-three years old.

Maybe this is a distant cousin, the soldier back from the war in America who withdraws from his friends, begins "muttering and speaking to himself", then becomes "more lively and flighty than was natural to him, sudden and impetuous in his motions," then begins riding by himself at night, growing agitated with his friends, and "imagines an Invasion of this Country is to take place immediatly and he is often employ'd in contriving the means of defeating & preventing it."

Maybe this is a great-grandfather, the preacher from a remote island community whose name is scored out as he begged no-one be allowed to reveal it. "I cannot describe it to you any other way than by telling you that I was apt to imagine myself in a dream, rather than in real life," he writes. "I continually feel like one more than half drunk... My judgement and memory are greatly impaired. The association of my ideas is always irregular, & sometimes, I think, partakes of folly. It is intirely lost after I go to bed, & numberless images float in my brain without order or connection... The most unaccountable ideas arise in my mind, my heart is chilled with horror, the bed seems to sink under me, & every thing eludes my grasp." Later: "I am sure I need not farther paint the miseries of my situation - unless it be to tell you that, if I die, I shall leave behind a wife, & two fartherless children." And later still: "For many reasons, I wish no one in the world but you to be acquainted with my disorder."

And all those families and friends around them, worried and helpless, writing to doctors because they didn't know what else they could do. I feel just like them now.
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