Truth Is a Verb

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My mother used to tell me that if I always told the truth I would never have to worry that I might forget details of the story I would have to invent to cover up a lie. She also remarked that defaming accusations hurled against honest people are rarely believed if that individual insists that he/she is innocent. Truth telling was a top priority in her moral code and she lived by the integrity that was so important to her. Sadly an ironic aspect of her bipolar disorder was a paranoid fear of being accused of something she did not do and not being believed when she uttered her truths. 

In her worst moments she imagined that someone was watching her and waiting for a moment to arrest her for crimes she had never committed. When she pulled the drapes in her home tightly shut and furtively peeked between the panels to search for boogeymen we knew that she was quite sick. It was time to get the assistance of doctors who prescribed medications that somehow quieted her mind and helped her to return to reality and become the wise and delightful person that we knew as our mom. 

My mother was my hero. In spite of the debilitating illness that seemed to stalk her again and again, she managed to create a wonderful life for me and my brothers. When I think of the balancing act that she had to endure to fight off the illness that few understood or wanted to talk about, I am in awe of her courage and her willingness to forgive those who turned away from her in fear of her changing personality. Somehow sho chose to love them even when they hurt her. Always she remained the most honest person I have ever known. 

I seem to have an eye for noticing someone who is suffering from a mental illness. I often wonder why even the members of their family do not appear to have a clue that the erratic behaviors they are witnessing are a sickness, and not just an undesirable way of acting. They look away or even push such persons away rather than coaxing them to get the treatments that they need. I suppose that the fear of confrontation keeps many sick individuals from receiving the care that they deserve. It can indeed be a challenging process to convince a psychotic individual whose paranoia is raging to trust you to do the right thing. Nonetheless, it is worth the effort to at least try. 

Now and again I observe celebrities who are out of control, seeking attention in horrible ways. Often I sense that they are actually quite sick and in need of medication and therapy rather than our indignation and judgement. Society does not always demonstrate the compassion that such people need, but instead spurns and isolates them. If the person is lucky one of their own will notice the erratic nature of their actions and guide them to find the help that they need. 

In my decades long quest to care for my mother I read many books about bipolar disorder. One of them was written by the actress, Patty Duke, who suffered from the same disease as Mama. Ms. Duke was lurching out of control in a manic state that created problems for her career and her family life. She detailed her outbursts in the book and spoke of the moment that changed everything for the better. It happened after she appeared on the Tonight Show when it was hosted by Johnny Carson. She was in a highly agitated state as she boasted that she was going to build an ark in Arizona. As she chattered rapidly the audience laughed and Johnny made funny faces. She came across as a kooky character and little more.

After the show Ms. Duke received a phone call from Frank Sinatra. The two of them had never before met in person, but of course they knew of each other. Frank told Patty that he had been watching the show and that he was exceedingly concerned about her. He urged her to go see her doctor and to be very honest with him about how she was feeling. He insisted that he was going to bug her until she had done what he had counselled her to do. She was so overwhelmed by his demands that she meekly obeyed and called a doctor the following day. 

The rest of the story is legendary. Patty Duke was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and given medication to ease the symptoms. She lived the rest of her life educating and advocating for the mentally ill. Her days were full and happy in a way that they had never before been. She credited Frank Sinatra with saving her even though he did not personally know her. She urged people to follow Sinatra’s example and never ignore the signs that a person needs help.

It is difficult to witness mental illness and even more difficult to do something to get medical attention for the person who is suffering. Mental illness is chronic in most cases so the cycle of illness and treatment becomes a lifetime journey. It’s up to loved ones to do as much for those with mental illnesses as they would if they had other diseases of the body. The truth is that too many fear the symptoms of mental illness and turn away from those who present them. I urge everyone to help instead of laughing or pretending or shunning. It’s well past time to bring mental illness out of the darkness by talking about it openly. Truth is a verb that calls for action.  


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