Monday, December 21, 2015

Remembering the Lost and Wounded


 Our local paper, The Pocono Record, runs a column on Sundays entitled “Yesterday” which provides a look into the past by means of news items from bygone days. One item which appeared yesterday was originally published on Saturday, Dec. 26, 1903:

• “For time past Robert Smith, of Sterling, and known in Barrett and Coolbaugh townships, a veteran of the sixties, has been acting queerly and at times was quite ‘off his base,’ so to speak, and on Saturday he was taken to Honesdale for examination so that the necessary papers could be executed and he could be taken to some asylum.”

Since one of the protagonists in the book I am currently at work on is bipolar, I found this an intriguing entry which made me pause and think about Mr. Robert Smith, apparently a veteran of the Civil War. Wounded, undoubtedly; perhaps not physically, but wounded in spirit. In need of help which he never received, because those wounds weren’t recognized in that long ago time.

“… so that the necessary papers could be executed and he could be taken to some asylum.” I remember the Tennessee Williams play from which was made a gripping film, Suddenly, Last Summer. I remember One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, an extraordinary book made into an equally gripping film. Civil War veteran Robert Smith’s admission was quite probably to an asylum in that mold.

Those asylums were all shut down (Deinstitutionalization, it was called) some seventy years after Robert Smith’s admission to one. A mixed blessing. Many people who were still deeply disturbed were released into the general population. I’ve read it’s possible that as many as a third of the homeless people in this country are desperately in need of psychiatric help.

 I’ve been researching my w.i.p., working title Jamie’s Children, for over a year with help from my friend Dr. Andrew Rennekamp, a research Ph.D. at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Dr. Andrew is working towards finding alternative treatments for mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder. He’s helping me to understand my character Niall Logan, a sweet boy, a troubled young man, a man with a terrible disease he has to learn to live with. There is no cure.

Niall is always in my head. That’s part of being a writer … it’s not a nine to five gig. It’s always there. Yesterday morning I woke up at three a.m. and realized something vital about another character in the book, Niall’s steadfast girlfriend, Bonnie. Why she was so devoted to him. I knew it had to be more than that she was deeply in love with him.

Who knows where inspiration comes from? I like to think my characters tell me these things. And in a way, they do; they become completely real to me. Bonnie told me about a troubling experience she had with a high school friend who suffered from clinical depression. It came to a bad end. She never wanted that to happen to Niall.

Niall is fortunate in that his family has money, that he is loved, that he receives help in a facility where the professionals are competent and caring. But for every Niall Logan who has access to this kind of assistance … how many Robert Smiths are out there, who desperately need help they never receive? How many people with mental illnesses go undiagnosed, or untreated, or both?

So at this time of year, when families celebrate being together if they are able; I’m also thinking of those people who cannot, who for one reason or another are estranged from those they love. I’ve already learned a lot by working on this book. I also know that I will always do what I can to make people aware of mental illness; and bipolar disorder in particular.

It’s much more common than we know – or than we want to admit. More often, we still prefer to look the other way. It’s a lifelong battle. Those who fight it are courageous people who deserve our compassion, and even more, our respect.