Peter von Ziegesar is a New York-based writer who published a memoir in May 2014 about eventually becoming the sole caretaker of his schizophrenic and homeless step-brother.
“The Looking Glass Brother is a fairly realistic view of mental illness in the context of family and growing up,” von Ziegesar told BuzzFeed.
“One of the things I was very conscious of doing throughout the book was to contrast my stepbrother’s life path and state of mind with my own, which was admittedly never that directed or balanced either.”
The author spoke to BuzzFeed over email and talked about what he’s learned in dealing with mental illness in his family, why more people should speak up, and what helps him cope. Here’s what he had to say:
Try to accept him on his own terms rather than control or change him.
What’s one important lesson you’ve learned from dealing with mental illness?
Peter von Ziegesar: The most important thing I’ve learned about mental illness from dealing with my stepbrother, who is both mentally ill and homeless, is to try to accept him on his own terms rather than control or change him. There is no reason why being mentally ill should disqualify a person from having opinions even about his own treatment or course of action. For example, my stepbrother always said that being homeless and living outside was the only way he could live. I was able to take him at his word, possibly because I’d tried out some alternate lifestyles when I was young, such as hitchhiking around the country, and because I’d been through four years of art college and hung round what you might call a bohemian crowd, where I was able to observe and meet people who were mentally stable and intelligent but had very un-mainstream ways of going about their lives and businesses. Most members of my family can’t accept the idea that Little Peter (my stepbrother) is not going to go to college or become employed anytime soon and find it sad and a waste. But for myself I don’t see why people have to live in houses and have jobs if they don’t want to and can figure out a way not to. Happiness in life is both subjective and elusive and my stepbrother has done a very good job of adapting to the conditions into which he has led himself.
What are the benefits of speaking up about mental health issues?
PVZ: As far as I can see, the benefits are that there might be a greater multiplicity of ideas if mental illness were to be talked about openly rather than hidden among individual families, or kept to professionals, or those with political axes to grind. For example, now after Columbine and Sandy Hook and other mass shootings by crazed individuals it’s become the fashion among right-wingers, Republican legislators and others controlled by the NRA to speak of keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. I don’t see why people like these should control the discourse or be empowered to decide who is mentally ill and who isn’t, because it’s likely, to my mind, that many of them are mentally ill themselves.
Is there a book or piece of writing that you would recommend that gets mental health right?
PVZ: A book I admire that’s both sweet and honest is Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg, about his grown daughter’s breakdown in New York City. There is also the standard family handbook, Surviving Schizophrenia by Dr. E. Fuller Torrey. Torrey is a hard-liner for medical intervention as opposed to talk treatment of schizophrenia who has been proven dead wrong in his central thesis, but I found his book fascinating, sensitive, and helpful. You’ve got to get it to get past it.
What has helped you cope with mental illness?
PVZ: Having a certain resilience in my point of view about what other people are or should be like, and second, having a wife who is a trained social worker. Let’s not forget when we talk about mental illness that there are oodles of people out there on the front lines who deal with the far-gone mentally ill every day with empathy and skill and have an enormous storehouse of hands-on experience to draw upon, if we could somehow summarize or access it. Let us not forget, too, that all of us exist on a spectrum of mental illness and that life itself is an unstable construct likely to fall apart at the slightest shock.