Enter, If You Will
Gail Overman in 1955
Gail Overman in 1955

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.

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Glenn Overman

Glenn Overman

Glenn Overman doesn't share much personal information not because he doesn't like or trust you personally, but because some of those people reading over your shoulder are just whacked. He's been everywhere, but he lives in NE FL and is fond of saying, "It's not the heat, it's the stupidity."

6 Comments
  1. Thanks for sharing. Blessed are we whose brains do not deceive us.

  2. Very sad piece. I’ve watched a childhood friend, his family, and an Atlanta neighbor deal with the same never ending condition. No support for one, homelessness for the other.
    Regards,
    T

  3. Isn’t it called the ‘best health care system’ in the world?
    This insidious disease wears down all those who love the afflicted. Our system has long failed those will the illnesses that strike at the core of our being, our consciousness.
    Your father’s words are powerful.
    May God have mercy on those in control of health care.

  4. Eileen Dight

    Here is an example of society’s responsibility for care, rather than a family’s. The emotional and financial drain of long term care for such a sufferer is more than is reasonable for individuals to bear. We need lobbyists to shift this burden but there is no profit in it. A support group might achieve something but that’s an added burden for people already stretched to their limits. If ever a cause deserved a leader, this is it. Thank you for reminding us.

  5. Schizophrenia by Jim Stevens

    It was the house that suffered most.

    It had begun with slamming doors, angry feet scuffing the carpets,

    dishes slammed onto the table,

    greasy stains spreading on the cloth.

    Certain doors were locked at night,

    feet stood for hours outside them,

    dishes were left unwashed, the cloth

    disappeared under a hardened crust.

    The house came to miss the shouting voices,

    the threats, the half-apologies, noisy

    reconciliations, the sobbing that followed.

    Then lines were drawn, borders established,

    some rooms declared their loyalties,

    keeping to themselves, keeping out the other.

    The house divided against itself.

    Seeing cracking paint, broken windows,

    the front door banging in the wind,

    the roof tiles flying off, one by one,

    the neighbors said it was a madhouse.

    It was the house that suffered most.
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