How Quick Others Are To Judge Us: Walking In The Shoes Of Someone With A Mentally Impaired Family Member

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(1-6-17) FROM MY FILES FRIDAY: Four years ago, I wrote about how quickly people often are at judging others, especially those who face tough decisions because they love someone with a mental illness or a brain disorder.  This blog was published January 16, 2012, after the Washington Post published an article about a woman who fell in love with someone else after her husband became mentally incapacitated and about the anger aimed at the parents of Jared Loughner, the Tucson shooter, after I defended them in a USA TODAY story. It is a reminder of how easy it is to judge when you are on the outside looking in.)

Two unrelated stories last week caused me to think about how easy it is to blame others without “walking in” their shoes.

The first was an incredible magazine story published by The Washington Post written by Susan Baer. I once worked at the magazine and knew the subject of the cover story, Robert Melton, although certainly not well. Melton suffered a stroke that drastically reduced his cognitive abilities. He was married and his wife, Page, continued to love and take care of him even though he had become a stranger who had little understanding of their marriage or her.  Eventually, Page fell in love with another man. She divorced her husband to marry him.

What makes this story different is that Page and her new husband did not abandon Robert. Rather, they made him a part of their new family and even moved Robert with them to St. Louis when she joined her new husband to begin their lives together.

The story, which was brilliantly told, was a courageous effort to describe one of the most difficult challenges that a person can face in their lives:  what do you do when someone you love suffers a debilitating brain injury. It is an especially poignant question for those of us who love someone with a severe mental disorder or develops dementia.

Many readers saw the article much differently from me. Writing in today’s Washington Post, columnist Robert McCartney revealed in his column that the story sparked a torrent of mean-spirited comments from readers, especially anonymous ones.

McCartney said Page decided to tell her family’s story because she wanted to make people aware of brain injuries and the problems that their survivors and caregives face. Her reward for speaking out was a slew of “outrageous personal insults.”

Writers didn’t stop at condemning [Page] for divorcing her first husband, an act that they said violated her marriage vows. They went on — and on– in one sanctimonious posting after another, to paint her as a selfish, promiscuous publicity hound.

“‘Talk about immoral and sleazy. This woman covers all the bases,’ one poster said.

“‘Nothing like a disability get in the way of your dating’  said another.

Or how about my personal favorite: ‘This woman has absolutely  no right to any happiness whatsoever.'”

In his column’s final paragraph, McCartney writes, “As for the mean-spirited critics, do society a favor: Contribute something useful, or at least have the guts to sign your name. Right now, you’re just fouling a common watering hole.”

If you have time, read the story. It’s worth it.

The second event that caught my eye was the candle light vigil held on the one year anniversary of the Tucson shootings and the public appearance of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. She triumphantly lead the Pledge of Allegiance at the memorial service.

All of us recall that on January 8th, 2011, a young man with an untreated mental illness murdered six and wounded thirteen, including Giffords, in the parking lot of a Safeway grocery story.

I was absolutely thrilled when I watched Giffords’ appearance on television and read the stories. Most focused on her recovery from her traumatic brain injury. One of the reasons why I have been so impressed with Giffords and her astronaut husband, Mark Kelly, is that they have shown great forgiveness and compassion whenever they have spoken about the gunman, Jared Lee Loughner and his parents. Both easily could have blamed the parents and spoken with contempt and hatred about Loughner. But in their statements, they have mentioned that he was ill.

Before the candle-light vigil, I was called by reporter Terry Greene Sterling who was writing a story about Giffords for The Daily Beast . She asked me to describe the obstacles that parents of adult children face when their son or daughter develops a mental disorder but refuse treatment.  A few days after the Tucson shooting, I published an Op Ed editorial in USA TODAY that was headlined: Don’t Blame The Parents of Jared Loughner. At last count, that article had received more than 315 comments and most, sadly, were negative and critical of my stance. The commentators were quick to blame Loughner’s  parents.

I was pleased that Sterling spoke to me and mentioned in her story how Loughner is now caught in a legal limbo hell as his attorney fights with the government about whether or not he should be forcibly medicated and made “sane” enough to be put on trial for murder.

I was disappointed, however, that I didn’t see a single article about the anniversary that asked whether Arizona had done anything to prevent these sorts of tragedies from happening in the future.  There was no mention of changes in the law or community mental health services being improved.

Did Arizona learn nothing from the shootings?

The Washington Post magazine story and the media’s coverage of the Tucson shootings reminded me of how easy it is to judge, attack, blame  and criticize  — especially on the Internet where you can hide behind anonymity — and how difficult it is for many people to think about how they might react if someone in their family suffered a brain  impediment.

One of my favorite quotes has always been by a Roman philosopher:

 If you would judge, understand.

—-Lucius Annaeus Seneca

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.