Nothing To Be Ashamed Of
From a family affected by mental illness, this man supports research to make a difference
From The Quarterly, Winter 2013
On February 29, 2000, Albert Bensimon, then in his early fifties, stepped into the waters off Laguna Beach, California, and kept on walking, not intending to stop. His recollection of the day is hazy, but he does remember getting “pretty far out until the water was up to my neck. I honestly don’t know what stopped me.”
Bensimon had been battling major depression for years. Whatever the immediate trigger that had tipped him over into near-suicide that day, what really underlay it was an accumulation of stressors over a period of decades. He remembers that, “It was everything in my life. I just didn’t think I could cope with the stress and anxiety any longer.”
The ‘everything’ encompassed a Job-like burden of family woes: an out-of-control sister with paranoid schizophrenia, a brother vanished and believed murdered, and, more recently, a father diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and a mother who tended to handle things with denial. Bensimon’s constant task as the family’s disaster control manager had taken a heavy toll.
The troubles had come seemingly without warning. Born in 1947, the oldest of the family’s three children, Bensimon recalls a mostly happy childhood in an ordinary middle-class family in New Jersey. The unraveling began when, in her late teens, Al’s sister, Michele, two years his junior, started hearing voices coming from the backyard tree. Not long after, she dropped out of college and set off on a decades-long, near-fatal roller-coaster ride.
By contrast, Al Bensimon was determined to forge a productive life. In 1970, shortly after graduating college, he married Patricia, a registered nurse. They had two children. Over a span of 30 years, during which he worked in administrative positions for large and medium-sized corporations, he proved himself smart, versatile and dedicated, and steadily took on more responsibility.
Al credits the right mix of talk therapy and medication with helping him re-engage in life after his suicide attempt. “But what helped me the most,” he says, “was my wife’s consistent support and medical knowledge. It was she who forcefully suggested I see a psychiatrist, and it was she who found the right one. He was the one I turned to when feeling suicidal.”
Along with his wife’s wise counsel, Al says that a lifelong habit of turning to books for insights and information also proved very helpful. He has amassed a library on depression that he says, “would rival a psychiatrist’s” to help him gain broader understanding of depression. Prominent among them and close to Al’s heart is the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus, who wrote about his own conclusion of the futility of suicide. Bensimon’s collection has become something of a lending library. “The better I understand myself, the more I learn, the more I find I can help others to understand how important it is to not give up—to keep on keeping on.”
Today, Al and Pat live in Georgia to be close to their daughter, now married and a successful corporate lawyer. Their first grandchild was born last August. Their son and family live in southwest Florida. And, Al says that life is pretty good. “We are happy and the Georgia move is working out extremely well.” Early mornings Al handles the family’s financial investments, and five days a week he and Pat babysit grandson Anthony while their daughter and son-in-law are at work.
Al Bensimon believes strongly, on the evidence of his own life, that for people suffering with a mental illness, and for their loved ones, it is critical “to be brutally candid with oneself and others, to not try to mask, hide or diminish the fact that you—or they—need help. One of the reasons I’m doing this interview is to try to make more people aware that mental illness is not something to be ashamed of. And that suicide is not the answer.”
Albert Bensimon has been a Brain & Behavior Research Foundation supporter for over two decades and views the foundation’s mission as “very personal.” “I make donations to the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation my number one gift each year. I believe that research will change what it means to have a mental illness.”
“I’ve researched enough to know that the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation does good work, and that all of the dollars I donate go directly to research. My wife, with her medical background, understands the science more, but I understand enough to know it’s making a difference. And if I can help make that difference, I’m going to keep on doing it.”