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Sue Lani Madsen: Brother-in-law lost to mental illness is more than a statistic

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, is a Spokesman-Review columnist. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, is a Spokesman-Review columnist. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Mental illness to homeless to hepatitis A.

Just another statistic but now his struggle is over. Today we pick up his ashes. And it shouldn’t have to be this way.

Kevin Andrew Madsen was born on May 29, 1960 in Council, Idaho, and died Nov. 7, 2019, in Spokane. He graduated from Council High School in 1978, where he competed in wrestling and football. Kevin graduated with a bachelor’s degree in range management from the University of Idaho, where he was a member of Phi Kappa Tau fraternity along with his younger brother, Craig. He went on to earn a master’s degree in weed science from the University of Wyoming.

Kevin and his two brothers with their tag-along little sister grew up in a two room house on a small farm outside Council. An ordinary family supported by Dad’s timber wages, a few head of cattle, a milk cow and Mom’s bountiful garden. Not much space indoors, but a lot of room to roam. He and my husband Craig were particularly close, less than two years apart in age.

He had a good start. It was an awful finish as he lost his decades-long battle with mental illness. He wasn’t addicted to anything other than his own bipolar body chemistry.

The signs first surfaced when he moved to Arizona to work for the Bureau of Land Management. He married, seemed to be settling in. The family back in the Northwest didn’t know about his hospitalization, about the unpredictable anger that led a psychiatrist to advise his wife to leave for her safety. Nobody waved a red flag for us.

He was transferred to a Bureau of Reclamation office in central Washington, seemingly his choice to move closer to home for a fresh start. We welcomed him back. It was the start of our 20-year journey alongside Kevin in the mental healthcare system.

So many what ifs. So many missed opportunities. Such a broken system.

In less than a year after arriving in Washington, he found himself retired out on full disability, letters from mental health experts confirming how debilitating his bipolar disorder had become.

His problem was not resources. He had family, a monthly pension and good quality health insurance covering mental health care. But he was on his own to navigate physicians focused on their own specialties, prescribing multiple medications. Counseling and dieticians and diabetes educators and podiatrists to keep track of. Landlords and housekeeping and bills to manage.

It’s a lot to ask of a man diagnosed as too mentally ill to cope with a job.

This summer was a difficult one. After becoming officially homeless in May, he bounced between Spokane and southern Idaho. He ended up on foot in Spokane, angry at the world and at us as his health deteriorated.

August and September were particularly hard. He was found unresponsive at the long-term care facility he had been admitted to for rehab and died 12 days later in the Critical Care Unit of Spokane’s Deaconess Hospital after difficult decisions to cease aggressive treatment.

If only the mental healthcare system applied the same coordinated aggressive treatment at the beginning of the diagnosis as we do at the end of life.

Kevin’s greatest wish for this year was to be back in the woods, bow hunting for an elusive elk or fishing for a wily steelhead. His photography captured nature with amazing clarity. He loved karaoke and western swing dancing. His roots in Council always pulled him back, and he talked of great plans for the old home place. He could throw himself into ranch work with much energy on his good days.

He was more than a statistic. Kevin was creative and caring, headstrong and hard to live with, and he leaves a hole in the world.

Kevin had a relationship with God perhaps similar to so many of his relationships on earth. Sometimes close and tender, sometimes angrily pushing those who would love and help him away. Last summer he recounted standing in a field and yelling out in anger and frustration at God, feeling His presence. He thought he might turn his life around, but anger took hold again.

Although he never fully regained consciousness after his collapse, we continue to pray that Kevin surrendered and accepted God’s unconditional love in his final days. It’s all he ever wanted. It’s what we all want. Unconditional love.

Open the eyes of your heart to see the glory of God, to accept Jesus Christ’s forgiveness and the embrace of the Holy Spirit. And this Christmas, practice kindness in memory of Kevin’s good days.