What My Father’s Mental Illness Taught Me

"It’s bad enough to be part of a group outside the mainstream. But when individuals are convinced that their own weaknesses and moral failings lie at the root of the problem, things hit bottom"

by Stephen Hinshaw

Stephen Hinshaw’s father, the philosopher Virgil Hinshaw, Jr., grew up in California, the son of a Prohibitionist father and missionary mother and step-mother (his mother died when he was three). During the mid-1930s, he became obsessed with the worldwide fascist movement. As part of his first manic episode at age 16, and now fully delusional, he attempted to fly from the roof of his family home, believing that his arms had become wings, to send a message to the world’s leaders to stop the Nazis. He survived but was brutally hospitalized for the next six months, beginning a life of brilliance interspersed with madness. Years later, as a professor at Ohio State, he periodically vanished (when involuntarily hospitalized), but his doctors ordered that his young children, Steve and Sally, never be told the truth about these mysterious absences, lest they be permanently damaged by such knowledge. The shame and stigma surrounding mental illness clouded Steve’s childhood — and pervaded the entire family.

Here, in an excerpt from his newly released memoir “Another Kind of Madness: A Journey Through the Stigma and Hope of Mental Illness, Stephen tells a piece of his story.

I was now in fourth grade and Dad had been back for a few months. My frame of mind was better than the year before during his seemingly endless absence.

On a cool fall afternoon he pulled me into the driveway as soon as he arrived from campus. “Hold out your hands in front of you,” he said, pausing while I lifted my arms. “That’s it, make a ball of air.” He was starting some kind of science lesson, maybe a deeper lesson, too. With him it was hard to tell. “How many molecules of air, how many atoms of oxygen or nitrogen composing these molecules, do you suppose are inside your hands? Can you make a guess?”

I knew that atoms were small. “Umm, maybe millions?”

Dad shook his head. “Many more,” he replied, a look of wonder filling his eyes. “The answer is probably closer to quadrillions, even quintillions. Imagine! More than the grains of sand on a vast beach, on scores of beaches.”

He went on to say that most of an atom is empty space, the nucleus and electrons tiny compared to the vast area in between, like planets orbiting a sun. “As Einstein said, the nucleus is like the fly inside a cathedral,” Dad continued, my everyday world long vanished. “The world around us is full of miracles,” he concluded, “beyond our powers of observation.”

Making small talk at family gatherings with a strained expression, Dad might answer politely about the weather or what might be served for dinner. Yet when speaking about science or different eras in history, his voice filled with quiet exultation. One version of him was slightly lost at sea, struggling to maintain a presence in the world everyone else inhabited, but the other—impassioned and persuasive—sought the essence of existence. When I thought about his two styles a chill shot up my spine, though I couldn’t say why…

Mom was now far busier, as she’d returned to Ohio State to earn a second Master’s degree and a teaching credential, with the goal of instructing English and history to junior high school students. Out on the picnic table in the backyard during warm weather, I saw Dad sitting next to her as they craned their necks over the text on transformational grammar from her linguistics course. Patiently, he explained the intricacies of Chomsky’s analysis, the diagrams appearing like spider webs. Their heads and torsos tilted toward each other as they shared their deep concentration.

Back then, I zeroed in on a landing strip of planning, school, and athletics, aiming right for the middle. Like a medieval map of the flat earth, the world ceased to exist beyond the controlled borders of those three activities. Everywhere else the unspeakable lurked. Something lay in waiting just beyond my controlled life but I couldn’t imagine what.

Night times were still hard. The swear words didn’t come into my mind like the year before, when Dad was gone, but I worried that if I couldn’t sleep I’d become desperately ill. The fear clung to me like a chronic fever.

One evening in the late fall I fell asleep quickly but in the middle of the night sat bolt upright, my heart pounding. Stricken, in the confused state of the wee hours, I was convinced that I’d not slept at all, overwhelmed with the belief that if I lay there any longer my heart might stop. I jumped down from the top bunk, rushed across the carpet, and banged hard on my parents’ bedroom door. I should have kept quiet for Sally, sleeping in her nearby room, but I couldn’t help it.

“Mom! Dad!” I shouted, sobbing. “I’m getting sick. Help!” No answer; I pounded once more. “Please, help me. I might die.”

After a moment, I heard a soft padding sound. Opening the door slowly, Dad peered out. Wearing pajamas, his eyes ringed with sleep, he whispered: “What is it?”

“I’ve been up all night. I can’t sleep. I don’t think I can live.”

He paused, turned, and spoke softly back in the direction of Mom. Then, gesturing for me to lead the way, he followed me back to my bedroom. After I climbed the ladder up to my bunk, he rubbed my forehead. “Tell me again what’s troubling you,” he asked quietly.

Half choking, I blurted it out. “I’ve been up all night; I can’t sleep. I could die by morning.” I began sobbing again.

He pondered for a moment. “There’s no need to worry,” he said calmly but with assurance. “Simply resting helps your body; it’s perhaps 70 percent as good as sleep.” Picking up force, he continued.

“You may not know it, Steve, but you live in an age of miracles. Even if you were to become sick, doctors can now treat many diseases with new medicines.” When he was a boy, he continued, antibiotics and other current medicines didn’t exist. Many people died, some tragically young. He reminded me that my great-uncle Corwin was on the research team discovering the mechanisms of antibiotics for treating tuberculosis.

“Imagine the time before such medicines,” he continued, “the rates of death were tragic.”

He summed up: “Why, with the progress being made today—with these miracles of modern medicine—if you take good care of yourself, you’ll probably live to be 100 years of age!” In a flash the ceiling retracted, like the one above the astronomer in my first-grade drawing, starlight pouring in from the observatory’s opening. A hundred years!

Dad began to talk about additional discoveries but I’d already started to drift. He soon said good night and walked back across the carpet. Nearly asleep, I held the number in my mind. Not eternity, perhaps, but 100 years seemed a vast span.

As an adult I began to consider my father’s interest in the miracles of modern medicine he’d described. Undoubtedly, he was wondering why no such miracles had ever been available for him. Why were his mysterious episodes so unexpected, so shameful—and so far removed from any satisfactory medical care? He felt, as he told me in his later years, that no one understood his plight and that he was not even deserving of help.

When individuals belong to groups that receive strong stigma and inevitably hear society’s messages about their group, there’s a good chance they’ll absorb the underlying content. In other words, social stigma transforms into self-stigma, completing a vicious cycle. Such internalized stigma—the view that one is fundamentally flawed and unworthy—carries devastating consequences.

It’s bad enough to be part of a group outside the mainstream. But when individuals are convinced that their own weaknesses and moral failings lie at the root of the problem, things hit bottom. Not surprisingly, in the case of mental illness, high levels of self-stigma predict a failure to seek treatment, or early drop-out if treatment has actually begun.

Not all members of stigmatized groups show self-stigma. Despite the persistence of racial prejudice and bias, many members of racial minority groups in the United States have healthy levels of self-esteem. A protective factor is solidarity and positive identification with other group members. Think of Black Power, gay pride, or the women’s movement, which can thwart negative identification while promoting advocacy and positive self-regard.

But until quite recently, who would have ever wanted to identify with a group that, by definition, was crazy, insane, or psycho? The isolation and shame associated with mental illness perpetuates internalized stigma, which in turn propels even more despair. Self-help groups and movements did not exist in Dad’s time, but today they’re a major part of the mental health landscape. Although they cannot, by themselves, eradicate either public stigma or self-stigma, they’re part of the solution.

Excerpted from ANOTHER KIND OF MADNESS: A Journey Through the Stigma and Hope of Mental Illness by Stephen Hinshaw Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.