A few months ago I started a blog, Familiar Minds, dedicated to eliminating the stigma of mental illness, one story at a time. The blog is inspired by the loss of my own brother, Tim, who battled with paranoid schizophrenia before taking his life. In the blog, I've posted about a dozen stories from people around the country sharing about their family members as well as their own struggles with mental illness. A couple of months ago, a community colleague, Renee Turner Gregory, who I've known for about 10 years shared a piece, What If, that she wrote about her niece. She's given me permission, in turn, to share the story with you in hopes that it might heal and give courage to others. Many know Renee: She is a lawyer by day, while also finding time to serve on countless committees. She is a member of Community Board #3, the Brooklyn Alumnae Chapter, Delta Sigma Theta, and the Brownstoners of Bedford Stuyvesant. The Girl Scout leader and St. Philip's Episcopal Church parishioner is married and has one son and three granddaughters.
I met Stacey, my husband’s younger cousin, when she was fifteen years old. My son was a year or two younger. I was off from work during the summer, so I brought Stacey into our home because she was home alone during the day. Her mother was a nurse.
As Stacey spent time with us I noticed that she had a very poor concept of self. When I took her shopping for clothing, she would select items off the rack that were a size 5, 7, or 9. Stacey was easily a size 12 or 14. She would become absolutely infuriated when I would not buy her the small sized items unless she was willing to try them on in the fitting room.
I also observed that her mood would swing from high to low. During the lows, Stacey would be verbally abusive to family and sleep for unusual periods of time. During the highs, Stacey would laugh uncontrollably, speak in a high pitch voice, and talk excessively. I got up the nerve to speak to my husband. He chalked it off to “this is Stacey”. I spoke to my mother-in-law and she felt that Stacey was going through the teen-age years. I let it go. I recognized denial.
Stacey went to school in England when she was 18. By the second semester, Stacey was wildly spending on her American Express card. She spent $8,000.00 on nothing substantial in a couple of weeks. The school called her mother to come to England. When mom arrived she found Stacey in her freezing cold room, lying naked under a sheet. Her room was a wreck. Stacey’s mom brought Stacey home to the states and the situation went from bad to worse. There were incidents of inappropriate interactions with young men, violence towards mom, wild spending sprees, and stalking a popular performer.
Stacey’s mom could not take the pressure from family members. She is going to be an attorney, and I do not want the fact that she had psychiatric treatment on her record. Stacey and her mom moved to Jamaica, WI to escape family scrutiny. Regularly we would hear from family in Jamaica that Stacey’s mental and physical health was deteriorating rapidly. Her weight ballooned up to over three hundred and seventy five pounds.
In July 2009, Stacey and her mom came up to visit. She would call my husband several times a day making irrational demands and was verbally abusive and even threatened to kill me. Shortly after arriving in the US, she was hospitalized. She remained in intensive care in a coma for three months until she died at the age of 37.
For over twenty years, the family attributed her behaviors to teen-age woes, menstruation, being rude, etc. The topic of Stacey was like the pink elephant in the room. No one was willing to discuss options to help Stacey. Everyone remained in denial until the end. I was surprised to hear Stacey’s mother make a passionate statement at Stacey’s funeral about her mental health issues. Unfortunately, her acknowledgment of Stacey’s mental health treatment needs came too late to help Stacey.
Years later my husband and I still talk about what we could have done to change the course of Stacey’s life. While there were many times that we were so frustrated with Stacey’s behavior, we have come to the realization that she was really miserable. Stacey was crying out for help and no one answered. This fact has left my husband with a lot of guilt. He feels directly responsible for Stacey’s demise. I too feel guilt and remorse that I could not do a better job to educate the family. How would I educate them when my knowledge of how to handle this issue was and is still limited?
If you have a story and would like to be featured in this blog and Familiar Minds, please check out www.familiarminds.wordpress.com.