Trying to understand
Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series about mental health issues in Nevada County. Click here to read the second article in the series, . Click here to read the third article in the series,
Alice was bent over outside my window the first Sunday in April, picking up things she’d hurled during a five-day spell of ranting and raving – induced, she said, by ants in her medication.
“Are you better now?” I asked, stepping out for a cigarette and wondering who Alice would be that day.
She didn’t answer, but squinting, asked what day it was. She held her hand up to block the sun like she’d just crawled out of a cave after being holed up for days.
“Isn’t today Wednesday?” she asked.
Alice started crying when I told her it was Sunday, wondering what had happened to the five days she’d lost.
It’s been nearly two years since I moved into the apartment under Alice’s.
The first couple of weeks, I thought someone else was living up there with her.
Then I realized she’d been talking to herself all along.
And there’s nothing wrong with that – sometimes I talk to myself.
But when Alice goes over the edge and starts screaming back at the voices in her head, it’s easy to throw her into that faceless mold society has cast for the mentally ill.
Alice’s five-day tirade began the Tuesday before, when the ants got into her medication and she flushed it down the toilet.
Small-talking to herself escalated into shouting, cursing, shrieking and demented conversations with no one – at least no one I could see.
By Friday, after three sleepless nights, I was at my wit’s end.
But Alice was still making noise, like a methamphetamine addict on a weeklong binge or a bipolar person stuck in manic mode.
I called my landlady and told her what was happening with Alice.
One of us, I said, had to go.
I was tired and had put up with her quirks long enough – the vacuuming at three in the morning, the never-ending talking to herself and the rages.
On my way home from work Friday night, I hoped someone had taken her away – I didn’t care who or where – as long as she was gone and it was quiet.
Had I lost compassion for my fellow humans, become cold and uncaring from writing too many stories about other people’s misery?
I arrived at my apartment to find Alice had taken the noise and bizarre behavior up a notch.
Her incoherent babbling had escalated into shouts of suicide.
I called the police. I began with my sleep-deprived story about the crazy lady upstairs who said she was going to kill herself. I was put on hold.
I hung up and called the county’s 24-hour Mental Health Crisis Line. I was told by the voice on the other end that Alice didn’t meet the criteria for an involuntary hold because her behavior didn’t constitute a credible threat to her life.
The call turned into a counseling session for me about how to deal with the mentally disturbed.
Maybe I needed it, along with a dose of tolerance and empathy.
Had I called out of concern for Alice’s safety, or
because I wanted her taken away so I could finally get some sleep?
Although sometimes I wonder about the things Alice tells me, I can believe the ant bit. They invaded my apartment too.
But when ants get into the sugar, a rational person throws it out and replaces it with more sugar, instead of letting the world spin into chaos, said Robert Erickson, the county’s director of Behavioral Health.
I suspected from the beginning that something wasn’t quite right with Alice.
But what drives her, for instance, to cover her windows with blankets, hole up in her apartment for days and shout that her head won’t shut up?
And who’s to say Alice is any less sane than those of us who can’t begin the day without that first cup of coffee, or make it through the day without half a pack of cigarettes or this or that pill?
I decided to do a story and began looking for answers. Alice’s name has been changed here to protect her identity.
Had Alice ever been committed or diagnosed? Or is she one of the 46 million Americans who have a mental disorder in a given year, but don’t seek treatment and are never diagnosed, in part because of the stigma associated with mental illness?
Alice’s older brother and sister-in-law told me her mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and committed to a mental institution in the early 1960s. Alice and her two other brothers were placed in foster homes.
“When mom had her last go-around, the neighbors called the police and they took her away,” said her brother, who was in the sixth grade at the time. “Child Protective Services took the kids – all three were in diapers – and I came home to an empty house.”
When Alice’s two other brothers reached their late teens, they too were committed and remain in Northern California sanitariums to this day, he said.
Alice is afraid because her mother and two brothers were committed, her sister-in-law said.
“She really needs help, but it’s hard to give help to someone who doesn’t want it,” she said.
“I think Alice is afraid that if she was evaluated, they wouldn’t let her go,” said her brother, who added that he doesn’t think Alice has ever been diagnosed.
The risk of developing an illness is increased if another family member is similarly affected, suggesting a strong hereditary component, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
“I have a funny feeling she has the same condition (as her mother and brothers), but not as serious,” her brother said. “She can maintain, I’ve seen her maintain, but she has her times.”
Before schizophrenia took over, Alice’s brother said, his mom was the immaculate housewife who always kept the home spotless and cooked meals for the family every night.
Then it all changed and she started talking to herself and yelling, screaming and swearing, he said.
“I’ve always been embarrassed by the whole situation,” he said.
Like millions of Americans in her shoes, Alice is living in fear of the past. But the mental health care system has changed from the quick-to-commit mentality of the 1960s to a more humane approach, Erickson said.
Improved medications that didn’t exist before and medical science breakthroughs have led to revolutionary changes in the treatment of mental illnesses, said Lael Walz, president of the Nevada County chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.
“Nowadays, a person who is diagnosed with a mental illness has a good chance of recovering,” Walz said. “But it’s all about breaking down that stigma, which is such a barrier to treatment.”
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