Inside/Outside

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Wasted Lives


It seems I never open the newspaper without reading another story about a veteran from Iraq and/or Afghanistan taking his or her own life. Today the story was about a twenty-four year old who overdosed on the pills the VA had given him for his post-traumatic stress disorder. He apologized in his suicide note. He said that he was happier now.

I hate reading these stories. But I always read them. It seems like the least I can do. In addition to the horror of the stories themselves, they also make me think of my step-son, my late husband’s middle son. He’s in his sixties now, a paranoid schizophrenic who broke in Vietnam. He chopped off the index finger of his right hand.

I didn’t meet Mark until he was thirty, but I understand he was a troubled adolescent. He enlisted in the Navy. He probably should never have been accepted. Since his initial break, he’s never had a time that he hasn’t been plagued by psychotic thoughts, despite therapy, despite every drug in the book. He’s spent his entire life in hospitals and half-way houses – and occasional jails - a constant worry to all who love and care about him.

Mark is more on my mind these days, not only because of all the newspaper stories, but because he’s been particularly disturbed since Christmas. This time the reason he needed to escape into psychosis is particularly clear. My husband was Mark’s rock. His older sister, Melodee, and younger brother, John, have stepped in to try and fill my husband’s role since his death five years ago. John calls Mark every day; Melodee handles his finances. For the first two years, Mark did pretty well. He dealt with my husband’s illness, actually came to see him in hospice, and attended his memorial service. He knew that his father was dead.

Then, about three years ago, he couldn’t handle that reality anymore. He decided that his Dad was still alive and that I was hiding and caring for him. Sometimes this thinking was delusional; at other times it seemed more like a fantasy that he needed to maintain. He wouldn’t see me anymore, wouldn’t call the house and certainly wouldn’t come to visit, since doing any of those things would challenge his belief that his Dad was alive.  

Melodee was visiting with me for Christmas. No one expected Mark to come. Then, much to all our surprise, several days before Christmas, Mark told Melodee that he realized that she was going on with her life and that he needed to go on with his. He wanted to come for Christmas. We decided that a family gathering on Christmas Eve would be most manageable for Mark. Melodee spent all of Sunday preparing Mark’s favorite foods. She would pick him up on Monday and bring him to the house. She called on Sunday night to confirm. Mark was beyond crazy, ranting, screaming, convinced that he was under attack, that everyone was out to get him. Melodee started crying. She had allowed herself to hope, to expect that this time Mark would be able to carry through on a logical and thought out plan. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t accept his Dad was dead. However terrifying, being crazy was preferable to facing reality. 

Mark’s been doing really poorly since then. He’s been in and out of the hospital and is about ready to go back in. He’s not even willing to talk with his siblings. He’s fortunate that the assisted living where he’s been staying for a number of years is as tolerant as they are, willing to take him back between hospital stays, despite his psychotic ranting, despite the fact that he can be a pretty scary guy.

I imagine if the parents whose twenty-four year old son just committed suicide should read this blog, they’d say, but at least Mark is still alive, at least Mark had a life. I couldn’t argue with that. And I’m not comparing one tragedy with another. But Mark’s life is a tragedy. He’s rarely had a few days of peace in over forty years. That’s a long time to be tortured by your own mind. That’s a long time to be trapped with the internal demons you can’t escape.

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