When I was 10 and my brother was 16, he helped me make churros. I don’t recall why I had to make these at such a young age; perhaps they were for a school fair. What I do remember is that Tom took the trouble to study the recipe, went out and bought ingredients, and constructed a star-tip pastry bag to produce the traditional Mexican treats. He was a very caring brother in that way, and the churros turned out beautifully.
But Tom, who is bipolar, could be frightening to me as well. A foot taller than me and twice my weight, his physicality was sometimes a threat. During one fight, he gave me a black eye with a simple smack. Another time, when he got into an argument with our mother, he pulled a knife from the kitchen drawer and held it against her throat.
Fortunately, Tom did not press the knife and cut into her skin. The next morning, my mother tearfully told my brother to behave better and pray more. We never spoke of the incident to others or amongst ourselves. We kept it hidden even from our dad, who worked overseas.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 26.2 percent of American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder; yet, most of us are not willing to talk about it with our friends or family members.
Because mental illness exhibits itself in negative behavior, many people think that it’s a matter of discipline or will. But mental disorders have a biochemical component requiring medical attention, according to the mental health industry.
I wish my parents and I had dug into the root of Tom’s problems. I also wish we had asked him why he behaved the way he did. What was going on in school? What was going on in his mind? What did he feel in his heart? These are simple questions, but we made them difficult by not asking them. By being silent, we allowed my brother’s condition to worsen.
I remember that around the same time that we made churros, I came across a book report that Tom had written for his 10th-grade class. It was on Robinson Crusoe. We’d just moved to the United States from Korea a few years ago, so reading an 18th-century novel must have been a pretty high hurdle for Tom. The book report was filled with a teacher’s red circles and slashes. Tom had written about the human condition, but he’d spelled the word human wrong. It appeared as “fuman” at least a dozen times in his paper. His grade was a D.
Now middle-aged, my brother suffers from poverty, alcoholism, and solitude. He lives a “fuman” existence. He is usually quiet and respectful toward others in public, but when he gets manic or drunk, he becomes scary. Strangers are not as forgiving of his bad behavior as family. He has been kicked out of restaurants, bars, and even halfway houses that were supposed to help people like him. He has been to jail several times for being a nuisance.
It saddens me that I cannot change my brother’s life, but I am coming forward with our story to help prevent similar situations from happening to others. At the risk of encouraging hyper-vigilance, I urge parents to find out if there is a deeper issue to their children’s negative behavior. Violent eruptions, depression, mania, or predilection toward excessive sleep or excessive spending could be symptoms of an illness and may not be relieved by punishment or more discipline.
We are at a time when communities across the country are coming together to talk openly about mental illness. In January, many parents of mentally ill children appeared on 60 Minutes to speak of their experiences. One problem they cited was shame and lack of support from their friends. In Virginia, Senator Creigh Deeds, who was brutally stabbed by his son last November, is leading a new effort to restructure mental health laws. On Twitter, posts tagged #IWillListen abound with information about mental illness and reducing stigma.
In Seattle, many organizations provide information and support for people and families affected by mental illness. There is the Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance, which meets once a month at the University of Washington Medical Center. I’ve been to these meetings before and found them to be a source of positive moral support.
The Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) provides a wealth of services, including therapy, physical exercise classes, chemical dependency treatment, and job-hunting help. Case workers are multilingual, with over 30 languages represented. More than 27,000 people benefit from the ACRS’s programs each year, but as any recovery program, the first step is to understand and accept one’s illness for what it is. As Yoon Joo Han, Behavioral Health Director at the ACRS says, “If our clients had the insight to accept their mental illness, half the work would be done.”
Hannah Moon is a Korean American writer working on a book about how mental illness has affected her family.