The demons of a mental illness patient
YARMOUTHPORT, Dec 23, 2012 (Menafn - Cape Cod Times - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --Wyeth Phelps didn't seem much different from his high school classmates.
At 6 feet, 3 inches tall and 225 pounds, the handsome teenager from Connecticut did what everyone seemed to do in high school: party.
But his drinking was only masking his emerging battle with mental illness.
He spent much of his senior year in 1983 in psychiatric hospitals, where he'd been diagnosed as bipolar.
News of his mental illness came as a shock to his classmates at Ridgefield High School, who knew Wyeth only as a super-charged party animal.
When his parents, Bonnie and Jud, of Yarmouthport, wrote Wyeth's obituary -- he died on Nov. 11 at the age of 47 -- they said "debilitating demons of mental illness and substance abuse" killed him.
He hid it well.
In high school, he hid it by drinking so much all you could notice was the effects of the booze.
And, according to his father, that was pretty much the point.
"Wyeth was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of high school," Jud said.
"But he wouldn't take his Ritalin," Bonnie added.
"I think he dabbled with drugs and drinking because he was self-medicating," Jud said. "Wyeth felt he was different and that was his way of dealing with the problem. It's a vicious cycle.
"Wyeth would do anything to feel normal," his father continued. "Except take his meds. The medications said to him, 'I'm different. There is something wrong with me.'"
And so the vicious cycle began.
He did drugs and drank because it seemed more normal than taking pills like some sick kid, his parents said. But then the drinking and drugs became an overwhelming part of the sickness, something to mask his disease from the outside world. His addictions also created a huge hurdle to becoming well.
While no treatments were able to keep him healthy forever, when his parents look back over 30 years of treatment, they see a disheartening trend.
The treatment available to the mentally ill, the addict -- or both -- has become harder to access.
"Early on, we could get him into treatment for 30 or 45 days," Bonnie said. "And insurance would pay for it."
People who needed help used to be able to go somewhere and get their lives back together, she said.
There are still long-term programs and psychiatric beds -- but not nearly enough, said Jud, a retired substance abuse counselor with Gosnold on Cape Cod.
"Now, for most people, they detox you, and you're out in five days," Jud said. "It's just a spin dry."
Hospitals, JAIL CELLS
The cycle really doesn't help the patient much, for many reasons. One of the biggest end results of mental illness is homelessness.
"Those with substance abuse and mental illness, they burn-out their families," Jud said. "So where do they go?"
The Phelps family realized early on Wyeth could not live with them.
"You know with his size, how intimidating he could be. You could not ignore Wyeth when he was in the room," Jud said.
The family had to get some separation "or he would take us all down with him," Bonnie said.
During his life, Wyeth had been to detox hospitals more than 30 times, by his own count, Jud said.
He'd also spent time in jail in every state where he lived -- Connecticut, Minnesota, Florida, Colorado, New York and Massachusetts, his father added.
He could be violent when intoxicated. He was a danger to himself and everyone on the road when he drove while drunk, his father said.
Twice he was rescued from snowbanks, where he'd passed out.
His mother said she cannot even count the number of times she got calls from emergency rooms.
Wyeth -- charming, intelligent, talented -- would have calm, productive times, too. He married twice, and worked in fine hotels and resorts in the maintenance departments because he was a skilled handyman.
He loved the outdoors, and his best periods were spent on his grandmother's farm in New York state.
But then he'd start drinking again or take opiate prescription drugs, and that would be it.
'no place to go'
His final spiral began in 2010 when he came to the Cape to be near his parents and ended up being arrested for breaking and entering, his father said.
He spent a year in the Barnstable County Correctional Facility, where he became close to the chaplain, David Robbins.
"He introduced him to Christ, and Wyeth embraced that," Jud said.
After he was released, Wyeth relapsed and then was able to get a long-term bed at the Miller House, a residential treatment center run by Gosnold.
After that he lived in a sober home in East Falmouth run by the jail's chaplain. He became the house manager, Jud said.
He had a girlfriend. He was doing well.
But then, "he ran across a bottle of booze and he ended up assaulting his girlfriend's uncle, and that was it," Jud said.
No one would take him in: not his family, not his girlfriend nor the sober home.
"He had no place to go," Jud said. "So he ended up in a hotel in Brockton."
That's where he died.
His parents don't have the full autopsy yet. But they think he died from a combination of drugs and alcohol.
How could this have been prevented?
Jud -- who is a board member of The National Alliance on Mental Illness Cape Cod -- said halfway homes or "healthy, supportive and supervised" living arrangements are a huge missing piece in the treatment system.
"If they have no place to go, they are back on the streets and they relapse," he said.
Only a week ago, a mother attending a NAMI support group explained that her mentally ill daughter was about to be released from a psychiatric hospital, said Jud, who runs that support group.
"She cannot go home," he said. "She has burned-out her family."
The hospital workers lamely suggested the NOAH homeless shelter, he said.
But an emergency shelter isn't exactly the best place for someone who needs stability, supervision and support for depression, anxiety, hallucinations and substance abuse, he said.
"When you think about what happened in Newtown," Jud said, "when you think about the big picture, it's so much better to provide adequate treatment, or society pays the consequences."
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