This blog is not FDA approved
At one time I thought that kids should come with a warning label. But, I also think that people with mental illnesses should come with warning labels.
I couldn’t wait to get out of the car. During the four hour drive to the party, Scott had driven me just about as crazy as he was. He almost incessantly made a humming/grunting sort of noise. Every five minutes or so he would try to stretch his neck, slowly at first on each side and then violently snap his head back and forth to loosen up the muscles. He also found it necessary to intermittently snort the snot from his nose into the back of his throat and hawk a loogie out the window of a swiftly moving vehicle. It only twice splattered in the center of my view out the back window. The car reeked of old, stale cigars and I was sure the scent was stuck on my clothes and hair.
There were already fifty or so people at the graduation party, only a few who we knew. We made our way into the house through the crowd. I could see Scott looking down his nose at the people who looked back at him, a little disgusted. His dirty looking plaid shirt and baggy jeans weren’t exactly the appropriate attire, but sometimes with him you had to pick your battles.
Since he had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic a few years earlier, we had become accustomed to his oddities. The combination of medication and quirks caused by his condition made it difficult for him to live a “normal” life, normal being defined as the ability to care for himself appropriately and know how to behave in social situations.
We had become accustomed to his wild gesticulations. His medication caused him to get extremely tired, caused ticks of his head and jaw, tightened the muscles in his shoulders and neck so he felt to the need to frequently stretch out his shoulder and neck muscles. We often wondered if these side effects were worth it since the medication didn’t completely cure him. He still felt extreme anxiety around crowds after a time, still had delusions of grandeur, and still was often plagued by paranoid thoughts.
We had become accustomed to his oddities, but they were still odd…and embarrassing. So I spent the party staying clear of him as much as possible. A few hours in I heard some people upstairs whispering and laughing about the dirty freak downstairs sleeping. My stomach instantly felt sick and my face turned red. I know this freak.
I went downstairs to see my brother curled up on the floor finished basement, facing the wall, soft snoring wafting out of the corner he had tucked himself in. Instead of being mad at him or embarrassed, though, I just wanted to cry. Here was this big man, this oddity, who had been my hero while I was growing up. He was my baby sitter and my best friend. I remembered the hours he spent sitting at the edge of my bed strumming Beatles tunes on his guitar.
As I looked around at the crowd of people, their faces registering disgust and mockery, I could hear snippets of conversation:
“What is wrong with that guy?”
“Have you ever seen anything like that?”
“God, he smells awful. Look at those clothes.”
“I heard he was Doug’s cousin. Poor Doug. I guess you’re obligated to invite family to stuff like this, even family like that.”
I could feel the anger churning in my belly, but what could I do? Nobody understood what was wrong with him. They didn’t understand his need to escape and that curling up in a ball and going to sleep was just a defense mechanism. If he had been in a wheelchair nobody would’ve been laughing at him. If there was a colostomy bag hanging from his side, people wouldn’t dare to stare. Everybody knows that the drugs used for chemotherapy wreak havoc on the body and cause fatigue. If a cancer patient gets tired, certainly a host would give him a quiet and private place to rest, instead of insisting that the bedrooms were not available.
Many years ago there was a little boy in my community who was diagnosed with Leukemia. The community responded with an outpouring of support for the family. Meals, cards and gifts were delivered daily throughout the boys’ three year battle with the disease. Everywhere this family went, they were met with kind words, warm hugs and love. Anyone could see his battle. The little bald head, sallow complexion and thin frame gave it away. As a result, their son, the sick boy, was likewise cared for and loved by not only his family but also people who didn’t even know him.
But you can’t see mental illness. There are usually no tell-tale physical signs that evoke compassion or pity. Instead there’s fear, disgust, and avoidance. Nobody wants to talk about it and few people understand that mental illnesses are real physical illnesses like cancer or epilepsy. I don’t have a mental illness myself, but if I did, I think I’d rather wear a label that said I was mentally ill then walk around looking healthy on the outside but being labeled by the world as weird, odd, freakish.
I would like to believe that if the people at that party would have known how sick he was, they wouldn’t have been so cruel. I would like to believe that if more people in general understood the pain and suffering of those who are mentally ill, they would be a little more compassionate. I would like to believe that if people understood the toll it takes on the family of the mentally ill, they would be a little more supportive.
Sometimes I must admit that a part of me wishes that since Scott had to suffer from a debilitating illness, it would have been one that showed on the outside. But, like many people who suffer from mental illness, he never got a break. There was seldom a comforting word or reassuring hug or support offered to a sick soul and his family, even in the church, where he was told that he sometimes scared little children. Maybe if he had come with a warning label, his life would have been a little easier to live.