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Steve & Marty Remis

Breaking the silence

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After generations of family mental illness and addiction that was never discussed, Steve and Marty Remis have become vocal mental health advocates.

Listent to Steve and Marty’s Story

The only reason Steve Remis believes he is still happily married is because 39 years ago, motivated by the fear of losing his wife Marty, he found Alcoholics Anonymous and hasn’t had a drink since. That was 14 years of binge drinking into a marriage that has now endured more than a half century.

“For sure, that was my catalyst,” he recalls. “I remember looking in her eyes and thinking, she’s had enough, and that definitely got my attention. That’s where my rock bottom was. The fact that I could lose her was enough to bring me to my knees.

“I believe, whether it’s a mental illness or addiction or whether you lump those two together as I do, there always has to be this bottom, this despair, this ‘can’t go on.’ And then if all those things we need in recovery start coming together, then you’ve got a chance.”

Six months after he discovered AA, Remis made a trip to see his mother, bubbling with excitement over having found “the answer” and eager to talk about the alcoholism and mental health issues that had also plagued his father, but were taboo topics in the family.

“Well, that’s wonderful, Steve,” his mother told him. “Would you like to go to one of the meetings I’ve been attending for years?” She’d discovered AA long before he had in order to cope with her husband’s addiction, but had never said a word about it.

Remis, one of eight siblings, grew up in a family that had “the curse of the Irish Catholic thing going for us.” By that the retired attorney means the double whammy of not only believing that challenges and temptations could be overcome with will power and a devotion to God, but also that dirty laundry was not to be publicly aired.

So despite a multi-generational history of alcoholism, mental health issues and suicide, those topics were never acknowledged or spoken of, even between family members.

“Our family practices the elephant in the room,” says Remis who is bespectacled and bald but looks younger than his 77 years. “We talk about anything but mental health or addiction. It’s just not ever on the table. We have never once gotten together as a family and talked about this stuff.”

That was true in 1965, when Remis, in his early twenties and serving with the Air Force in Okinawa, received word that his favorite uncle had died. It would be decades before he learned that Uncle George had taken his own life, after struggling for years with an alcohol addiction.

It was also the case 28 years later, when Remis’s youngest brother, Rick – also a veteran and an alcoholic who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia after his Army service – took his own life, hanging himself in the attic of the family’s home, where he was discovered by his mother and a sister. Family members united in their grief, but also in their silence.

Two of Remis’s sisters have also struggled with mental health issues. But to this day, he knows not exactly what those issues are and how – or if — they are being managed.

There is a history of mental health issues in Marty Remis’s family too. She vaguely recalls hearing about a relation from an earlier generation who, in a typical euphemism, was described as “a little different.” But it wasn’t until the day she and her mother had to make an emergency trip to see her divorced older sister, who had called them, making outlandish statements and no sense whatsoever, that she saw a mental health crisis up close and realized she “knew absolutely nothing about any form of mental illness whatsoever.”

“What ensued was probably the most scary 24 hours of my life, because I had no idea what was going on,” says Marty, 76, who worked for decades for the Center for Disease Control. “The stuff she was saying… this was not my sister. I knew enough to know we had to get her to a hospital, but she was absolutely adamant she didn’t want to go. It was a very, very scary experience and not one I wanted to repeat, so I conveniently buried it in my deep memory because it was so painful.”

So, seven years ago when the Remises started getting “crazy phone calls” from their adult son (then in his 30s) and messages of alarm from his siblings, they still felt utterly unprepared to handle the crisis.

“We didn’t know the genetic component, we were just totally ignorant,” says Marty. “I think any recognition I had was because the conversations were so similar to the ones I’d had with my sister. That same rambling, not making any sense, I think that clued me in to the fact that it had to do with his mental health.”

Instead of honoring the family tradition, the Remises chose to break the generations of silence and shame. In 2011, when they first moved permanently to Sarasota, the local chapter of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), had fallen dormant. But shortly thereafter, a determined handful of volunteers spurred a new board, volunteers and programming. The first thing the Remises did was to join a support group of other parents of adult children with mental health issues.

“The hugest thing you get from that is to know you’re not alone,” Marty Remis says. “Because when this happens and you’re as ignorant as we were, you feel so alone, so frightened. You don’t know what to do and you think you’re the only one with this problem. And then you sit in this room with 12 other people and you hear how they’re living through the same terrible crises. That support is invaluable.”

They also availed themselves of NAMI’s Family-to-Family course, a series of educational classes that cover everything from mental health diagnoses to psychotropic medications, the importance of self-care and how to successfully interact with a person who is delusional or manic. Realizing “how desperately we needed this,” they soon became group facilitators themselves and eventually served on the NAMI board.

What NAMI taught them has not saved them from the heartache and anxiety of having an adult child living with a mental illness. Nothing can provide a quick fix for that. But they did learn a great deal about brain disorders, useful strategies and the importance of drawing boundaries and caring for themselves.

Since their son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder more than a decade ago, they have tried to help him in any number of ways. They’ve paid for psychiatrists. Twice, when their son’s illness had sabotaged his employment or his housing, they took him into their small home in Sarasota. Once Steve embarked on a five day manic road trip to reach the only previous psychiatrist his son had agreed to see, but after his son threw away a brand new cell phone and threatened to jump from the moving car, Steve was left “hanging on my by fingernails.”

At a more hopeful point, the three of them created a “Team Remis” step-by-step action plan for recovery, to which their son agreed and even made them promise to hold him accountable. Not only did the plan fall by the wayside, their son’s presence in their home began to damage their own close relationship. They’ve since accepted that there is no linear route to recovery.

Though their son remains unstable and their options for assisting him limited, the couple now know that in order to help him, they have to take care of themselves. This they do by maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle that includes daily exercise and spiritual practices, as well as a vegan diet.

After the two previous attempts, Marty is adamant she will never again take her son into their home, even if it means he ends up homeless. Yet Steve continues to wrestle with where to draw the line.

“I always go back and forth – what’s mine to do and what’s the child’s to do?” he says. “How far do I go? I say a prayer for him every day, ‘I free you from my anxiety, from my personal idea of what constitutes happiness for you.’ I try to let go. But you can’t. Even though the guy is 44 years old now, you can’t let go because he’s making terrible decisions.”

When they were facilitating NAMI support groups, the Remises always ended their meetings with this question: “What is the one thing you’re going to do for yourself this week?”

“I personally keep myself very busy,” says Marty, answering her own question by reeling off a long list of reading, crocheting and household projects, as well as the local social service organizations where she regularly volunteers. “Because then I don’t perseverate on how he is doing. When I’m most busy is when I least worry.”

Steve, who joins his wife in many of these volunteering ventures, continues to find solace and stability in the AA philosophies he embraced nearly four decades ago.

“I hear things in AA that, when I practice them, they work,” he says. “All the slogans like, ‘Take it one day at a time. Let go, let God.’ Things like, ‘Expect nothing. Accept everything.’”

He sighs long and deeply after that last one. Then he adds: “If I can apply that to my children…that’s the best thing I can do.”