He looked at me but wouldn’t make eye contact. I could tell that he was trying to figure out if my offer to buy him a pizza was real. After considering it he declined and started to walk off. Before he could walk away I reached into my pocket and retrieved five dollars and handed it to him. He gave me the obligatory God-Bless-You and walked away quickly. He knew the drill–money is handed over, the transaction is over and he is dismissed. It’s an unwritten rule of panhandling.
It’s selfish really, we hand over a dollar or two to a homeless person and then we get to feel good about ourselves for the rest of the day. Maybe even post on Facebook about how charitable we are. My reasons are even more selfish than that though. I view my charity as paying it forward–but paying it forward for someone else. Someone I can no longer help. I help people because it’s my hope that my altruism will somehow find it’s way back to him. I like to think that the kindness I can no longer show my brother is still manifesting itself through helping others.
I don’t discuss my brother much because few people will understand and some will judge without any kind of foundation. When I’m asked about him I always answer the same way, “He’s fine,” and hope they don’t press for more. Most people don’t, but a few do. Over the years I’ve learned to sidestep around the truth. The truth makes people uncomfortable. I don’t blame people for becoming uncomfortable when I tell them about my brother because the truth is ugly. The truth is that Eric is not fine, Eric has never been fine. I used to tell people that Eric is a lost soul, as if that somehow explains away mental illness, homelessness and his time institutionalized. But that’s a terrible description. Eric’s soul isn’t lost, Eric is mentally ill.
For as long as I can remember, back to when we were children, Eric exhibited strange behaviors. It confused doctors at the time and although Eric was intelligent he was put into behavior classes and Special Education. Those strange behaviors eventually manifested into mental illness. The disease that plagues Eric is no fault of his own. Something lurks deep in the recesses of Eric’s genes. Something that drives him out into the cold. Something that has stolen his personality and left behind an empty shell. Eric’s disease is unpredictable, no one knows when he will slip into a profound darkness that leaves him wandering the streets talking to himself–screaming at what appear to be imaginary people. Not even Eric can predict when his disease will surface.
Though Eric is sick he is not a bad person. In fact he is giving to a fault. Whatever tiny amount Eric has he will give away. He has always been like that. As a child he’d receive a new watch for his birthday and as soon as someone admired it he would give it to them. This kindness and naïveté led to intense bullying in his teen years. Bullied by people who didn’t want anything from him except a reaction; to see pain in his eyes, which there was, constantly.
Growing up I was two-years younger than Eric, but I was his protector. Protecting Eric made me violent. It made me over reactive. I would lash out at anyone who may or may not have been cruel to him. Protecting Eric made me vindictive and mean. Now after what feels like a life-time I have no energy left to protect him. Eric is on his own. He has been jumped, robbed and beaten several times. Some people ask me, “How can you allow this to happen?” They look at me with disgust and again I know they’re thinking, “He’s your brother.” He is my brother, but I am void of help. Void of the energy it takes to navigate Eric through a system intent on shunning the mentally ill. I have personally spent thousands of dollars trying to help him. Growing up my family spent tens of thousands getting him treatment that wasn’t covered by insurance. Eric has had people in his corner, but it’s emotionally exhausting to stay in that corner for very long.
Eric is not a bad person and has never physically hurt anyone. None of that matters when you’re mentally ill. There were numerous times when I received calls to come bail him out from jail. His crime–vagrancy, being homeless, talking to himself, making sane people uncomfortable. And when they realize he’s not mentally stable he’s shuffled through the system until a crack forms and like many mentally ill people, he falls through.
Eric has been mistreated and misdiagnosed by health-care workers and an aging mental health care system for most of his life. It is my opinion that they don’t treat the mentally ill, they handle them. They tolerate them. They definitely don’t treat them. These same health care workers have come under fire for a practice called “dumping.” As soon as money runs low in the state’s budget for mental health or they just tire of dealing with a patient’s bullshit, they find a relative with a small amount of sympathy left and give that patient a one way ticket to their front door. Eric has been dumped many times. It lasts about a day or two before people realize they cannot care for Eric.
After my father passed in 2001 I did my best to take care of Eric but my father was really the only person who had what it took to keep Eric from slipping away. Shortly after my Father’s passing there was a rapid progression of Eric’s disease. It was clear I couldn’t take care of him and I asked for help from mental health but there was none to give. Eric’s disease became more profound and he disappeared into a darkness I cannot comprehend.
One Thanksgiving, instead of sitting around eating a meal, I sat by Eric’s bedside as he lay in a coma from a massive overdose of Tegretol. I had picked him up that day around noon. He got into my car, handed me an envelope and slumped over in the seat. I quickly surmised it was a suicide letter as I watched him slip into a coma. Another time when I was summoned to the ER, I arrived to find Eric lying unconscious in his hospital bed. He had been brutally beaten while sleeping in a park. He was covered in lacerations and was missing his front teeth. These incidents were not few and far between–they were constant. It reached the point where I knew for my own sanity I could no longer help him. Then something happened a short while later that would rock my relationship with Eric to its core.
We were awoken just after 2am by police officers. They surrounded the house. I saw flashlight beams in the backyard and there were officers pounding on the front door. My wife let them in and they demanded to see our newborn baby. We led them to the bedroom where she was asleep. An hour earlier my brother had turned himself in to the police. He claimed he had just killed his brother’s family including their newborn daughter. In his mind he had committed this act and begged to be locked away, which of course he was.
When I finally visited Eric in the mental institution he looked awful. I barely recognized him. His head had been shaved and his eyes were different. They weren’t my brother’s eyes. I sat quietly with him for an hour. Every so often he would ask for change for the vending machines which I always brought when he was locked up at mental health. It was really the only thing we had to talk about. It continued like this for over a year. Our relationship was extremely tenuous and neither of us wanted to talk about it.
After Eric was released I didn’t bring him over for holidays or social visits anymore. I would meet him at his apartment or in the mental health lockup or sometimes on the street or a homeless shelter to give him money and a bag of toiletries. Then one day he was gone. He left no trace. I spent weeks driving around at night looking for him in areas where there was a proliferation of homeless people. I felt incredibly guilty. I had pushed him away and now feared he was dead. I would buy bags of burritos and hand them out to the homeless at night asking if they knew my brother. Some recognized the picture I showed them but told me it had been a long time since they had seen him.
Eventually Eric turned up in New Mexico. Someone in the mental health-care system told Eric there was no more money left in the state’s budget for mental health and bought him a one way ticket for Santa Fe New Mexico. He is there now being shuffled through their mental health system. We talk infrequently but I still send money, clothing and toiletries as he needs them.
Eric’s suffers from a disease that has no end in sight. I wish every day that a massive breakthrough in treating mental illness will be announced. Sadly, I know that in our lifetime Eric will not get the treatment he requires to get better. Eric will always live on the fringe of society; an outsider looking in. He will never know true happiness. He will continue to fall through the cracks of a society that punishes the mentally ill instead of treating them.
This is a story that I’ve finally decided to share because I believe it’s time we have an honest discourse about mental illness. If you ask me how my brother is I don’t want to evade the question anymore; I don’t want to answer, “Eric is fine.” I want to tell you the truth. I want to say, “Eric is in pain.” One thing I definitely won’t say anymore is that Eric is a lost soul. That’s not accurate. Eric’s soul is not lost. It’s his place in this world that’s lost.