This is the second in a series, featuring people who have gone through difficult times and, through their own processes of healing, have come to a place of peace. Unless we are people like Eckhart Tolle or Byron Katie who have had spontaneous awakenings, it can take a very long time… and yet with perseverance and grace, we are healed.
This week I am proud to feature a dear friend of mine, Judith Rockert. I met Judith approximately twenty years ago in Toronto and there was an instant camaraderie. Not long after we met, she learned of my bouts of deep depression, the revolving-door hospitalizations, and became a rock for me.
Unfortunately, she had had plenty of experience as a caregiver for someone with mental illness—her very own precious and truly gifted son Mitch, who lived with schizophrenia. Mitch took his life some years before I met Judith. Judith is a hero to me. Below is Mitch’s story told in Judith’s words. In addition there is an audio-file you can listen to, starting with a recording of Mitch playing music with friends.
In November 2015 when I was visiting Toronto, Judith took me to see Mitch’s artwork in the gallery where it is now permanently housed, and I had the privilege of having Judith share the stories that went with each piece.
If you have a story you’d like to share with us, please tell me about it or leave a comment below.
Mitch Rockert: 1957 – 1983
by Judith Rockert
Much of the 25 years of my son Mitch’s life were a living nightmare for him and all of us who dearly loved him. He was conscious, warm and loving, funny, handsome, tender and charismatic. He was brilliant, a talented musician, a creative artist and he also had paranoid schizophrenia with severe psychotic bouts. He was in pain with no relief in sight. He was a spectacular person with deep insight into his condition.
It was the dark ages of mental illness. Very little was known or explained, there were poor medical facilities for people like him, and terrible communication between doctors and families. In these times, secrecy was standard, and people hesitated to discuss suicide for fear of triggering another attempt—and there were many. Meds were riddled with side effects that were unmanageable.
In Canada, there were no locked facilities and the professionals clearly indicated that if Mitch wasn’t confined, he would surely take his life. Keeping him alive until after he turned 30 was the goal, as apparently the illness becomes a washed-down version after that. I was determined to find answers, doctors who could help us—I committed to leaving NO stone unturned.
I found a hospital in Connecticut that met our prerequisites, and he was admitted in 1978, remaining there for 4 years. Following his return to Toronto, he took his life in a subway in April of 1983 at the age of 25.
How did I cope? Those were gut-wrenching days for me. I was the owner of a travel business that was very demanding. In some ways, it probably saved me, occupying my mind with something other than mental illness.
In other ways, my physical being was breaking down. I experienced huge weight gain, crying and sobbing daily in emotional pain, hiding from those that didn’t ‘get it’, trying to keep the family together, keeping the peace between our staff and my business partner, whose morals and values were the polar opposite of mine, and always wearing a mask to the outside world. I lived a pretense.
Quite apart from the issues of psychiatrists, hospitals, electric shock therapy and anti psychotic drugs, I came to realize that the rest of my life was toxic. I was pulled in many directions and needed a warm heart and arm around me. Both eluded me. There was no refuge.
I was really alone and from that I learned to be strong within myself. I discovered that I had whatever I needed inside of me. I was my light—my light was in me. I was my strength; my strength was in me. I relied on my own resources for comfort and sustenance. I found my power.
I also think that having a fatal food allergy has strengthened my core. I must be vigilant daily in my food intake whether I’m cooking for myself or eating in a trusted restaurant. My very life rests in my hands so I’ve grown strong within myself. I’m very outgoing, well-travelled, and love people, so I bond with others easily and am interested in their lives.
During those years, I connected with two psychotherapist friends that I could talk to. It was a great relief to speak openly about Mitch’s condition and the heartache caused by the chaos of mental illness.
For those of you facing a mental illness diagnosis of a loved one today, the dark ages have morphed into the light. There are now better drugs, improved medical facilities, better communication between families and doctors, and a host of supportive services available. An openness and acceptance have evolved where only hiding and shame existed.
Search out every resource and give some of them a try. Some will fit with your story and others will not. But know that hope is here where there was a vacuum in Mitch’s time. I encourage you to search, to find a new piece… something you didn’t know before; something that will help you and your loved one. My open heart wishes you many insights on your journey.
After Mitch’s death, I sought advice and guidance and when I was ready, there was a divorce, saying goodbye to the business I’d nurtured, and finally a knowing that Mitch had achieved the success he was so driven to accomplish—taking his life and ending the pain for which there was no other answer.
Years later, I wrote this poem:
The open window frames the midnight sky.
A sliver of a silver moon hangs suspended, keeping company with a myriad of stars.
Translucent clouds appear as if by palate, brushed here and there amongst the heavens.
During this tranquil moment, I think of you Mitch, a spirit free of pain, having paid your karmic debt while here on earth.
Gone are the incarcerations and confinements that bound your soul.
Your purity and goodness transcends the higher plane you now call home.
My heart is full of maternal love for who you were; for the legacy and life awakening lessons you left behind.
There is great peace in knowing you are finally free~~~and so am I.
Gainey Ranch, Scottsdale, Arizona | Winter 1992
Mitch’s Art Exhibit Opening
Several years ago, I was looking for a permanent place for Mitch’s paintings to be displayed. A friend introduced me to Dr. Nehama Baum, the Director of the MukiBaum Accessibility Centre in Toronto. Dr. Baum opened her arms to the idea of being a home to Mitch’s some thirty pieces of artwork. She suggested an opening night to introduce his work. She is a maverick in this field; a woman of great wisdom and experience. Using Dr. Baum’s person-centred Multi-Focal Approach, the Centre provides services, treatments, and opportunities to people with complex autism and other developmental, and/or neurological sensory disabilities.
Below is a recording of the art exhibit opening (wait 10 seconds for the sound to start). You’ll hear Mitch playing guitar and bass on two songs. He and some friends recorded the songs in Connecticut a few months before he died.
There were several speakers that evening: Bob, a cousin, spoke of his connection to Mitch and their shared love of the outdoors, Dr. John spoke of his work with the brain, Dr. Baum spoke of the dream every parent has for their child, and I spoke of Mitch, his life and his death.
Instead of offering a writing prompt this week, I would like to put this to you: if you are a parent, friend, or caregiver of a person with a mental health challenge, or are someone with a lived experience of mental illness, it would be wonderful to receive your comments. You can leave a comment for Judith or share your own journey below.
For myself, as a woman with bi-polar illness, diagnosed at the age of 19, I can say that today there is so much more hope. I am blessed to work part-time at BC Schizophrenia Society in Victoria and there are wonderful programs that are life changing and are also free of charge. You can see what we offer here.
As always, please leave a comment below or join us at Junie’s Writing Sanctuary to join the conversation.