My daughters' "great Aunt" is ill and may not recover. Only seen at major holidays, Aunt Robbie has been nicely tucked away in a nursing home for the entire time I've known her, afflicted with the same mental illness that her mother had, apparently, only instead of ending in a violent episode and ultimately locked away in a detention center for the criminally insane, they caught her mental illness early enough where they could drug her up enough to the point of where she'd do no harm. Or so I've been told in bits and pieces over the years.
"She ain't never been right."
And so for Christmas, and maybe 1 to 2 other holidays each year, Aunt Robbie would rock back and forth in the chair at the dinner table, mumbling that the food was good. Sometimes drooling. Uttering appropriate phrases like "I'm fine." Then one day after knowing her about 10 years, I'd walked back into the house that i thought was empty, as everyone was out on the patio, and she said "that was real good there, I like those cookies!" referring to some dessert I'd made. "Real good, real good," as she rocked back in forth in the far corner of the room.
What??? Did she just initiate a conversation with me??? I wasn't even sure if she recognized me each time she came to dinner. I sat down and talked to her, or tried to anyway. I don't even remember what I asked, but her responses seemed rehearsed, as if she'd been told how to respond to questions people might ask her. But deep down there was a real person in there. She likes my cookies.
So last night I wondered. Are there ever moments of clarity for her? Does she ever feel trapped in her own head? I thought about my own brother, afflicted with schizophrenia, diagnosed in the summer of 1993. He struggles, he takes his meds, sometimes forces, feels better, believes he's well and in his paranoia that the doctors, family and friends are tricking him, stops taking his meds, and then has another episode. This has gone on repeatedly for 20 years now.
Episodes like running down the highway naked in the middle of the night because of someone is out to kill him, he said. Or homeless in Greektown. Or losing his puppy that we never found out what happened to. Getting beat up by his so-called friends. Having all of his possessions stolen from him. Or not sleeping for three days straight--literally. And as it became a matter of safety, his and my parents, he too was placed in a home.
Mental illness is cruel. Sometimes I wonder if it is crueler on the family, but there are glimpses of the torture that the sick person feels. As ridiculous as his paranoid thoughts are, he believes them and is terrified. When he IS on his meds, the side effects are terrible: horrible weight gain, lethargy, nervousness. He smokes so his hands don't shake. It's almost better when he's slightly delusional, because at least when he's bragging about the girls he's had or talking about past lives with King David or whatever, in his false bravado, he's a hero. He's a success. He's happy.
And so last night in the wee hours of the night as I thought about Aunt Robbie, and even though I don't know what happens when we die, I hoped so badly for her that the moment she dies, she will be freed from the chains of mental illness. That she will experience a clarity she has not had in decades. No drugs. No body or mismatch of brain chemicals or rebelling mind. I wish her peace and freedom. I hope that her (apparent) eventual death releases her from what seems so bitterly unfair. And I realize that the "bad dream" of my brother's situation is real. It's as real as it gets. And someday he'll grow old. Someday my parents will be dead, and it'll be up to us to take care of him. And bring him to family dinners...and that's when it hit me...that's what happened to Aunt Robbie. My parents spend time with him weekly and have him over twice a week...but us siblings? We've moved on. We're with our young families, or like my older brother, moved thousands of miles away.
And it's not that I ever wish my brother would die...but I wish he could experience freedom from his illness. After 20 years, and the benefit of having read expert research/opinions on psychological illnesses, i know now that he will never be "cured." He'll cope, his doctors will continue to find try new mixes of meds. And maybe someday there will be some huge medical breakthrough. But for now, I just try and stop asking why or how this could be. And we all cope.
Be free Aunt Robbie.
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