When ordinary is extraordinary
I’ve brought lunch – the usual veggie sandwiches - and the Sunday newspaper. She sets the table, we eat. Afterward we work on her jigsaw puzzle and, when she puts the last piece in, she cheers and we high-five. I admire how well her philodendron plant is doing - her green thumb is something I lack. She says she waters it every day. We talk about our week. She tells me she’s just finished reading a collection of Mark Twain’s letters and reports on a phone conversation she’s had with our brother and his wife. She tells me about their cats, their garden. Then we settle down to read the New York Times. When it’s time for me to go she packs me some leftover food, bids me well, and locks the door behind me. I go on my way, thinking about my evening, planning what I’ll cook for dinner.
To most people this probably sounds like a pretty sedate, even boring, Sunday afternoon. For me, though, and for my sister, who has schizophrenia that was untreated for thirty years, it’s a kind of paradise of normality. Every detail is an astonishment. Let me count the ways.
1. My sister greets me when I arrive. She smiles. She makes eye contact. She is happy to see me. She doesn’t just allow me to hug her, she reciprocates. She did none of these things for thirty years. If someone tried to touch her she’d cringe and withdraw.
2. She eats at a table with me. Didn’t used to happen.
3. She, who was a college English major and wanted to be a writer, is reading again. She complains when I let the New Yorker subscription run out. She didn’t used to be able to concentrate on anything but her voices.
4. My sister answers the phone and carries on a conversation with my brother and his wife. She listens to what they say, has an opinion on it and reports it to me. For thirty years my sister didn’t pick up a phone.
5. My sister takes care of her plant. It used to be she hardly noticed other living beings.
6. When it’s time for me to go, and go about my life, I do, unworried that my sister is safe. She does not appear to be terrified to be left alone or tormented by her voices or even particularly sorry to see me leave. I do not worry the house will burn down in my absence as the result of some odd behavior of hers, though I used to. If there were some disaster now, I believe she would do what anyone would, flee or summon help.
None of this simple normality would have been possible without the help of a small army of social workers, caregivers, psychiatrists, pharmacists, food and medication deliverers, neighbors and friends who went a little or a lot out of their way to get my sister help at home. She wouldn’t leave so they came to her. Now she’s on a low dose of medication that has worked wonders and she’s still improving, though the dose hasn’t been raised in four years.
If everyone working in mental health care - or just living in a community where there are people with mental illness (and who among us is not?) – could be this flexible, who knows how many more lives could be salvaged?
Margaret Hawkins has written a memoir about her and her family's experiences.
Find out more about her book 'After Schizophrenia: The Story of My Sister's Reawakening After 30 Years' and order it online.
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