For more than 50 years, Judy Muzzi lived with mental illness. Her brother's, not her own. But a disease of the mind doesn't conveniently stop at the body's boundaries – it spreads its way through a family, often leaving behind feelings of pain, guilt and bewilderment.
Ms. Muzzi's brother, Gus, died two years ago of a deliberate drug overdose at the age of 68. He had suffered from depression his entire adult life, and his illness inevitably brought suffering to his siblings as well.
“It was devastating to our family,” says Ms. Muzzi, a Lindsay, Ont., resident who at 74 works as an advocate for senior citizens across Ontario. “We never knew if what we were doing was right or wrong.”
The social workers Ms. Muzzi worked with were generous with advice, but her brother's erratic behaviour made their rational action plans much harder to implement.
“He ruined my parents' senior years,” Ms. Muzzi says, without rancour, knowing that her brother's strange behaviour was not malicious. “They were always worrying about him. When my mother was dying, all she kept telling us was, ‘Look after Gus.'”
Gus, perhaps because of the partial lobotomy he underwent when young, had proved unable to grasp a sense of consequences. He tried to rob a bank and ended up being taken home to dinner by the officer who arrested him. He stole money from his parents and attempted to forge a deed to their home. In the family lore – you take your laughs where you can find them – he was famous for renting cars and never returning them.
As Gus grew older, he started disappearing for long stretches of time. “I think he was aware of his problems, that he couldn't stop doing these things. So he'd go through these periods of being ashamed and cut off all contact with us.”
The last disappearance ended with a phone call from a hospital in Kitchener, Ont., where Gus lay dying from the overdose that none of his siblings, who loved him in spite of it all, would ever have predicted. They gathered in the grungy rooming house that was his final escape, trying to make sense of the meagre possessions and scraps of correspondence he had left behind.
“It was very hard, and we still have trouble talking about it,” Ms. Muzzi says. But now she is willing to share her thoughts, hoping that more attention can be focused on the early symptoms of depression before it spins out of control and compromises the love families feel for their own.
Though it goes against modern thinking on patients rights, she wishes she could have had Gus incarcerated. “I don't know that he could have been helped,” she says, “but at least he'd still be alive.” And then she adds, with sisterly understanding: “He would have hated it.”
John Allemang is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. For more stories from readers who are dealing with mental-health issues, visit globeandmail.com.