Trying to rescue David from the system.
My brother has always been strange. Growing up in the '70s, a time when other boys traded Silver Surfer comics and Tom Seaver cards, David collected fish tails from a local supermarket. He played the trombone, listened to Christian rock band Petra and filled sketchbooks with a cartoon chipmunk named "Chucky."
By the time he reached high school in our North Jersey town, he'd grown into an easy target for those eager to exploit his oddness, lazy eye and gentle nature. In time, he came to identify with their brutal version of who he was--but I never did.
He was 11 years my senior, and as a child I found him pleasingly weird, with a striking talent for fixing things: clocks, stereos, the family car. But in the summer of 1991, a year out of college and living in Manhattan, David's mind broke, leading him into the murk of acute bipolar disorder. For this, the fix has not come so easily.
I was 13 when it happened, and got the news from my mother when she picked me up from camp. Struggling with my bags as we walked to the car, I asked why David hadn't responded to my letters, and the response was jarring. He'd been arrested on 13th Street, not far from his apartment, ranting about the Gulf War and the United Bank of Switzerland.
At the time, my understanding of mental illness was limited to Cobra Commander and Jack Nicholson in Batman; imagining my brother as "crazy" didn't make any sense. This was the guy who took me to Yankee games and Central Park and the Strand. As my mother and I headed home in the rusting family Corolla, I assured myself that despite her unusually grave tone, he'd be okay. I had no idea.
For the next 17 years, David languished in various New Jersey hospitals, save for a few brief, hopeful periods that inevitably ended with a frantic 911 call. He had become beholden to delusions that were, to him, incredibly vivid: He was a secret Swiss agent; he was sensitive to radio waves; he was spearheading an initiative for "electronic democracy."
Holidays became marked by tense weekend homecomings and unhappy trips to the hospital, where I learned that, for once, the movies had it right. The wards were invariably dismal, claustrophobic and filled with the suffering--and there was my brother, right along with them.
As the awkward Christmases and ruined Thanksgivings accrued, any early hope that he could return to the endearing, garrulous man he had been was replaced by a weary resignation: This is how it is. For someone who's never dealt with a loved one's mental illness, this slow distancing might seem cold, even cruel. But it became the natural response to someone who'd become, seemingly overnight, a near-total stranger.
He looked the same, although a bit heavier, wearing the discarded clothing picked up during his stays at Greystone, Bellevue and Cedar Grove. But the spark that once went toward corny jokes and inappropriate dances had been heightened and funneled into a spiraling series of fantasies. During a visit or phone call, the only way to cope was to lean back in the chair, stare at the floor and think about something else.
My father, who David had taken after in looks and demeanor, took the illness particularly hard, quietly assuming the blame for his eldest son's dissolution. My mother, meanwhile, took action, determinedly seeking remedies and discussing the situation with sorrow, but little shame.
I devised a more cowardly approach. For years when I sensed that a conversation might lead to his mention, I'd throw up a roadblock. Asked innocent questions--"Hey, what's your brother up to?"--I'd respond with thin lies about a normal life, lived slightly out of my range of interest. Even now the majority of my childhood friends, I'm sure, aren't aware of his condition.
Cutting him off this way, both from myself and from others, was a tidy course of action, straight out of a Yates novel. In blocking him access to most of my life, I became inured to the unpleasant realities of his. I had a brother three times a year: on his birthday, on Thanksgiving and on Christmas; the rest of the time, I was effectively an only child.
Early last September, that changed. I was forced to confront my brother's reality when he was released in error from Essex County Hospital Center. Following three days on the streets and benches of New York, he hopped a bus to Philadelphia--crossing state lines and, in the process, plunging my parents, my wife and me into the swirling bureaucracy of Pennsylvania's mental healthcare system.
I was at home in Bella Vista when he called. Last I'd heard he'd "eloped" from the hospital and was wandering his old East Village haunts. This was nothing new; many times over the years, his ward status had been upgraded, giving him a bit of freedom--and he'd simply walk off, winding up in Manhattan, then Bellevue, then back at the hospital he'd started from.
PW's Winter Coffee Tour
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