Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Mental Illness is a Charnel house from which Nobody Escapes Unscathed

by Roger Cohen

My father came home from work and found the bedroom doors closed. He thought little of it. June was often in bed. He fixed himself a whiskey, sat down with the papers. It was a mild summer’s evening, sunlight glinting through the trees, clouds of gnats against the fence. June’s cycles were running at three-month intervals. With luck, come September she would be active again. Sydney tossed the papers aside. He tried the bedroom door. It was locked. He raced around to the other door, from the bathroom.

It was locked. He ran outside. The net curtains were drawn. The windows looked sealed. On closer inspection, one was very slightly ajar.

My mother lay sprawled on the bed, a bottle of gin beside her. She had taken large doses of doxepin and Valium, washed down with the gin. Her arms were thrown back behind her head.

Her pupils were scarcely responsive, her breathing shallow. The suicide note written to my father was beside her bed: “You are made to do great things, make immensely useful discoveries to aid all mankind and I’m leaving you to continue unimpeded by my burden. I so much hoped to help you and to help you and to love and adore you ...” June survived, just. The emetic effect of the gin probably saved her. She vowed to us all that she would never again “resort to such a drastic step.” But death was always the cajoling voice in her ear.

June tried to kill herself again on June 15, 1982. Again there was a suicide note. Again, she survived, barely. At last cancer took her on Jan. 2, 1999, at age 69.

Mental illness is a charnel house from which nobody escapes unscathed. My parents’ marriage, in its last two decades, was filled with terrible silences and fierce eruptions. After the loss of my mother, I had to find vitality at any price. Every relationship was a mausoleum in the making.

Roger Cohen is a columnist and the author of “The Girl From Human Street,” a memoir, from which this essay is adapted.

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