When I was growing up, my family told me stories about a state psychiatric hospital in western Pennsylvania. Two of my ancestors—a great-grandfather and a great-uncle—lived at the hospital on and off for years while undergoing treatment.
Both men passed away before I met them. Their lives ended prematurely—one by suicide and the other for mysterious reasons nobody ever pinpointed. These stories, my first introduction to mental health, were mysterious and frightening.
According to my dad, doctors diagnosed my great-grandfather with schizophrenia. His worst moment was when he accused his wife of trying to poison him with unsweetened baker's cocoa. That was "back then," my dad disclaimed. Doctors said everybody had schizophrenia, he argued, and my great-grandpa's diagnosis might have been different today.
Sifting through old stories is like an excavation. I encounter remnants of information, clues leading to temporary conclusions, but I never achieve clarity. As a descendant of people who were institutionalized, I've carried worry from a young age that something may be wrong with me, too.
Fortunately, I've been