My Family History of Mental Illness

I remember my grandmother in her baggy dresses that covered every inch of her body like the shrouds that covered the furniture when the summer folk had left for the season. My cousin Heidi was surprised when I told her that my grandmother — her aunt — had spent many hours of each day lying in bed.

“But she was always so jolly, so friendly.”

“Yes,” I said. “She could be like that. Like so many of us she knew how to fake happiness.” I do not mean that as a slander. I admire how she could pull herself together despite her suffering and be there.

I know my grandmother loved me. When I was young, she used to get in big fights with my mother for the way she mistreated me. The rows were long and loud — I would go to the very back of the yard so that I could not hear them.

My mother had her own problems: there was a deep-seated meanness in her. She disparaged my grandmother when we were alone together, complaining about what she thought as Stella’s laziness. When I was depressed, she was panicked at the thought that would do the same, so she hectored me about getting a job — any job — no matter how inappropriate or soul-killing it was. Once, when she was in the hospital with roof-busting high blood pressure, I told the doctor about our family secret. A psychiatrist prescribed Prozac. For three months, she was a nice person.

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Joel is the founder of DBSA South Orange County. He received a degree in Anthropology from Pomona College, one of Forbes Magazine's ten top undergraduate schools. His manic adventures include traveling to former Yugoslavia during the 1992 war, believing he was the Creator of a messed up Universe, road rages, and running up $40,000 in credit card bills. He lives with his wife, dog, and cat in Trabuco Canyon, California.

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