My Brother's Keeper

Trying to rescue David from the system.

By Jacob Lambert
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 16 | Posted Jan. 28, 2009

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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.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 16 of 16
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1. Michelle Kelleher said... on Jan 28, 2009 at 06:15AM

“Very good story. Having a nephew who is bi-polar, I understand some of this disorder. And I also see a holistic doctor who has helped me understand in my healthy world how many other things effect our well being, like food allergies as you mentioned and lack of certain vitamins and minerals that are crucial to a healthy life. Nice read!”

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2. LKS said... on Jan 28, 2009 at 09:02AM

“Very well- written story about the complexity of this issue. I truly hope your brother continues to do well. Good luck to you and your family.”

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3. Kathleen Turner said... on Jan 28, 2009 at 03:25PM

“An inspiration. I love it and I think I love you.”

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4. ccaruso said... on Jan 28, 2009 at 06:30PM

“Jacob Lambert articulates the frustration that so many families experience in trying to get help for their loved done wirh mental ilness. The national website( www.nami.org ) can direct people to their local affiliates. Although there is no cure yet for mental illness, there is help for those affected by it.”

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5. David Lambert said... on Jan 29, 2009 at 06:58AM

“Boy, now I know what it feels like to be front page news in Philadelphia! Actually, I've never considered myself to be this strange, and I'm not sure I said or did exactly what my brother says I said or did. Oh well, I guess this is what happens when you're the nutty brother of a working writeer. Dave Lambert”

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6. Timothy K. Peterson said... on Jan 29, 2009 at 07:25PM

“Thank you for sharing your story. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was sixteen. Thankfully my delusions of the radio talking directly talking to me and snipers pointing their arms at me lasted shortly. It is still a persistent possibility that like the Hulk I will "Hulk out" at any given stress or lack of sufficient sleep. My medications have been very effective and it has been helpful for me to read Kay Redfield Jamison's literature on her own bipolar disorder while being a leading psychiatrist. Though I risk sounding patronizing I'll share this anyhow. There are strengths within bipolar disorder for productivity and creativity. Supposedly some of history's great minds were touched by this creative fire. A short list includes Dickens, Newton, Van Gogh, Beethoven, Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, Goethe, and Mark Twain (Redfield's, Touched with Fire AND http://www.mental-health-today.com/bp/famous_people.htm). I applaud you and your family for taking care of your brother with this difficult illness. However, as you already evidenced he can be productive and if given the opportunity his creativity can be unleashed toward that end as well. May God bless you and your family as you all work to restore your brother into who you remember him to be. ”

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7. Gwen Ceccardi said... on Jan 30, 2009 at 08:51AM

“These young men are both my nephews, and I have seen their parents' feel both heartache and pride in their sons (emotions ALL parents feel at one time or another in raising their children). Jay, this was an excellent article and very informative to the general public who knows nothing about mental illness. Dave, I remember you as a child interacting with my daughters at Grandmother Lambert's house in Alva. You seemed to adore my girls at the time. I pray for your whole family, since I love you all. Aunt Gwen”

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8. Robin Angel said... on Jan 30, 2009 at 02:59PM

“So well written. Thanks for sharing your story with all of us. It will be helpful for others going through mental illness with a family member. We love you. R & R”

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9. Sarah said... on Feb 1, 2009 at 04:26AM

“That you so much for sharing what must be a very personal story. Good luck for the future.”

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10. Arlean Lambert said... on Feb 1, 2009 at 08:31AM

“Even though David says he has never repaired a clock and that wasn't him who left the empty yogurt cup on the stoop, you wrote a fabulous, loving, and accurate account of our seventeen year journey. Thank you, Jacob, for bringing balance into our lives with laughter sometimes when we were at our lowest point. I love both you and David with all my heart. Mom ”

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11. PMD said... on Feb 2, 2009 at 06:37PM

“This article should be required reading for every elected and appointed office holder. Lambert has perfectly illustrated the entirely mundane intersecting and parallell processes which daily trip and trap our most vulnerable and marginalized. The overarching heartache, the capacity, after decades of numbing experience, to come to the sputtering re-realization that THIS CAN'T POSSIBLY BE HOW IT IS is accurate and pervasive in this country. The shame is ours; other countries do better, we can too. Thank you, Mr. Lambert, you have powerfully conveyed what urgently needs to be told and retold until hands are not just untied, but extended.”

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12. Cody Watts said... on Sep 15, 2009 at 08:42PM

“Lambert,
That was impressive, and insightful. Fantastic piece.”

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13. Nicole Martelli said... on Mar 6, 2010 at 09:04AM

“Jay,

What a beautiful piece. It's amazing how little we really know about the people we grow up with. It sounds like you had to grow up a little earlier than a lot of your peers. Life's lessons don't care how old we are, just that we learn them. Keep writing...I look forward to reading.”

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14. diane said... on Jun 18, 2010 at 12:32PM

“please forward to Jacob Lambert
Hi Little "J": Remember me? Number 11 Crowell. . .one of my very favorite little boys. . .remember playing catch? going to your baseball games and loving every minute of the time I spent with you.

A wonderful article. I, too, remember David very well. I especially remember a little guy sitting with two elderly neighbors who enjoyed and loved him to bits! I also remember my bell ringing on each and every Christmas morning with hot cross buns in hand and wishes for a very merry Christmas.

Crowell Place, what wonderful memories.

How r u Little J? Enjoying a good life? Sure hope. Think of you and your family very often.

Be fun to hear from you. . .
Luv,

Diane”

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15. SS said... on Jul 23, 2010 at 09:03AM

“Jacob Lambert, This is a great piece you have written. I know your brother, and speak with him almost weekly. He actually calls into my job and try’s having conversations about IT and his new ideas to make money by selling an application he designed or what ever comes to his mind that day. Before reading this story I would listen along to his stories and wonder where they where coming from. I empathize with your family and wish you all the best. I hope this receives you well.

P.S. I spoke with him less then an hour ago

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16. Brian lindstrom said... on Jan 27, 2011 at 11:26PM

“Thanks for writing this, Jacob. Very powerful. You have helped the general public understand just what it means to have a loved one coping with severe and persistent mental illness.
The parallels between Sandy Morgan and James Chasse, a Portland man with schizophrenia who died in police custody on Sept. 17, 2006 are a frightening reminder of what a truly national--even international--problem this is.

Glad to hear that David is currently doing well.

best,
Brian”

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