Seeing mental illness through "my own personal story"

Feb 7, 2019

The death of Larry Bierl, known as "Larry" from his life on the streets of Williamsville, has been widely discussed on social media. The cause of death was hypothermia, his body found in a bus stop shelter during the last week's extreme cold. WBFO's Morning Edition host Jay Moran spoke with Buffalo News reporter Samantha Christmann, who was following the discussion on Facebook, shares her personal family story. 
 


Samantha Christmann shares a personal story about her mother's mental illness.
Credit Photo from Samantha Christmann Twitter page.

"I saw lot of misunderstanding about the situation," said Christmann, who wanted to add some much-needed context. "The best way to do that was to tell my own personal story."

Christmann's story centers on her mother's struggles with mental illness, diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

The families struggle to get her to remain on needed medication. Unfortuantely it turned tragic when her mother died by suicide.

“She steps on to the railroad tracks, puts her hands over her eyes and is killed by a train," Christmann described.

From her Facebook page, here’s Maziarz Christmann’s tale of how homeless  Larry Bierl’s death sparked memories of her mother’s struggles

My mom would be alive today if we could’ve forced her to take the medicine she needed to make her brain work properly. But we couldn’t just get a court order or a doctor’s prescription to make her swallow medication against her will. It doesn’t work like that.

When she went off her meds and got sick, she was convinced the devil had been using her pills to control her. When we pleaded with her to start taking them again, she believed we were being used by the devil himself.

I couldn’t understand why, when we finally got her admitted to the psych ward against her will (a major feat, I hope you never have to experience it) they wouldn’t just give her a shot and keep her until she stabilized again.

Now I guess I realize: We don’t want to live in a society where a judge or doctor can strap us down and medicate us against our will.

Or do we?

When Larry wouldn’t take shelter on dangerously cold nights, police would take him into custody. That seems reasonable, right?

If they could’ve gotten to him this time, he would’ve survived.

But if you are someone like Larry, with thoughts and reasoning and free will, do you think police should be able to arrest you for what they’ve decided is in your own best interest?

As difficult as it is to accept, I get it. Still, if we could’ve gotten mom back on her meds, she wouldn’t have ended up living in a rooming house, then a car, then flopping on strangers’ couches. She definitely would not have ended her life by standing in front of a train.

The hospital couldn’t keep her unless she was a danger to herself or others. Well, she wound up being a danger to herself. But not that day, not that month, not even that year.

It’s tempting to point fingers at times like these. Who is to blame when someone isn’t capable of making the decisions necessary to keep them alive? You might say people like Larry and my mom didn’t want help so there is nothing we can do.

I don’t know about that. But I do know mental illness and homelessness are two of the most complicated issues there are. There are no easy solutions. The only thing we can do is keep working together and never, ever give up trying to figure this out.