THANKSGIVING... Diverging Thoughts in Our Minds
By both, Catherine J. Rippee-Hanson and Linda (Rippee) Privatte
What do we contemplate and what do we say when the Thanksgiving holiday has arrived and our only brother is living on the streets, sleeping in a cold damp field under a bush behind a closed business in shopping center in an unfamiliar city? Should we give thanks that the social worker for the county told him that he could voluntarily leave the board and care home where he should have been allowed to stay? Should we be grateful that he only had to ask them to open the front door so he could walk away with no one in his family being notified? What scrutiny was given, we wonder, about the fact that he is blind? They merely let him walk away as he has his civil rights… with no consideration of his vulnerability but because it is his right under our laws to put his life in grave danger - which is why he was placed there initially.
Truly, what should we give thanks for? Should we spend this day giving thanks for our own blessings in life and be grateful that it’s not us in those circumstances? Or would that make us just as complicit along with all of society’s apathetic and careless thought to the seriously mentally ill who live in homelessness through no fault of their own? How can we be grateful and ungrateful at the same time and not feel inharmoniousness in our emotions and within our own psyche? How do we reconcile those feelings on this day?
As we prepare for Thanksgiving, we wonder what our brother is thankful for on this day. Is he thankful for the bush that barely covers him from the cold and hides him from those who might harm him? Does he even know that Thanksgiving Day is here in his confused, delusional state of mind… so impaired with untreated serious mental illness? Maybe he is thankful for the simple things that have come his way in recent weeks. A hamburger one day… a slice of specialty bread and a cup of coffee someone bought him... the bottled water or the bag of M&M’s he requested, and someone provided? Is he thankful that he has a coat right now… and possibly forgotten that he lost his phone last week, and that is why none of his family members can reach him?
Will his delusions of people chasing him in his own hometown keep him away in an unaccustomed environment instead of closer to his family and other caring people here who keep an eye out for him? Or do his surroundings even matter to him anymore or provide a sense of comfort or safety? After all, in his broken mind, there are groups trying to kill him if he comes back to his hometown… the KKK from Missouri, terrorists… even Osama Bin Laden chasing him out of his hometown. Further and further away from those who love him and who might be able to help him. No one can convince him that danger is not real. His reality is real and is the only thing that is important.
Thanksgiving is a time when we all reflect on what we are grateful for and what we consider to be beloved treasures, or people in our lives we hold most precious. It is a day to express love out loud to those that matter to us the most. It is a day we forgive grievances and focus on what is important in our lives. Yes, a day to be thankful. A day to recognize and acknowledge the blessings in our lives.
We are grateful our brother Mark is still alive against all odds. We are especially grateful to our community and the members of our Facebook group ‘Mark of Vacaville’ for helping us watch out and care for Mark out on the streets of Vacaville and now, Vallejo. Our hearts overflow with gratitude for all the mental health advocates and families of the seriously mentally ill who have attempted to advise and guide us through the confusing maze of a tattered mental healthcare system. To those who do not have a family member who is seriously mentally ill, their support lifts us up even higher. They are the proof that hearts and minds can be changed. They are our proof that there are open minds and open hearts - just waiting to hear our words.
Words that are all we have left to fight with… and we have lots of ammunition. When you know you are telling a truth, the words come easy. Those words may offend some… be uncomfortable for some… or even embarrass some. In our minds, every person we love, should and would stand with us. If it were one of their siblings or children who was seriously mentally ill, untreated, homeless, and blind - they would desperately be seeking the words that we have spoken. It takes many voices other than just us family members of the mentally ill speaking up, and we can use everyone’s support.
We are grateful to be a part of our "2020 Grassroots Mental Healthcare 5-part Federal Agenda Plan,” that recently made news on the national stage in the Presidential campaign. We appreciate the conversation and the flickering spark that it ignited in many of the Presidential Candidates. They are reading and learning as they go… some more than others. They are reading our words, they are hearing our stories and more importantly, they are discussing Serious Mental Healthcare/Illness on a Federal level during a Presidential campaign. So, we are grateful that anyone is listening, considering and debating - Serious Mental Illness Reform.
We are very grateful to all who told us their personal stories and experiences that helped us to not feel alone anymore. We are thankful to still have our mother, Lou Rippee, and each other to lean on and stand together in this fight for Mark's care and life. We appreciate everyone that has given us the opportunity to tell Mark's story… and those who did it for us. We are grateful for each other for we are each half of the “Twin Tag Team,” as we have become known, and we have come further together and done more than only one could have ever accomplished.
The first few Thanksgivings that Mark was homeless an effort was always made to go out to the streets to find him and bring him to the family dinner. He would get a shower and everything he had on him would be washed. He would join our family for the day along with our children. There were dinners cut short… outbursts… rages… and inappropriate behavior that no one would want any child to witness or hear.
There were many conversations about him getting help through county or state agencies. Help would have offered him every time, in getting him information. Helping him get back on Section 8 Housing. Helping him get another IHSS caregiver. Helping him to get mental health treatment or even to a shelter.
With his Anosognosia - he has no insight into his own traumatic brain injury or his paranoid schizophrenia - and he would get angry and say there was nothing wrong with him. Why would he need that kind of help? Many times, he would become too agitated by the ruckus of the Thanksgiving holiday, leading him to ask for his things - and a ride back into town.
The following years as we tended to all the Thanksgiving preparations for our family and friends to enjoy, waiting until everyone was in a "food coma," and then asking someone for a ride to go search for Mark to bring him heaping piles of food... wrapping it up to keep it all hot - hoping to find him.
As his Paranoid Schizophrenia progressed and his many delusions became more fixed and permanent - he became more elusive to find. When he was found – he sat on the sidewalk while he ate his Thanksgiving dinner. There were some Thanksgivings that the search was unsuccessful, only to search again the day after until sometimes he was found. Some Thanksgivings he was never found, his location unknown to us.
Today, everyone is thawing their turkeys and baking the pies, looking forward to the mountainous feast ahead. It started raining yesterday and the temperature dropped. In our minds, we are panicking. We know that Mark is already cold and wet, sleeping on the ground outdoors. We know the general area that Mark is currently staying, but it’s not our hometown. We want him back near us to help him and watch over him. We want so much to finally get him the needed treatment and supervised care that he needs. We wonder, in our minds, when will we get through the Conservatorship process? When will our family ever have any input to help make medical and mental health decisions for him? When will we ever have a say in getting him all of the help that he needs?
One of his fixed, unchanging delusions is that there are groups of people that are controlling him, making him say things he doesn't want to think or say. He says they want to kill him, and he is hiding from them in another town. We know these groups because we have memorized his fixed delusions after hearing them for decades.
He thinks Al Qaeda terrorists are chasing him around Vacaville. He says the KKK from Missouri have been chasing him, controlling his mouth, illegally using his mouth to say racist things that he does not want to say. He adamantly told us he wants them arrested for speaking through him. He believes the local police department has planted a computer chip in his head that allows them to read his mind. This is what is keeping him from coming back to his hometown… and to his family.
It is time now to make the deviled eggs, the spinach dip, and the dressing. After all, Thanksgiving is upon us. In our minds, we are still panicking about Mark, but life is about balance and we have many other family members that we love who depend on us, so we turn our attention back to the holiday preparations. This year, we are each having dinner with our children and we’re looking forward to being with family and a chance to spend time with our grandchildren.
In our minds, we feel guilty though, that Mark can no longer be included in the holiday celebrations. In our minds, we are ashamed when we envision him sitting in the cold - hungry and lonely. Our conscious seems to slap us in the face without warning… saying to us, “You know this is so wrong!” In every family that has a loved one afflicted with a mental illness, there are some in that same family who shut out the person, however painful that is for those of us who don’t.
Some family members have requested that we not talk about Mark or anything that has to do with our advocacy on his behalf at these family holidays. Life is about balance, so we try to accommodate everyone. We will greet our families with food in hand and seemingly happy, while we smile because we love them all. In our minds, we will cry silently.
We have no greater anguish than knowing that someone we love does not understand why we cannot give up on someone else we love! One would think that it would serve to prove that we wouldn’t give up on anyone we love, including them. But, to keep the balance in our lives - we respect their wishes to remain silent on the subject. Some family members have no idea what the “Twin Tag Team” has accomplished. Some don't want to hear our words because it is awkward, or it embarrasses them when we speak out publicly about Mark’s story.
Some just believe and conclude that it is futile to try to find a solution, so we should have given up by now. Why do we continue to roll the ball up the mountain? In our minds, we cannot give up and we don’t feel that they should expect that of us! In our minds, if it were one of them who needed us, we know they wouldn’t they feel the same way… that we should give up on them.
When we sit around our dinner tables and say what we are thankful for, as we always do, we will say we are thankful for our family - because we do love them with all our hearts. Still, there are parts of us they do not know. Who we are… and why? In our minds, we will say, “I am thankful for every person that has supported us in our advocacy for our brother.” But, only in our minds.
When dinner is placed on the table, we will say how wonderful everything looks and smells. In our minds, we will wonder what Mark is eating and if he is alone. We will be thinking about if we can get a plate ready later to take him leftovers, even if we say it is for us. We will enjoy the feasts with our families and have fun with our grandchildren. We will smile. We will give the proper attention to each person that we love. Remembering that balance is everything in life, in our minds - we will think of Mark with each bite we take.
Later, when everyone is laid back rubbing their full tummies and heading for that "food coma," in our minds, we will question if Mark ate at all, or is his stomach painfully growling? When it gets dark it will be time to share that pumpkin pie. We will say we are too full and request to take or save our pie for later. In our minds, we will take that pie to Mark. While others forcefully squeeze the slice of pie into their full belly, we will step outside for some air or into the next room - to think our thoughts alone in solitude, in our minds.
In the darkness, the cold will come, and the rain will sprinkle down. We might tremble and shudder from the cold. In our minds, we will scream at the top of our lungs how unfair this all is for Mark! As our loved ones eat their pie, we will stand outside and cry. In our minds.