June 2, 2020

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Opinion

Mental illness wounds tens of thousands of families

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/3/2009 (4107 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Madness.

It's just another word for insanity.

Dorothy Sinclair had schizophrenia.

FAMILY PHOTO

Dorothy Sinclair had schizophrenia.

And insanity, specifically a major psychotic episode, is what caused Vincent Li to behead, mutilate and cannibalize the body of his fellow Greyhound bus passenger, Tim McLean. Li thought he was slaying a demonic force that summer night last year on the Trans-Canada Highway.

Today, Li will undoubtedly be declared not criminally responsible and confined to a locked psychiatric facility. There he'll stay, unless doctors judge him fit for release.

Meanwhile, members of McLean's family are campaigning to topple one of the pillars of Canadian law and have Li confined for life. Of course it's easy to identify with the anger and grief McLean's family is still feeling.

But what about the grief and anger endured by the other victims -- Li and his family and the tens of thousands of other families collaterally affected by mental illness? They're not so easy to feel empathy for.

Unless...

* * *

Like the man who killed Tim McLean, my mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Except the only person Dorothy Sinclair hurt was herself.

Actually, that's not true.

I can't remember my naturally gentle, but torturously troubled, mother ever holding me.

What I remember as a child is watching her sob uncontrollably. And, not being able to hold her either.

When I was 11, she was institutionalized at what is now known as the Selkirk Mental Health Centre.

She spent a year there, enduring shock treatments and something far more unbearable: being away from her two boys. In those days, in 1959, we were told that she had suffered a "nervous breakdown."

Throughout our childhood, my younger brother David and I, would witness our mother literally sucker-punching our father in public. And doing worse at home.

My mother was so anxiety-ridden, so lonely and depressed, that she would happily write notes excusing me from school when I didn't have my homework done, so I could keep her company.

In 1976, after my dad had a stroke in the Free Press newsroom and died, Dorothy's mental health deteriorated sharply. By that time, she had been prescribed antipsychotic medication, which she would routinely stop taking. Eventually, she would complain of needles coming through her carpeted apartment floor and students from the University of Winnipeg "beaming" in to study her.

But she didn't see people as demons.

Instead, she would take eggs out of the fridge and pile them in a bowl.

"Eggs are people," she would tell us. "You don't eat people."

Eventually, Dorothy wouldn't eat anything else either, and we would have to call the police and have her committed to the Grace Hospital psychiatric ward.

One morning in 1986, she died there in her sleep.

The night before, Dorothy had asked my visiting brother David if she had been a good mother. If David and I loved her.

"Don't be crazy, mother," David responded.

Last month, I drove out to the Selkirk Mental Health Centre where my mother spent a year of her life essentially incarcerated. It was the first time I'd seen the imposing red brick buildings since I was a little boy.

Without warning, I burst out sobbing uncontrollably.

It is to this building, or a place like it that Vincent Li is likely to be confined. Away from his family.

Not for a year, but indefinitely.

* * *

I awoke Wednesday morning to CBC radio, to the voice of Tim McLean's mother quoting 18th-century philosopher and politician Edmund Burke.

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil," Carol deDelley said, "is that good men do nothing."

Vincent Li isn't evil incarnate.

No more than my mother was.

Or any of the other 270,000 Canadians who live with schizophrenia.

And this, despite how it sounds, is not the Middle Ages, where some mentally ill women were assumed to be "possessed" and burned at the stake as witches.

Madness.

It's not just another word for insanity. It's another word for ignorance.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

 

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