Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

An obituary that needs to be shared January 18, 2023

This is a partial photo of Mark DeWitte’s obit published in The Gaylord Hub. I intentionally focused on the information in column two, middle paragraph. (Minnesota Prairie Roots edited photo January 2023)

HE LIVED THE BEST LIFE POSSIBLE.

That statement in the obituary of a 52-year-old Gaylord man may not seem extraordinary. He died on December 21, 2022, of cancer. But nowhere in Mark DeWitte’s obit does it state that he died after a courageous battle with cancer as is commonly seen in death notices. The only references are to a recent diagnosis and a move home to be with his family while in hospice.

Rather, the health diagnosis which led to that living the best life possible assessment is schizophrenia. Mark was diagnosed at the age of 16, which means he lived with this awful, debilitating brain disorder for 36 years.

DISPELLING THE MYTHS

That Mark’s loving family chose to publicly reveal his schizophrenia in print speaks to the depth of their love, their support and their courage. The misunderstandings attached to this disease all too often create fear and stigma, adding to the challenges of what is already an overwhelming health condition. Visions of violence, split personalities and other negative behaviors too often color schizophrenia with untruths. The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines schizophrenia as “a serious mental illness that interferes with a person’s ability to think clearly, manage emotions, make decisions and relate to others. It is a complex and long-term medical illness.” (I encourage you to read more details about schizophrenia on the NAMI website by clicking here.)

It should be noted that schizophrenia manifests differently in individuals and, although incurable, can often be managed with medication, therapy and more. Managed. Not cured. It’s not easy, but it’s possible to live the best life possible. Mark clearly did that within the confines of his symptoms. But he didn’t do it alone. He had a family who loved him, a community that cared and professionals who supported him. For the past eight years, Mark lived at Aveyron Homes.

Mark’s obituary offers glimpses of what brought him joy: Music. Going out with his brother Mike for beer twice a week. But, most of all, his family brought him joy.

RIPPLING INTO THE FAMILY

Schizophrenia, like any other long-term health issue, affects the entire family. The DeWitte family acknowledges that, not in any specific statement but rather in their willingness to write about their loved one’s life-long disease. Too often, we fail to recognize or even acknowledge the challenges of a serious mental illness and how it affects those dealing with and touched by it. Generally, there are no meals delivered during a mental health crisis. No “how are you doing?” questions or offers of help. Minimal, if any, compassion. Rather, the reaction is often one of silence, as if not speaking about “it” negates the need to show care or attempt to understand. There are exceptions, of course, and we as a society are slowly shifting towards understanding and acknowledgment and reducing stigmas about mental illness. Still, mental illness remains mostly hidden.

BREAKING THE SILENCE

Mark’s family is breaking the silence via their openness about his schizophrenia. It’s clear from a follow-up public thank you published in their weekly newspaper, The Gaylord Hub, that the community supported them. Linda DeWitte (Mark’s mom) and Michael DeWitte thanked the community for food, cards, flowers, memorials and even for snow removal. I can only assume the community also supported them when Mark was alive.

That Mark lived the best life possible while living with a horrible horrible disease comforts me. His family may not have stated that he died after a courageous battle with schizophrenia. But in my eyes he did.

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FYI: I encourage you to visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness website (click here) to learn more about mental health issues like schizophrenia, bipolar, depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder and more. NAMI offers information, support and help, including online and in-person support groups. Check your state’s NAMI organization for specifics. NAMI is a valuable resource that can grow knowledge, compassion and understanding.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Focus on mental health: The family living along Hidden Valley Road May 10, 2021

…I THOUGHT I WAS such a good mother. I baked a cake and a pie every night. Or at least had Jell-O with whipped cream.

That quote from Mimi Galvin, mother of 12, struck me as particularly personal and profound in a 377-page book focusing on one family’s experiences with schizophrenia. Six of Mimi and Don Galvin’s children developed schizophrenia, labeled by author Robert Kolker as “humanity’s most perplexing disease.”

Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road—Inside the Mind of an American Family rates as a difficult read. But this 2020 Oprah’s Book Club pick is something every single person should read to understand the depths and intricacies of a biologically-based brain disorder like schizophrenia. And how it affected one Colorado family with children born between 1945-1965.

But back to that quote and the context thereof. Doctors and others blamed Mimi for her sons’ mental illnesses. Their criticism left her crushed, traumatized, paralyzed, ashamed. Feeling all alone and guilty, as if she wasn’t a “good mother.” Such was the accusatory thinking of medical professionals. Mothers, especially, were targeted and even labeled as “schizophrenogenic mothers.” Can you imagine? Movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (released in 1960) reinforced that theory with Norman Bates’ mother blamed for his delusional homicidal mania.

This was also the era of shock therapy and restraints and so much misunderstanding and horror. Even unafflicted Galvin siblings wondered why their brothers couldn’t simply snap out of it. That thought pattern seems almost laughable, even absurd, to me. Yet, too many people still think that. Why can’t someone simply shut out delusional thoughts and paranoia, stop talking gibberish, separate perception from reality, silence the voices in their head, go to sleep rather than stay awake all night…? And more, much more, detailed with heartbreaking truth in this story of the Galvin family.

This family experienced heartbreak almost beyond belief. Tragedy. Abuse. Violence. Disconnect. Feelings of abandonment. So. Much. Trauma.

If I ended this review now, you would likely feel incredibly disheartened, wondering why you would even want to read such a book. And you would be justified in thinking that. But this story of an American family in the thick of schizophrenia is also inspiring. Hopeful. The Galvins allowed researchers to study their DNA, to learn more about “humanity’s most perplexing disease.” A disease centered in the brain. A disease with genetic markers. Mutations. A spectrum illness. No more mother/parent blaming.

I won’t attempt to further explain those scientific findings. I’m not, as I term myself, a medical person. I had to read and reread the medical parts of this book. But I grasp the basics. That researchers, although too often hindered by lack of funding (including from pharmaceutical companies), continue to work on researching and understanding schizophrenia, on finding better medications to treat symptoms and, ultimately, to prevent the onset of this horrible disease.

I encourage you to read Hidden Valley Road. You may struggle to get through this story. But press on. And then, when you’ve finished, vow to love, support and encourage anyone dealing with mental health issues. And their families.

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FYI: May is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you or someone you love is struggling with mental health, seek help. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, which originated in Minnesota, is a good place to start. I will continue to do what I can to advocate, educate and increase awareness.

I invite you to read three previous reviews I’ve written on books that focus on mental health:

Fix What You Can—Schizophrenia and a Lawmaker’s Fight for Her Son by Mindy Greiling

Behind the Wall—The True Story of Mental Illness as Told by Parents by Mary Widdifield and Elin Widdifield

The Crusade for Forgotten Souls—Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions, 1946-1954 by Susan Bartlett Foote

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling