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Mental Illness: Tragic, Not Shameful

June 11, 2017 | by Galia Berry

My brother-in-law was just shy of becoming a chess Grand Master when mental illness reared its ugly head.

A few weeks ago, we got the news that my husband's youngest brother, was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. It had spread to his bones, liver and brain. The prognosis was 4-6 months without intervention. The family (my husband and his other brother) decided to treat him palliatively; aggressive treatment wasn't really an option. My husband made plans to fly out to California to visit him. But just three weeks after the initial cancer diagnosis, we got a call that he had died in his sleep.

How do you sit shiva for someone you didn't really know?

My brother-in-law was nine years younger than my husband, and they didn't have much contact since my husband left home at age 18 and moved far away.

But there were other factors.

My brother-in-law lived in a board-and-care home for more than 30 years, the result of a devastating mental illness that left him a shell of the person he used to be.

My husband called him on the phone, but the connection was usually poor and he was not really interested in talking. My brother-in-law didn't really enjoy visits, either. He was always in his own strange delusional world before cancer struck, and it had been no different during those final three weeks.

He was just shy of reaching the Grand Master designation when mental illness reared its ugly head.

His schizophrenia was especially devastating because of the person he used to be. At age 5, his father taught him to play chess, and that became his passion. He wasn't just good – he was a chess genius, a young Bobby Fischer-in-training. He played in tournaments everywhere, and by age 14 was the US Western Division chess champion. He became a chess Master and by age 18 his only losses were to Grand Masters.

He was just shy of reaching the Grand Master designation (based on points accumulated through tournament games via the US Chess Federation) when mental illness reared its ugly head. Tragically, at age 20, he stopped playing chess forever. On meds, he was all spaced out and couldn't play; without meds, he heard voices that confused and distressed him, and got him into all sorts of trouble.

My brother-in-law could no longer care for himself. Things were constantly happening to his possessions – clothes, bed linens, personal hygiene items - either they were stolen, lost, or he gave them away. Once, my mother-in-law was horrified to find him laying in a bedsheet so dirty it was black; in the winter he was shivering with cold because he didn't have a coat. He only had one pair of underwear. She hurried to replace everything anew, with several duplicates to spare, at great expense with money she didn't have.

But within a day or two they'd be gone, and once again he couldn't really say what had happened to them. He just couldn't keep track of his possessions. Nor did he seem upset or distressed by their lack. He always just said, "It's okay."

He also couldn't drive. When he did drive in the initial phases of the mental illness, he got ticket after ticket, but paying them wasn't something he could do. Not because he didn't want to, but because they just weren't part of his reality. One day when he got yet another ticket, the police saw that he had a warrant out for his arrest due to all the unpaid tickets, and he ended up in L.A. County jail. It was only when a missing persons report was filed that we even knew he was in jail. He couldn't remember a phone number of someone to contact to let them know what had happened, so he sat in jail – this poor, sick young man amidst murderers, rapists and violent gang members – until we found out and got him out.

Judging the Family

It saddens me deeply to tell of my brother-in-law’s diminished, very ill self. Mental illness is a tragic condition that none of us truly understand and few of us tolerate – but it's not shameful. Despite many trials with different chemical cocktails, none were able to really help him.

It's easy to judge those who seem uncaring toward a family member who suffers from mental illness. How could we let him be in a board-and-care home instead of bringing him to live with us? Well, we tried (we lasted two weeks) and my husband's other brother and sister-in-law tried (to their credit, they lasted a few months).

His mother tried and with her very last bit of savings even bought him a small mobile home in a trailer park not far from her residence. She thought if he had something nice he would take pride in it and take better care of it and himself. But he ended up burning it down. Was it during an attempt to use a toaster? Or perhaps caused by careless placement of a cigarette, one of a 4-pack-a-day smoking habit? (Interestingly, studies have shown that cigarette smoking provides some relief of symptoms for schizophrenics, which perhaps explains their subconscious, widespread prevalence of cigarette smoking.)

Unless you have walked in those shoes, you cannot imagine the difficulties, the pain, the heartache.

Typically, one is afraid of what others will think if it's known that someone in the family is mentally ill, and this segues into the scary possibility that no outsider will want to marry into a family beset by mental illness. The family is also concerned that they will be judged for their care-taking decisions. But each mentally ill person's situation is unique, as is their family dynamics. Unless you have walked in those shoes, you cannot imagine the difficulties, the pain, the heartache. Perhaps you could do better – and I honestly hope you never have to find out.

No, I don't think we were heartless by admitting him to a board-and-care home – just heartbroken. My brother-in-law – who could play 20 opponents in simultaneous chess games; who could play chess blindfolded; and whose chess games were frequently reported and studied in the L.A. Times, in books, and Chess Federation newsletters, was in a world of his own, one that we could not share.

The day after he died, his niece googled his name, and was connected to a chess forum. She noticed a query posted the day before he died, more than 35 years since his last public game, asking whatever happened to my brother-in-law. “You used to hear about his games all the time, and I never hear about him anymore."

My niece responded that he had died only one day after the query. Word spread quickly via the Internet, and the accolades began pouring in. It was such a comfort to us that his legacy lived on. Imagine: even without playing a single game in 35 years, he was still ranked #414 in the entire US!

Despite his tragic life, my brother-in-law was not a bitter person. He was a gentle man. He never had a sour word for anyone. He was truly a nice person. If someone did something to him that wasn’t nice or even downright cruel, he just let it go and said, “It’s okay.” And he meant it. My brother-in-law was a good person, and in his own way, in better times, he made a difference; in worser times he wasn't a complainer or angry at his fate of years of illness. He was happy with nothing – literally nothing. That is a character trait we can all learn from David ben Yisrael, may he rest in peace.


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