At my monthly NAMI meeting the other night, we watched the documentary film UNLISTED: A STORY OF SCHIZOPHRENIA. The title is inspired by the main character’s desire to reestablish a relationship with her schizophrenic father after years of avoiding him. She literally became unlisted in the phone book so he couldn’t contact her.
At one point, Delaney’s father poignantly tells her, “I didn’t go to your high school graduation, because you didn’t invite me. I didn’t go to your college graduation, because you didn’t invite me. I didn’t go to your med school graduation, because you didn’t invite me. I didn’t go to your wedding, because you didn’t invite me.”
Murmurs of sadness rippled through the audience when he said it. The man onscreen is sweet and funny, a far cry from the young, unmedicated father who’d climbed telephone poles, gotten his pregnant wife evicted from five apartments in a row, lived on the streets, and constantly disappointed his young daughter.
Delaney’s mother, in fact, is so scarred from her short-lived marriage to this man that she refuses, close to 40 years later, to speak of him or even listen to her daughter say his name. When declining to participate in the documentary, she explains, “I don’t ever want to be reminded of the nightmare of my past.”
It’s a powerful reminder that mental illness, like addiction, is a family disease.
One of the saddest parts of the documentary for me, pregnant with my first child, was hearing Delaney talk about how much responsibility she felt toward her father from a very young age. “I grew up feeling guilty,” she says. “So many years of Dad telling me only I could save him.”
As far back as she can remember, her paternal grandmother would “beg me to get Dad to take his medicine. . . I hated that I couldn’t calm him down.”
As a young adult, she’d bring her psychotic father to the hospital, only to be turned away when he didn’t meet California’s criteria for involuntary admission. “If he said he didn’t want treatment, there was no way for me to get him the help he so desperately needed.”
During Delaney’s absence from her father’s life—a rebellion against the responsibility that was unjustly forced upon her much too young—her cousin becomes her father’s main support person. “I’ve bailed him out of jail, I’ve picked him up off the streets,” the cousin explains. “He’s 25 years my senior, but he’s the child.”
The illness makes Delaney’s father unreliable. “As a kid,” Delaney says, “I didn’t know what delusions were. I just knew that nothing Dad said ever came true, and I stopped believing him.”
He didn’t mean to, but his untreated, unacknowledged illness caused him to hurt his family again and again and again.
When Delaney reestablishes contact with her father, he’s living at Step Up, a supportive housing community/services provider in Los Angeles. Although he still doesn’t believe he has schizophrenia, he’s seeing a psychiatrist, he’s seeing a therapist, and he’s taking his meds.
Even so, Delaney immediately falls back into her old role of the responsible one. She wants her father to fill out an Advance Health Directive, but the more she pushes, the more he pulls away. When she tries to get him to work on it over lunch at a restaurant, he stops eating and gets up from the table.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“Standing,” he says. He’s clearly agitated. He clearly doesn’t want to think about his wishes should he once again become ill.
“Trying to be Dad’s doctor leaves me feeling frustrated and useless,” Delaney explains in voiceover. “I decide I just want to be with him.”
Once she lets go of the burden of responsibility she’s been carrying, their relationship improves by leaps and bounds. They relax, they do fun activities together, they get along. Delaney says, “I’m feeling less worried about the future, and I’m starting to enjoy my time with Dad.”
It’s a powerful reminder that, as family members, there’s only so much we can do. We can’t cure the illness, we can’t make it go away, and sometimes the best thing we can do—for ourselves and for our loved ones—is to let go of our own need to control the situation and simply be there as a friend.
SPOILER ALERT: If you plan to watch this documentary and don’t want to know then ending, please stop reading here.
And yet, and yet, and yet.
And yet, Delaney’s father goes off his meds. And yet, he goes missing. And yet, he commits suicide in the end, causing his daughter still more heartache and pain.
UNLISTED raises the question of who should be responsible for people who are incapable of recognizing that they are mentally ill. It shows us how ineffective it is to leave that responsibility in the hands of the patients and how unfair it is to put it solely on the family.
The documentary suggests that more extensive community services are the answer (and hooray to Georgia for its recent commitment to expand its community services), but until society as a whole begins to support these programs, too many people, too many families, are left groping around for solutions in the dark.
If you have thoughts about how to better help people who are incapable of recognizing that they have a mental illness, please share them in the comments.