22 October 2014, St David's Catholic Church, Arnold, Missouri, USA
Karen Dill-Shackleford is a social psychologist who studies the psychology of everyday media use and the author of 'How Fantasy Becomes Reality'. A psychologist, but not a therapist, Karen's talk reflects on her brother's life and thanks her mother, Joan, for the grace she showed in raising Bob, who suffered severe mental illness. It first appeared in Psychology Today.
I’m Bob’s sister, Karen, here to give his eulogy. For those who don’t know, my parents had three children. My sister, Christine, is the nicest and the most likeable; my brother, Bob, the smartest and most talented; and me: I’m…the youngest. I’m here today to share memories and thoughts about my brother Bob on behalf of myself and of my sister, Christine, and of all my family. We wanted to remember the person he was and to celebrate his life. My sister wants everyone to know that we think that Bob was an awesome brother.
My brother was not average – pretty much in any way. Those of you who knew him well knew that he was incredibly smart and talented. You also know that it was never easy to be Bob. When Bob was a teenager he suffered his first onslaught of mental illness. He was hospitalized with major depression, though they called it a chemical imbalance in those days. I remember how scared he was and how deeply he was hurting. He stayed in the hospital for some time, missing a semester of high school. But that summer he taught himself trigonometry and went back his senior year to calculus class. He finished the year at the top of that calculus class and, when they graduated at Busch Stadium, he gave the address as Salutatorian.
In addition to serious depression, Bob also had to cope with social deficits. I don’t know if he’d been born 10 or 20 years later if someone would have diagnosed him with being on the autism spectrum, perhaps as having Asperger’s Syndrome. In any case, he was very different socially from all the other kids. He also had a speech impediment. Many times my sister and I found ourselves explaining Bob and talking for him. We loved him and we wanted to translate Bob to the world to put everyone at ease.
Similar to people who are on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum, Bob had social deficits, but also noteworthy talents. He eventually earned a degree in mathematics with a minor in computer science. He really loved math and computers and would talk about them endlessly, fixating on the things that intrigued him. Some people who excel at math or computers aren’t good at English, but Bob was also excellent at English. When I was in AP English in high school, my teacher read one of Bob’s essays aloud to our class as an example of an exemplary essay. His challenges kept Bob out of college for a while, and though he was 3 ½ years older than I was, he ended up going to college at Mizzou with me for a time. He hung out with my group of friends and we spent a lot of time together. I remember that he was always helping other people in his classes write their computer code. Those things that flummoxed others came so naturally to Bob. In fact, I recall that he had an old rudimentary computer years ago, a Radio Shack model with a tape recorder attached to it, and with only lines of code, he managed to write a poker game complete with pictures and sounds. I’ll never know how he did it, but he did it.
Bob was also very artistic. When he was in elementary school, the art teacher made a display of only his work in the school hallway, which was unusual. He tried many different kinds of art, from carving bars of soap at home to making charcoal drawings to painting. But maybe his favorite art was photography. One of my favorite memories of Bob is a time that we had a beautiful spring day off of school together and Bob drove us to Bee Tree Park. We walked around and Bob took interesting artistic photos, such as a picture of our feet propped up on the rail of a gazebo.
When you suffer from chronic major depression at the level that Bob did, life can be so very painful. Looking back on Bob’s life, my sister and I have been thinking about the toll mental illness took on him over the years. Christine describes Bob’s depression as a storm, and his episodes like a storm breaking over him. We think that Bob was happiest when he was a child. In those days we called him Robbie or Bobbie. I admit that I called him Roberta as often as I could.
Bob was different, as I say, pretty much always. But when he was little, he laughed and joked a lot. He loved being outside, playing and riding his bike. He was also a little trickster. I recall the days when he would set traps for us so that when we opened a bedroom door, we’d get hit on the head by a cup of water or even flour. He was funny. Bob also loved to do voices and pull faces. He had a sense of humor that was all Bob. He also had a wild laugh, almost a cackle with a wheeze, which he would emit when he was watching silly TV shows. You could hear that laugh all over the house.
Over the years, as Bob’s bouts with depression and the difficult episodes continued to crash onto his shores like breaking storms, it seemed that each impending storm took a greater toll...took away a part of who he was from us and from him. He went through periods where he was so afraid of the world that going out in public was too much for him, and periods where he said almost nothing. As the destruction of those waves hit him time after time, a little bit of Bob would disappear each time.
In the last few years, at times he seemed more remote than ever, less like himself than ever. Bob had a number of pretty awful episodes of mental illness. During these times he sometimes lost touch with reality. A few years ago, he decided that the drugs he was taking for his mental illness were poison. He started to have strange thoughts and beliefs. He called me and told me many unreal things, such as saying that some people can control the weather with their thoughts. At one point, he couldn’t sleep, so he drove around all night, every night for days on end. I feared he would hurt himself or others. Then he got angry with friends and family and took off on the open road, having a series of odd encounters with strangers. My mother tried to get him into the hospital, but red tape got in the way of helping him. While Bob was off his meds and his thoughts had lost touch with reality, our Aunt Betty, our Dad’s twin sister, was very ill with cancer. Sadly, at that time, Bob had convinced himself that she didn’t really have cancer and he told her so. If you don’t know a lot about mental illness, this behavior might seem purely thoughtless or mean. But if you can look inside the mind of a mentally ill person, you can see what may have caused that behavior. Bob loved Aunt Betty so much that he could not deal with the idea that he was losing her. So, in his sick mind, he rejected the idea entirely. I think it’s possible that this was his way of coping. In the end, it was one tragedy piled on top of another one.
This leads me to another reason that I wanted to give Bob’s eulogy. When someone suffers from mental illness, it is also a struggle for those who are close to him. In thinking back on Bob’s life, I think it’s very possible that some of us here are holding onto some guilt or disappointment about times when we felt we didn’t do as much as we might have wanted to do for Bob. If you feel that way at all, I ask you to treat yourself with the same compassion you would offer a good friend and forgive yourself. Bob would want you to do that.
I also want to acknowledge all the people who did their best with Bob, though it was not always easy. So many among us were kind and compassionate. Friends and family took him in, helped him get back on his feet, talked with him or listened when he needed it, and really acted out of love and compassion time and time again. From my dad, Bob, to my stepdad, Leo, to my sister, Christine, to his roommate, Cathy, to aunts, uncles, cousins and friends – to all of you who loved Bob and did your best for him – thank you. There are some very special people in this room and in Bob’s life.
And there’s something else I need to say. Someone else I need to thank. I’m not sure if I can make it through this part or not, but I want to try. I want to thank my mother for all she did for her son. As a mother myself, I know that there are not a lot of medals that get handed out for good mothering, but there are a lot that are deserved. Thought I don’t think there’s a reason in the world that my mother would have been prepared to raise a child like Bob, she always seemed to have a knack for it. She had such a gentle way with Bob. When he did things that were maddening, it hurt her, but she hung in there. She stepped up to the plate every time and tried to help him. She was sweet and kind. She always made Bob feel like he was wanted and welcome, no matter how odd or broken he’d become. The best way I can describe it is that she treated him with a kind of unearthly love that I feel privileged to have seen. Maybe there aren’t any medals for mothering, mom, but there should be. So, I’m giving you an honorary medal today—a gold heart-- for being Bob’s mother and doing it with such extraordinary grace and love.
Speaking of love, I’ve told you about how hard it was to be in Bob’s life. But it’s also true that Bob really did have an extraordinary way of loving those who were close to him. For example, once Bob and I were at a party. Some guy was there who had gotten very drunk and was hitting on all the girls. Well, when this mad Romeo tried to grab me and make me dance with him, my brother, who was 6’2”, swiftly and deftly deflected the guy and moved me out of harm’s way. It was all done without a word and in a few seconds, as if by magic. I remember to this day the way it made me feel – that my brother was there, watching quietly, ready take care of me. It told me that he cared and that he had my back. This may seem a weird kind of story to tell at a funeral, but it strikes me that it tells you a whole lot about my brother. Maybe he didn’t always have the words to relate to other people. But he had the best of intentions and he really loved the people in his life.
As another example, the last year of his life he spent caring for his roommate who was very sick with cancer. He was glad to be there for Cathy and it gave him a renewed sense of purpose in life. When I think back on Bob’s life, what rises to the top for me is that I know that my brother really loved the people around him.
In low moments, I have often felt regret for Bob…regret for the pain he suffered; regret that he could not freely apply his natural talents because of the burdens that mental illness put on him. But I think that I’ve been unfair in judging his life that way. It’s unfair because if I judge his life this way, I haven’t then given him credit for what he did accomplish despite his burdens. He suffered from crippling depression, but he kept fighting that battle all his life. That took an incredible amount of bravery and stamina. He had social deficits, but he still loved being with people. As I mentioned, he ended his days as a friend’s caregiver. Given the weight on his shoulders, he accomplished quite a lot in his too short life.
I’ve mentioned Bob’s challenges; I also wanted to say that I really liked my brother and I loved his sense of humor. -- And besides…really, what is there in life to accomplish but to love and to be loved?
Bob, you loved us well and we loved you. We will miss you.
Karen E Dill-Shackleton is a social psychologist and the author of this book. You can purchse it here.