When $1,000 Is A Bad Sign

I opened the card from my aunt figuring there would be a check inside. She had told me as much on the phone the other day. She doesn’t call often, but she had rung to ask how I was settling into the house. We chatted for 20 minutes about houses and neighbors and the usual things. She mentioned a housewarming gift. I’m her goddaughter, she has no money, and she’s crazy, so I’m always careful about what I’ll accept and not. My Christmas gift is usually (four years running) a fleece zip-up.

This year it was a check for $1,000.

I can’t remember exactly what I said when I opened it, but I think it was something like, “Holy shit.” This was not excitement. This was serious concern.

Even if she did have it, who on earth sends that much as a Christmas gift? Or a housewarming gift? Or the two of those things put together?

I called my mother. “We need to talk about the check your sister sent me.”

Mom said she had apparently sent one to each of her nieces and nephews. Same amount.

Well, shit.

My aunt has long been a bit of a buyer of end-times prophecies. It’s odd, considering she’s also very Catholic and one would think she would keep in mind the scripture that says that we know not the day or the hour. She thought the world was ending in 2000. Even had her daughter believing it. She kind of thought it might happen the last time this kind of thing failed to actually predict the Rapture.

Did she think it was for real this time? The Mayans?

And if so… what would we be able to do with the money?

But that’s an application of logic, and my aunt does not have a rational or logical mind. Oh, she seems entirely logical most of the time, but she’s not. If you question her or challenge her, the logic goes away. She wanted to get rid of my grandmother’s baby grand piano, and asked my dad to organize a group of guys to do it. But then she wouldn’t work with them on a schedule, and wouldn’t let them come into the house (my grandparents’ house, in which my mother, my aunt and uncle grew up, willed to her because she has nothing) when she wasn’t there. This wasn’t a group of strangers. This was my dad, my uncle, my brother-in-law and my sister’s boyfriend.

My mother was so furious at the perceived insult, she hasn’t spoken to her since then. That was the day after Thanksgiving.

But the problem is that isolation tends to make mental illness worse, and since my grandfather died, my aunt is even more isolated. She has a part-time job at a doctor’s office, but it’s hard to know how much she actually works and who’s around when she’s there. Her kids have long since avoided her as much as possible, because she pushes them with her prophesies and they’re afraid she’ll push it on their kids, too. Her daughter sends back every gift. It’s sad, really – she is a good person with a heart of gold, and she won’t give up on trying to let her grandkids know she loves them. And she does love them. She’s a very loving person. But her daughter and daughters-in-law worry about the effect she’ll have on the kids. And I don’t blame them.

The worry with the checks was obvious: is she giving away all her money because she’s planning something extreme? We normally wouldn’t think so – she’s so religious, she’d never commit suicide, we think. But then again, she also believes she gets messages from God, talks to Saint Joseph. So what if she thought one of them had told her to do it?

After several conversations with various family members, my mom wound up calling her sister. She took a firm line, because she has found that it’s necessary. She asked, bluntly, what my aunt was doing.

“Oh, well I just thought this was what Dad wanted me to do,” was my aunt’s reply.

My mother explained to her that if that was what their father had wanted before his death in February at the age of 93, he would have willed the money to his grandkids in the first place. And my aunt said if we want to send the money back, it’s fine – she just had to do what she felt she had to do. So it’s clearer now: this was the money my aunt got from the stock dividends my grandfather left her. And apparently she thought he would want her to give it away. Like she thought my late grandmother wanted her to move in with my grandfather. Would have been angry with her if she didn’t.

There’s a lot more that I don’t know about my aunt’s beliefs in an alternate reality and in a religious fanaticism. Apparently she believes some things have happened in the past which never actually did happen. And she will not listen to anyone who tells her they didn’t. She won’t listen to anybody.

So why don’t we get her help? you may wonder.

We can’t.

My aunt has no insurance, because she doesn’t have a full-time job and she doesn’t have any other benefits that would allow for it. Moreover, she will not consent to treatment because she doesn’t think she’s mentally ill. This is not a new argument. This has been going on for the better part of my life.  That means we would have to commit her against her will, and she hasn’t done anything severe enough (yet) to give us that power. Add to this the fact that no one wants to trick or deceive her, and we know that pushing her too hard will make her cut us out, so we won’t know anything about how she is.

So we wait. We wait and we worry, and what’s hardest is that we know she is suffering. She is frightened. She is suspicious. She is convinced her fears will become reality. She has lost her children and her grandchildren, and it’s easy as an observer to cluck one’s tongue and think it’s terrible that they abandoned her, and it is. But I understand why the did, because they grew up with this woman who got in their heads, and now they just want to protect their families.

This is the plight of the mentally ill. This is what makes me worry about my own mental health: I know there is a family history. Mostly depression or anxiety, we think, but sometimes this. All undiagnosed. My sister is an LCSW, and she’s not allowed to diagnose, but if she could, she says she would diagnose our aunt as paranoid schizophrenic with religious preoccupation.

We need a better way to care for the mentally ill people we love. We need more options.

If any of you are aware of any, please let me know.


2 thoughts on “When $1,000 Is A Bad Sign

  1. What a heartbreaking story. Mental illness is difficult for so many reasons … denial of the illness, the stigma of being diagnosed, trial and error medication, patient resistance to medication, just to name a few. My Dad (depression, delusions) eventually became so scared that he ended up in a nursing home where he got medical treatment and it did wonders. My son sees a psychiatrist who I think is a quack … I think he needs more but he’s an adult. He’d have no one if not for us. If you hear of a better way, let me know, too. I’ll pray for your aunt.

    • You’re right about everything you’ve named. And though you and I are aware of all those problems, we have each struggled with our own issues of anxiety and depression – including the stigma. I wish my aunt would, at least, acknowledge that she needs some help for SOME issues. She has previously been on medication – years ago – but stopped taking them and won’t try again. And there are a lot of little hypcrisies we must confront, as well; my mother “now” recognizes that her sister is mentally ill. I feel like she recognized that 25 years ago, but my mother is not a fan of medication for mental illness.

      I also have a problem with the blanket term “mental illness.” It makes everyone with a condition seem “crazy.” Technically, you and I are mentally ill. I don’t like that label – I’m sure you don’t either. And I’m sure your son (about whom I assume no diagnosis – nor do I request you share one) doesn’t like it either. But you said it all with just a few words. “He’d have no one if not for us.” Terrifying.

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