My father wrote this about his daughter, –my sister Gail,– years before his death in 2006. Gail was diagnosed schizophrenic in the early 1970s, and he wrote this after a quarter a century of caring and coping. It captures a loving parent’s frustration with an incomprehensible illness and a system that has serially and cruelly mistreated the mentally ill. Both my father and sister are freed from their pain, and their story should be told. It’s not as uncommon as you might imagine. Enter, if you will, the world of a parent dealing with schizophrenia.
“She has never trod the boards or donned the greasepaint; nonetheless, her life is played out behind the masques of comedy and tragedy.
“Her performances are impromptu…her moods…ever changing. At times she sits limp and motionless, wearing a grotesque scowl of desperation for an eternity; then, abruptly, she becomes the face of mirth, gesticulating happily, speaking unintelligible lines to a cast of players she alone can see and hear. Often, she takes refuge within the impenetrable walls of her mind. She remains there for seemingly interminable periods; then abruptly bursts the bonds of silence to curse the God that consigned her to a living hell.
“This caricature of a once bright and loving daughter is a stranger, at times a primitive, unrecognizable life form…unkempt, unwashed, and devoid of social graces once common to her.
“Her waking hours are spent in constant slaking of a seemingly unquenchable thirst and the smoking of an endless succession of cigarettes. She sleeps fitfully, or not at all, prowling. the darkened corridors of our home until night has ended and exhaustion has overtaken her.
“To hold a single thought in place is an impossible task. Her mind careens wildly through twisting, torturous, tunnels of fantasy, hurtling her into frightening and hostile worlds we cannot comprehend. Voices and visions are her only true companions.
“A headstone will likely be her life’s milestone.
“We few who love her, and remember her as she once was, have never ceased to care. Others fear her, see her as an aberration, a social outcast…pitiful, bizarre, and an object of scorn. Long ago declared “schizophrenic,” she has been relegated to the status of a social leper…untouchable, unmentionable, and, worst of all, incurable.
“She has precious little to hope for. The demigods and soothsayers of the psychiatric profession find that she can no longer be seduced by Freudian evangelism. Too often, she has worn the hair shirt of their pills and potions; too often has her very soul been seared by their high voltage detoxicants.
“She both fears and despises those officials empowered to administer to her…they whom she well knows will skewer her upon her affliction itself should she resist their direction. Her impotence in the face of their ministrations is an ever present specter nourishing her belief that her place on earth is that of research animal in some nightmarish experiment.
“Her world is one of constant pain and loneliness, a place of such unbearable suffering that she has often tried to leave it. Someday she may succeed in making that journey, and when she leaves our world, few will mourn her passage.
“Friends have year by year abandoned her to a reclusive existence as her malady worsened. Should she leave this world in my time, I will give thanks for her joyous release. It seems sufficient to have mourned for her throughout her lifetime in hell.
“My daughter will leave little of substance behind to mark her miserable passage through this life. Were I to compose her epitaph it would read, “Farewell to a beloved daughter. Death was perhaps her happiest experience.”
“My worst nightmare is the prospect that I will leave her behind in a world largely hostile to all afflicted by this disease of the damned.”
–by Dallas Overman
Gail died on April 2, 2012, not from mental illness, but from cancer, another cruelly isolating and terrifying disease. She spent her final months with family, and then under hospice care. Upon hearing of her death, longtime family friends reminded me of my father’s requiem for Gail. I share it in hopes that it will do two things: 1) expose some truths about the difficulties families face in dealing with mental illness, and, 2) help remind me that we never know what the stranger beside us is facing.
What has changed in the 40+ years I’ve been around the seriously mentally ill? We’ve progressed from electric lobotomy and institutionalization to chemical lobotomy and abandonment.
We count ourselves first among nations. We call ourselves followers of Christ. And we allow families to be financially ruined and ripped asunder by the high financial and emotional costs of coping with health issues that might afflict anyone. Shame on us for how we treat our weak and afflicted.
Thanks, Pete and Connie, for reminding me. And thanks to all of Gail’s friends who remained friends. You know who you are.