When we get sick, the doctors and nurses in hospitals are supposed to do everything in their power to make us healthy again. But unfortunately, money and silly laws sometimes get in the way.
When a 69-year-old man suffering from bipolar disorder was experiencing a particularly severe manic episode, his family believed that they simply needed to take him to the hospital and have him committed so he could get the treatment he so clearly needed. Unfortunately, the road to recovery wasn’t so simple and the family witnessed the problems plaguing mental health facilities across the country firsthand.
When Jeneen Interlandi was a child, she and her older sister and twin brother were regaled with colorful stories from their parents’ past. Their father, Joseph Frank Interlandi, was born and raised in Brooklyn in the 1940s and 1950s. He would often tell them stories about his life growing up as a first-generation American and as the youngest of 10 children in a full-blooded Sicilian family.
Love at First Sight
According to Joseph, his life changed forever when he met a half-Sicilian hairdresser named Patricia from New Jersey. When they met, Joseph was just 25 years old and Patricia was 22. Despite not knowing each other for long, the pair fell madly in love and got married shortly after.
Starting a Family
Joseph had been raised by a family of garment workers and decided to follow in his family’s footsteps when it came time to settle down. For the next 35 years, Joseph worked as a fabric cutter in a factory in Jersey City. Shortly after getting married, he and Patricia decided to start a family.
Another Way to Become Parents
Sadly, they would never have children of their own. After nine miscarriages, Joseph and Patricia decided to stop trying to get pregnant. But they never gave up their dream of becoming parents. Instead, they agreed to adopt and give a baby that needed a family a loving home.
“My parents went all the way to Colombia to adopt my siblings and me from an orphanage there,” Jeneen said about how she and her two siblings were adopted. “My twin brother and I were born significantly premature, and my parents spent four months in Medellín, nursing us to health and praying over our incubators.”
Larger Than Life
“They raised my sister, brother and me on fantastic, over-the-top stories about their courtship (he proposed on the first date!), their honeymoon in Italy (they stayed for two months!) and the elaborate parties they gave before we were born,” Jeneen said about her larger-than-life father.
“For as long as I can remember, he was bubbling over or oozing out, as if his own skin could not quite contain him,” Jeneen said. “In winter, he would cover every last edge of our two-story home in blinking, multicolored and musical Christmas decorations. In summer, he kept a large vegetable garden and carried baskets of tomatoes and zucchini to our neighbors. He was never still.”
Life had never been easy for Joseph, but then things got harder again when he lost his job cutting fabric in the factory. He had worked the job for 35 years, but the factory closed when the work was sent overseas where labor was cheaper. While he was more than 50 years old, he resorted to doing any work that came his way to provide for his family.
Providing For His Family
“My siblings and I were still teenagers; my father took any job he could find — [stocking produce, painting kitchens, and baking pies] — so that we could at least finish high school before the bank took the house,” Jeneen said.
The ‘Dark’ Side
As Jeneen and her siblings got older, they noticed that sometimes their father had a “dark” side. But for years, everyone always attributed the changes in his personality to too much alcohol. “Men like my father were expected to drink,” Jeneen explained. “They did not see psychiatrists.”
Yet in 2005, Joseph went through a particularly bad episode. According to the family, the then 64-year-old father became paranoid and stopped sleeping regularly. Eventually, he was admitted to the hospital and a doctor diagnosed him with bipolar disorder.
The First Episode
Joseph was committed to Hagedorn Psychiatric Hospital, a state-run facility in New Jersey. He stayed at the hospital for over a month. During that time, the staff were able to begin treatment with medications and find his correct dosage. With consistent treatment, Joseph’s mania and paranoia subsided. When it was clear that the Joseph Interlandi Sr. that the family knew and loved was back to his normal ways, he was brought home. Unfortunately, the peace didn’t last.
The Mania Returns
In 2010, Joseph experienced another episode and became paranoid about everything and everyone. “Convinced that nameless people were trying to kill him, he slept no more than an hour or two a night and started drinking after five years of sobriety. When his suspicions grew to include his immediate family, he became violent and threatened suicide,” Jeneen said.
A Dangerous Situation
“At one point, he tried to jump out of the car as my mother was driving down the highway on the way to the doctor’s office. On another day, he poured motor oil over her windshield as she was pulling out of the garage. More than once, he hit her [… and] threatened to burn the house down,” Jeneen added.
What Joseph Needed
The family knew Joseph normally wouldn’t act that way and blamed his disorder. They knew the best place for him was back at the state psychiatric hospital as he refused to speak to a psychiatrist or admit anything was wrong in his current state. While committed, the episodes could be treated consistently and efficiently.
In the years that followed Joseph’s first commitment to the Hagedorn Psychiatric Hospital, that hospital was in the process of closing like many others across the country after more than $1.5 billion in funding was cut from state mental health budgets in 2008. In New Jersey, the state was now focused on short-term care facilities since they were smaller and cheaper to run than bigger hospitals.
A Widespread Issue
“The lack of resources has triggered a devolution of the standard,” says Robert Davison, executive director of the nonprofit organization Mental Health Association of Essex County. “Twenty years ago, ‘imminent danger’ meant what most people think it means. But now there’s this systemic push to divert people away from inpatient care, no matter how sick they are, because we know there’s no place to send them.” But for someone like Joseph, short-term and outpatient care aren’t enough to get his mania under control.
A Vicious Cycle
In order for Joseph to be committed involuntarily, he needed to show he was an imminent danger to himself or others and be evaluated and deemed sick enough by the Psychiatric Emergency Screening Services, or PESS, a locked-down unit in the community hospital. Days later, Joseph was finally transferred to a psychiatric facility. But they would only hold him for two to three days and then release him, which wasn’t nearly long enough to get him back on medication and get the episode under control. Then a vicious cycle began. “During the three months in which my father cycled through the system, he racked up five emergency room visits, four arrests, four court appearances, three trips to PESS and too many police confrontations to remember. He spent 25 (nonconsecutive) days in a psychiatric hospital and 40 in a county jail,” Jeneen explained.
At one point, no one would commit Joseph, but it was too dangerous for Patricia to be home alone with her violent, volatile, and paranoid husband. So the family had no choice but to get a restraining order. At another point, they brought Joseph money and a suitcase of clothes and let him wander the streets. They prayed he would be picked up by the police and locked up since he would at least be warm and safe.
Praying For Peace
Eventually, however, Joseph was locked up in a county jail for a month and a half as he waited for a hearing for violating his restraining order. During that time, the manic episode started to subside on its own so the family lifted the restraining order and created a deal with a social worker to release him home if he agreed to court-ordered psychiatric therapy. He would also need to see a probation officer each week for a year and six months of therapy at a community mental health center. Thankfully, Joseph agreed. “And with therapy and medication, the final traces of his mania finally dissolved. He was back to himself just in time for my mother’s birthday in early March,” Jeneen said. The family has since moved on and reconciled from the trying experience, but bipolar disorder is considered a lifelong condition and they pray they’ll never have to go through it all again.