With Alzheimer's, he seems to focus a lot on the past, the distant past particularly, and tell stories from 50 years ago, whereas he frequently forgets what he said 5 minutes ago. He was talking to me today, and we hit on an interesting subject. It's a subject that has been a tabboo topic in my family for my entire life. I have known about it since early adulthood, but I was never privy to any conversations with my grandparents where it was mentioned, except when I was told never to bring it up again. It is the subject of my great-aunt who committed suicide. My grandfather's sister. Her name was Fern.
She lived in rural Texas. It was the early 1940's. My Pop Pop, as we call him, was 11 years old. As he told me today, he heard screaming. He ran into her room. She said, "Help me! I drank stricknine!" He ran and told his family. His brother tried to start the car but it wouldn't start. So his brother ran to his teacher's house, who had a car. Two hours later, she arrived, according to the story as he told it today. Then Fern got taken to a hospital. The teacher came back that night, alone. His mother screamed and cried for a week. Fern was dead.
"She did it deliberately," he said. "And the thing I don't understand, I'll never understand, is why she could do that when she had two kids. How could anybody do that when they had two kids??" He said, "There must have been something wrong with her mind. I think there was a brain problem."
I think. there was. a brain. problem.
70 years, and this man has never talked to me about this, or talked to, as far as I know, hardly anyone about it. And now his grief is coming out, now that he's dealing with Alzheimer's, and his wife is gone, and he's remembering old history all the time. And he's remembering his sister who was 19 and committed suicide, even though she had a husband and two sons. His sister who he loved. His sister who I know nothing about because all my life she has been a tabboo subject, and I haven't been allowed to learn a thing about her. His sister, the source of pain for so many people for so long. His sister who died of mental illness.
Three days ago, I went to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Florida Conference in Sarasota, FL. To get there, I had to drive over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The significance of this eluded me as I focused on studying for my final exam for Spanish class, and visiting my grandfather, and getting to work, and finding someone to feed my cats while I was at the conference. Then I was there. It was the first time I had driven across that bridge since 2005, when I tried to drive off of that bridge into the water. The bridge is 150 feet high. It is a landmark for suicides here. People commit suicide by jumping off all the time. My novel idea of driving off came only after years of contemplating jumping off, and never doing it because of my fear it wouldn't work. When I was hearing the voices telling me to drive off the bridge, they were screaming at me through the car radio, and I was seeing the messages on billboards, and I was hearing the messages everywhere I went. "Die, Anne," they would say, because I was Anne Frank, and I was meant to die. I was supposed to drive right off that bridge.
I took my mother's car, and I drove to the top of the bridge, sped up to top speed, and veered the steering wheel sharply to the right in an effort to force the car over the guardrail. The police later told my mom that the car had flipped three times, according to eyewitnesses. I survived with my soul intact.
Thursday, this past week, I drove over that bridge. "I can't do this" I thought. "What if the voices start up again?" I told myself, "BREATHE". "JUST BREATHE". I said outloud, "My name is Jennifer. I am driving a Toyota Camry. I am driving over the Skyway Bridge. It is December 6, 2012. I can do this. I am going to be fine. I am here and my right foot is on the gas peddle, and my left foot is on the floor of the car. My hands are gripping the steering wheel. I feel them. I am driving this car."
And I made it.
When I got to the other side of the bridge, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was like having run a marathon. I was shaky, but I knew it would be alright now. I had done it. I still thought about it a lot for the next three days. I talked about it. I told people at the conference. "I just drove over the Skyway Bridge for the first time since I attempted suicide there seven years ago". I needed to tell someone. Somebody asked me, "Why didn't you ask one of us to ride with you?" I didn't think of it, I said. Because I hadn't.
I thought about Dick from our NAMI affiliate, and how whenever I talk with him to a group of people, such as the police during Crisis Intervention Team training, he likes to make sure I get the story of the Skyway Bridge in there, because he always says how the audience's jaws drop, and they are shocked to hear it. It helps them to understand it is real. I thought about how Dick's wife Nancy was dying of cancer and how I would like to tell them both, "Guess what??!! I drove over the Skyway Bridge again!!"
The next night I got the email. Nancy passed away. I never got the chance to tell her. Nancy was a one in a million heroine. Someone who, when her family member had a mental illness, she stepped up to the plate and said, "No, I will not be silent. No, I will not be ignorant. No, I will not put on deaf ears. No, I will not be told it is a tabboo subject. Yes, I will talk about it." Nancy and Dick answered the helpline for NAMI Pinellas every single day for most of the past 15 years. Even during her cancer treatment and her difficulties, even during that, they didn't want to give up the helpline. They liked to talk to other family members, and to consumers, and give them advice, and listen to them. They are amazing people. Not everyone can do what Dick and Nancy did. Not everyone has NAMI to go to. My grandfather didn't. He lived in rural Texas, and he wasn't college educated, nor was his family. They didn't know about psychiatry, and they didn't know about NAMI in the 1940's because NAMI didn't exist then. So they did what they thought was best. They stopped talking about Fern. It was too painful. It was better left unsaid.
But I am Fern. 70 years after her death, I still live with serious mental illness. Unlike her, I am not dead. Not for lack of trying, but only for bueno suerte (good luck). (I got an A on my Spanish exam, I think.) I am unlike Fern, because I know how to get help. I didn't know how in 2007 because I thought all psychiatrists were part of the New World Order/ Illuminati conspiracy to kill people like me and to make us give birth to unwanted babies. But I do know how to get help now. I do have access to medications. There are medications availasble to help me. Fern, she might have been told that only a labotomy would work, if she had even had access to medical care, which she did not have. She was dirt poor in rural Texas in the 1940's and where did she have to turn to? Who could she talk to? Who would have told her "these are symptoms of a disease in your brain"?
I can only hope to honor her memory now by keeping it alive here, and never letting her be forgotten. I wrote a poem about her once, years ago. I can't remember anything but the first couple lines, "Her name was Fern/ she grew amongst the wild tumbleweeds of Texas". My hope is that 70 years from now, we will no longer have to be silent about our close escapes. We will be able to look at our family members and say "I tried to kill myself too, several times and it almost worked. I did it because I have a serious mental illness just like a lot of other people in this family". My hope is that it won't take 70 years for us to get to that point.