Mental Illness Runs in My Family
PHYLLIS SMITH: Hello and welcome to Spotlight on eWomenNetwork, I’m Phyllis Smith. Today is a pretty serious topic. We’re going to be talking about, taking a deeper look into mental illness. So, listen to these statistics: according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness or NAOMI:
1 in 5 adults in the US, that’s about 44 million people (nearly 20% of the population), experience mental illness in a given year.
1 in 25 adults in the United States, that’s about 10 million people (about 4% of the population), experience a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activity.
These numbers are staggering and joining me today is a woman who has experience with mental illness first hand. She is an author, an illustrator, and philanthropist. Now she’s featured on this eWomenNetwork “Member Spotlight” series. I’m so honored to have her here. Please welcome Julia Sutton.
JULIA SUTTON: Thank you so much for having me.
PHYLLIS SMITH: And we’re so happy to have you here. So, you’ve just written your first book. This is a dream come true, a 20-year dream come true called, The Other Mermaid. It’s a children’s book. Before we do talk about that - mental illness has been in your family - your brother and then your son. So, can you tell us first about your brother and what his diagnosis was, and how it manifested in your family and your experience growing up?
JULIA SUTTON: Let’s see, this was in the early to mid-70’s and there wasn’t a lot of information about mental illness. So, my brother has been diagnosed with a plethora of different illnesses and I don’t know if they ever got it right. It’s schizophrenia. He has been on medication, mostly he’s self-medicated, and that’s a huge issue with mental illness, because a lot of the medications that are used for the person taking them it feels like it’s taking their soul away. It takes away who they are.
So as a young person growing up it was embarrassing, it was a secret, it was confusing because I would talk to my brother and I couldn’t tell who knows maybe he saw something that the rest of us really didn’t see and it was there. How do you know? My brother and I remain very close to this day. I love him and I support him in his own ventures. What he has done, mostly has lived in outskirts areas. He doesn’t really do well in cities. So, he lives in Alaska. Right now, he’s in Colorado and that’s how he’s dealt with it.
PHYLLIS SMITH: Growing up with a brother, a sibling who had mental illness, what kind of dynamic did that create in your family. I mean with your parents, with you, the stress? What was it like growing up in that kind of environment for you?
JULIA SUTTON: I think it was harder on my parents than for me because they felt guilty and they were angry. A lot of times if there was an explosive event it was like my mom would throw gasoline on the fire, and it went from one bad thing to a huge bad thing. Then the police were called and then he was incarcerated.
As a young person, I was frightened and I stood back in the shadows, sad for my brother, fearing for the rest of us, not knowing what would happen. I remember the first time that we had a family therapy session and there was frosted glass windows with crisscrossing wire and I started tracing - I was so uncomfortable - I started tracing patterns with my eyes and I still do that today if I’m under a lot of stress. It was a very stressful time.
PHYLLIS SMITH: Obviously it is and even when you talk about it you can see that it still brings up some stuff for you.
JULIA SUTTON: Yes.
PHYLLIS SMITH: Very often with a sibling, if the one sibling has mental illness or any kind of illness, the other sibling could get sort of left out in a certain way. Did that impact you in any way as you were growing up - even in terms of your self-esteem and your own abilities to achieve?
JULIA SUTTON: [Sigh] Without going to deeply into our family dynamics, I went the other way. I was an overachiever. I wanted to be the bright shiny button for my parents, so that they would not do to me what they did to him. [laughter]. I was fairly successful in school. I was in theater. I did a lot of stuff that kept me away from the home.