Sunday, February 16, 2014

Mental Illness

I mentioned in an earlier post that I think my ex-wife is mildly mentally ill. This topic may not be of much interest to most readers, but I have decided to write about it in order to clarify my thoughts and go on record.

There is a strain of mental illness that runs through my ex-wife's family. Something happened with her mother's mother's mother that I never found out much about, and which could be a family secret.  Her mother's mother, as far as I know, was a normal person. I met her several times before she died and liked her. Two of her daughters were a little off though. My ex-wife's mother seemed to have a hard time relating to the world. She seems to have been driven by a sense of duty, and, while on the surface she seemed quite responsible, I always got the impression that she felt uncomfortable and could not engage well with people. She was a religious Lutheran with a Germanic background on her father's side, and at least once had a panic attack, during which she had to speak to her pastor immediately in the middle of the night.

One of my ex-wife's mother's sisters seems to have had more significant mental issues. She received electro-shock therapy for many years. She and her husband, for whatever reason, did not have children of their own, and adopted a daughter. That turned out to be a complete disaster. They were part of the snobby set in town, and their adoptive daughter developed into white trash. I knew her and she was a likable, warm and friendly person. However, she hung out with the wrong people and was overweight. I got the impression that her adoptive mother had no idea about or interest in parenting and took the attitude that she had purchased a defective product and wanted to return it to the store. The daughter became more and more socially unacceptable over time.  She briefly married a toothless, skinny hillbilly from Kentucky named Sammy, and later had a child with a black man named Bucket. As I recall, Sammy borrowed some false teeth for the wedding.  She had a heart of gold, but no money. No one in the family wanted to be associated with her, and when she came by my ex-wife's parents' house, she wouldn't be invited in, and they would throw her money from a window.  She died of cancer a few years ago, and both of her adoptive parents are dead now too.

My ex-wife's mother had four children. Her husband was a successful small-town lawyer with a much warmer disposition. The eldest child was an only son and was treated like a god. He was an Eagle Scout, a science Ph.D., and later a dean at a major university. I knew him before I met my ex-wife, and think of him as cold, insensitive, conventional and shallow, though he certainly was a hard worker. He had his father's work ethic and his mother's Germanic coldness. My ex-wife and her two sisters formed a lower caste within the patriarchal family and were always jockeying amongst themselves for position. Since their mother was cold and perceptually torpid, their emotional needs were never addressed. Throughout my ex-wife's later life, I have seen her repeating an identical cold and insensitive behavior toward her own children.

Almost from the day I met her in the fall of 1969, my ex-wife was complaining about her parents. They were, she thought, always treating her unfairly.  They had forced her into a nursing program when she would rather have studied something else. Nevertheless, she did not have a true rebellion. When her parents told her to do nursing, she did nursing.  When they told her to get married, she got married. In contrast, her two sisters did exactly what they liked and got away with it, ironically coming out better in the eyes of their parents. Her parents died in 1998 and 2002, and since then the family has disintegrated.  The sisters don't communicate with each other.

I'm not completely sure why my ex-wife divorced me. I would have stayed married, though I was tired of her after eleven years.  The divorce probably had mostly to do with the stress of two small children, and my early work history certainly played a part. What I think of as the primary manifestations of my ex-wife's mental illness began to blossom thereafter.

She had custody of the children and seemed all right for the first few years after the divorce. But by age 10 our daughter began exhibiting oppositional-defiant behavior and she would not cooperate with her mother in the least. My ex-wife immediately threw up her hands and shipped her off to live with me and attend 5th grade in my rural backwater. I had few problems with my daughter that year, and we agreed to return her the following year. She lived with her mother during 6th and 7th grade, but returned to me in 8th grade permanently. I also found her to be a handful in 8th grade. Her schoolwork was abysmal and I used to lock her out in the cold when she misbehaved. I made her sign a written agreement each time before letting her back in. Her grades were so bad that she burnt her report card once and I had to drive to the school to get a copy. Her bedroom was an impassible mountain of debris. But against all odds, then came the greatest experience of my life. My daughter gradually reformed, went to college, found a good husband and settled down. We are now extremely close.

The outcome with our son has not been as positive so far. During his teenage years he began acting up, and my ex-wife had him arrested for assault. He was sent to a juvenile detention house and had to wear an electronic monitor on his leg when he visited me. She tried to ship him off to live with me, but I resisted at that time because I was living in a smaller apartment in the Chicago area and had a girlfriend.  He eventually settled down too, but not before marrying a Mexican girl in Mexico at age 19, later divorcing her and more recently marrying a Colombian woman at age 28. He managed to complete a four-year college degree, but his employment and marital prospects are not good, in my opinion. I have played a small role in his life, because we are very different from each other and have not bonded to the same degree that I have with my daughter.

The mental illness that I see in my ex-wife manifests itself in several ways. In the old days she would have been called "neurotic." When we were married, she often misread people and misinterpreted their behavior. Her family was predictable, unimaginative and Midwestern, yet she never seemed to have figured it out.  She worries constantly about things that aren't important. Since the kids grew up she has been moving frequently and has no permanent place of residence. Often she will move on short notice when she detects an odor in her apartment. Although she seems to have developed some minor friendships with women, over the last 28 years she has developed no close male relationships. She is not asexual, gay, bisexual or transsexual.

What has disturbed me the most about her behavior has been her lack of responsibility in matters of child rearing.  I don't know firsthand, but think that her family and friends were completely appalled by her shipping off her daughter at age 10. Yet she would have done the same with her son without giving it a second thought.  To some extent I rescued my daughter and am not worried about her. My son, on the other hand, seems to have been ignored during his upbringing. Although he is athletic, he did not do any sports in high school.  He lived in a wealthy community but associated only with people who were not college-bound. He was not encouraged to go to college and had no ambitions instilled in him by his mother. Despite the fact that he displayed slow social development, there is no doubt in my mind that he could be in a much better place in his life now if he had been attended to and directed by his mother on a daily basis. His mother's upper-middle-class background is completely at odds with the lower-middle-class lifestyle that he has adopted. He is now, at age 30, working in a low-paying job at a brokerage company and supplementing his income by working part-time at Pizza Hut. His second marriage seems doomed, but is an improvement over his first.

In recent years, my daughter and ex-wife have had major clashes. My daughter married a Tibetan refugee who subsequently completed college here and was in need of funds. My ex-wife wielded the power of money to buy subservience from our daughter. When my daughter didn't accommodate my ex-wife to her satisfaction, funds were abruptly withdrawn, and she and her husband were left in the lurch. This follows a pattern that my ex-wife experienced while growing up: parents buying the behavior they want from their children. My ex-wife complained about it when her parents did it, and now she is doing the exact same thing.  I have helped coach my daughter and she has developed a  strategy for dealing with her mother that seems to be working. In a nutshell, it involves keeping her at arm's length and nipping it in the bud whenever she starts to make excessive demands. In this she has the complete support of my son-in-law, who at this point would be fine with never seeing my ex-wife ever again.

The foregoing may strike some as a rant, but I am trying to be balanced and think there is more to it than that.  If anything, it is an example of the limited reach and ineffectuality of counseling services, of which my ex-wife has availed herself generously. The world would be a better place not only if the streets were free of violent criminals and psychopaths, but also of those who are more mildly impaired and wreak havoc on others.  I find it most odd that people never discuss these sorts of things.  In a way it isn't all that different from being silent about keeping a deformed or mentally retarded family member in your basement - which people used to do.

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