'The Mike File' details the discovery of a family member lost to institutionalization
Decades ago, people diagnosed with mental illness were often institutionalized. While locked away, they were often virtually forgotten about by their family members.
Though most cruel institutions that performed early treatments for mental health have long been shuttered, people today are still demanding to look back, refusing to allow memories they have of institutionalized loved ones to fade away.
Stephen Trimble is one of those people. He grew up with an older brother named Mike Trimble. From a young age, Mike had difficulty learning school subjects. When he turned 14, Stephen says Mike became consumed with rage and often fought with their parents, Don and Isabelle Trimble. At that point, their parents brought Mike to a psychiatric hospital in Denver, and Mike was committed to the Colorado State Hospital. Stephen says they didn’t know what else to do, as that was the dominant medical advice at the time.
Stephen Trimble (right) at age 10 with his mother 39-year-old Isabelle (center) and 18-year-old brother Mike (left) in 1960. (Courtesy of Stephen Trimble)
“There was virtually no child psychology. There was no family therapy,” Stephen says. “My parents really had so few choices.”
Hospital staff advised Stephen and his parents not to visit Mike as it would only make him more distraught. When Mike was in his 20s, he left the institution and moved between group homes that didn’t provide much mental health support. After he left their home at age 14, Mike never lived with Stephen and his parents again.
“He was much too angry, much too angry bitter and sad about having been banished all those years,” Stephen says. “My mother, of course, felt guilt her whole life about that banishment.”
In 1976, the Denver Post arrived at the family home bearing devastating news: Mike had died.
Decades later, Stephen Trimble discovered files documenting Mike’s life before and during the institutionalization. After combing through the documents and processing them, Stephen wrote “The Mike File: A Story of Grief and Hope” as a way to memorialize his brother and preserve his story.
“As I talk about Mike, I can almost feel him here with me,” Stephen says. “He becomes a physical presence rather than just a diagnosis.”
Book excerpt: ‘The Mike File: A Story of Grief and Hope’
By Stephen Trimble
I am six. I tuck between the wooden studs in the garage, folding into a ball, my hands over my ears. Buckshot sprays of angry words fly at me through the open kitchen window. Summer heat fills the garage. I stare at the stipple of oil stains on the concrete floor and monitor the dust motes as they float from lightless corners through golden sunshafts. I jam myself deeper into the corner, aching to disappear. Anything to distract from the incoming missiles packed with anguished words.
In the kitchen of our little house in the Denver suburbs, my teenaged brother, Mike, towers over our mother, Isabelle, his arms braced around her. He cages her against the wall. Mike is big, almost six feet tall at 14. He screams at our mother.
You love Stevie more than me.
You put me in school with retards. Everyone yells at me. Everyone tells me I’m messed
up. Too much trouble. Stupid. Sick.
He aims his rage especially at my father, Don, who is Mike’s stepfather—for Mike is
Isabelle’s son from her brief-disaster-of-a-first-marriage.
I hear you and The Stepdad talking. I hear you. You want to send me away.
You hate me. I hate you.
Mom does her best to speak calmly, to talk him down.
I hide in the garage. Indeed, I hide from Mike’s story for a very long time.
I can reclaim only a few moments from my earliest years with my brother. I remember
Mike’s silly giggle and grin before his broken brain swept him away, his in-your-face
enthusiasm—a giddiness with an edge, a little too ferocious, a little unsocialized, a little manic. That daunting summer afternoon in our Denver home in 1957 eclipsed any other joyful memories.
A few days after Mike’s searing confrontation with our mother, my parents, at wit’s end, admitted him to Colorado Psychopathic Hospital for evaluation. Mike never spent a night at home again.
The Mike File
Years later, my brother’s death made headlines. His loss wasn’t just a family tragedy or even just a scandalous failure of public policy in Colorado but a national one, a replay of the consequences of the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill.
I knew Isabelle saved the agonizing newspaper stories about Mike’s death. I had read them when they were published, but for decades I felt no need to revisit them. When I finally got around to asking about the file’s whereabouts, Mom told me she destroyed the packet that chronicled Mike’s difficult life because she found the details so painful.
After my mother died in 2002, I mentioned to my father that I wished Mom had saved those clips. Dad told me that when he saw Mom toss the envelope, he retrieved it from the trash and hid it away. The file survived after all—a sheaf of decades-old court and medical records, yellowing newsprint, and letters from Mike. These few pages preserved the mostly-lost story of my brother’s difficult life in and out of our family.
That Don salvaged and safeguarded the file shouldn’t have surprised me. My father was a scientist to his core and made sense of his world by organizing facts and constructing timelines so he could analyze the incoming stream of data that composed his life. He documented his family as he documented his geologic research and fieldwork.
When I discovered that the file still existed, the focus of my emotional life lay elsewhere, with my family, with our two kids headed into adolescence. I chose to leave the file with Dad, preserved in a drawer in his bedroom.
Several years later, on a visit to Denver to see my father in his retirement-community
apartment, Dad told me that he had set aside the file. He felt it was time to pass it on, that I should take it. But when I left for home, I forgot the envelope. “Forgot.”
Dad was then in his nineties, with macular degeneration taking nearly all of his sight. When I asked about the envelope on my next visit, he said, with distress, that he apparently had thrown it away as he was culling old papers. He intended to jettison something unimportant, but he misread the label and tossed the “Mike” file by mistake. Though disheartened, I knew I shared responsibility for the loss. I’d spent years evading the evidence, a lifetime avoiding the emotional challenge presented to me by my brother’s life.
I skirted any thoughts of Mike’s story beyond the most pat and superficial. “I had an older brother—a half-brother—who left home when I was six. He was diagnosed sequentially as retarded, schizophrenic, and epileptic. He died years ago.”
Then, at the beginning of 2011, we moved my father from Denver to Salt Lake City, to live in a senior-center apartment near us as he approached a frail 95. As we ticked through his inventory of belongings and sifted through his filing cabinet in preparation for the move, there it was, the envelope marked with Mom’s block letters, “MIKE.” Dad hadn’t tossed it down the garbage chute at the end of the hall. The file turned out to be deathless.
Mike won’t disappear from my life, no matter how “forgetful” I might be.
Dad endured the move but lived only a few more weeks. His last words to me, “I’ve had a wonderful life.” And then, to my wife, Joanne, “Steve is a lucky man.” Lucky indeed to have Joanne as my lifetime partner. Lucky to have Don as my father, Isabelle as my mother. Lucky to be free of mental illness. Lucky to not be Mike.
I left Don’s papers in boxes for months, needing the time to grow comfortable with my new identity as a man bumped into the “older generation” by the deaths of my parents. When I finally unpacked Dad’s archive, the clasped manila envelope surfaced again, the sole record of Mike’s place in our family, along with a scattering of photos in our family albums and an artifact or two.
My brother’s story has always unsettled me. I could so easily focus on the tight relationship I had with our parents after Mike left and, later, the love I share with my wife and kids. I carried fear and shame about my brother, just as nationally we carry these same feelings of disgust and discomfort about mental illness—what one psychiatrist calls “primal fear.” Though I shared a bedroom with Mike for six years, I’ve buried nearly every memory, even the good ones. Many years ago, when Mike rejected us, when he wrote to our mother, “leave me alone forever,” I felt relief.
Mike, the defining tragedy of our mother’s life, has long been gone. My mother and father, Isabelle and Don, are gone. A fading circle of older family members and their inconsistent memories are all I have to successfully resurrect the details of Mike’s existence. Am I too late? And where will this resurrection lead for me?
The “Mike File” feels incendiary. It’s taken me a year of distance from my father’s death to open it. But, finally, I unclasp the envelope and spill the contents onto my desk, each sheet of paper a clue to Mike’s life. This time, I won’t defer to our mother’s desire to let old wounds heal and remain closed. I can no longer be complicit in erasing Mike’s memory.
It’s time for me to grapple with Mike’s life and death and to follow the story of our mother and her lost soul of a son into the shadows of America’s dreadful response to mental illness and behind the doors I’ve barricaded in myself.
This time, when I look into my brother’s eyes, I will beat back denial and shame. I will do my best to replace complacency with compassion. I will learn to not look away.
Excerpted from “The Mike File: A Story of Grief and Hope” by Stephen Trimble. Copyright © 2023. Available in the Little Bound Books Essay Series from Homebound Publications.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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