Jessie & The Junkie pdf
tags: depression, listening, projection, drug addiction, inner dragons, abandonment
Umm, a 'ghost chilli' free-range sausage roll from a little shop in Brighton I love. I've no idea what 'ghost' refers too, but it's certainly scummy. Standing before the window display of twenty one of various flavours, including 'Christmas season spice' and 'black pudding', neatly stacked in groups of three, I have to wonder if anyone has ever been caught shoplifting a sausage roll.
Rolling my bike down the pedestrianised street, mentally licking my lips (literally too, perhaps), I hear a somewhat bashful, but clearly directed-my-way, "Oh, hello you." My pork-fat addled senses immediately recalibrate––in particular my lazy, diffuse gaze (the inner world of 'happy belly' having been so much more comforting than the gaudy Christmas lights, unabashedly opulent window displays, and bustle of people) now focuses on what moments before had just been just another a shifting splodge of body-shaped colour in my peripheral vision. It's Jessie, my old London flat mate.
"Oh, no," I say in jest, approaching. We both knew our last meeting didn't end too well. Explosively, in fact.
Jessie was born in Medellin, Colombia but adopted as an orphan baby by a wealthy English couple. "There's probably abandonment issues there," she confided in me once with a croak of a laugh. Medellin was home of the famous drug lord Pablo Escobar. I did wonder if Jessie was one of his love children. Now in her early thirties, Jessie is about five foot tall, sweet natured, and rather pretty (I'm a sucker for the latino look). She's also a budding photographer and art director, though frustrated with her progress in each.
Realising we were both living in Brighton (thank you Facebook), we'd arranged to meet up one evening. This was several weeks earlier, and the first time we'd seen each other in years. She'd seemed on good form at first. Smiling, chatting away. We're good at that, aren't we; presenting an image. However, as she'd rolled cigarette after cigarette (one every ten minutes by my reckoning); or held her glass of wine, the slight shake in her hand disclosed her frayed state of nerves.
She's rolling one again now as we speak, and again I see it; a telling tremor. I also notice her nails: uneven, bitten short. I notice a few wrinkles too; and think of time's incessant march, waiting for no man (or woman); and my own mortality. I want to give her a hug.
Jessie had steadily drunk more and more that evening. Towards the end of the night somehow we arrived on the topic of Syria, and she was getting rather worked up about it. She'd begun to express her deep pessimism about the world, in a relentless, no holds barred kind of manner. Not just over Syria, but climate change and capitalism. She spoke in a way however, that to my mind at least, said, "this isn't really about the horrid shit 'out there'; it's all about me - the dark shit I can't face." Her sense of abandonment, perhaps. It wasn't really the lives of Syrians, or climate refugees, or those shafted by the 1% she was most unhappy about.
As expressed through many stories in old mythology, there's often an inner dragon we must one day meet. A dragon we must love or slay. Or not, of course; we can always keep on finding excuses for our misfortune and unhappiness. I may have foolishly eluded to the fact. Tried to make some philosophical and psychological points. However sound they might have been, and however calmly I may have voiced them, I should have known better. Some people are very attached to their story; their drama; their suffering. I know - oh gosh, don't I know! And who am I to meddle? Even if my intention was but to try and open Jessie to another perspective. Her current one was clearly causing her grief, and limiting her: success in the current "system" meant fucking up the planet or screwing other people; or so she said. Anyway, it didn't work. In fact, it was like wedging a crow bar under a fifty-tonne bounder and expecting movement.
I may have argued at one point that since humans are 'natural', so too is all they do and produce. Pollution. Climate change. War. All of our ignorance and malice and its effects. I may also have said that it's hard to be so black and white about these things (rich coming from the former king of 'black and white' thinking) and given the example of Obama. We all thought it was a great thing, right? But if it meant Trump followed, was it?! Where in time and space do you begin and end your points of reference? "Perhaps Trump will be a good thing", I'd said. I think that was the moment she went berserk and almost hit me. I raised my hands instinctively to defend myself, and twigged it took great effort on her part to suppress the urge to hit me. Luckily she just stormed out of the pub before her self-restraint faltered. God knows what the couple sitting beside us thought.
I hadn't meant that what was happening in Syria and the rest of the world wasn't terrible, but just that it probably wasn't the true cause of Jessie's rage and pessimism, rather something she was projecting her internal angst on to. Perhaps what Jessie had actually needed wasn't some smart-arse analysing and intellectualising, making points about objective and subjective truth, but someone to listen. Someone that wasn't going to get stuck on the specifics of her dialogue, but to hear the deeper, hidden voice saying, "I feel shit", "my life feels fucked up", "I feel unworthy", or whatever it may be. Someone to shut up perhaps, and simply offer a hug. But I find it hard to indulge someone's 'poor me / poor planet' story. Unless it's my own, of course. Sorry.
We begin with a kiss on both cheeks. 'Tis the season to be jolly', after all. Then the usual 'How are you?' check in. I give an honest answer: "I was good, but I had a bit of a crash this week," pause, then add, "I feel a bit shit to be honest." I seem to imagine the more "honest" I am, the more permission it gives others to be honest also. Be vulnerable, that is. And being vulnerable in our world takes courage. It doesn't always work, of course. It rattles the more cerebral types. Makes them squirm. And it gives ammo to the crueller kind to either mock (internally in adult polite society, but outwardly when one is at school) or plan ways to undermine you. Emotion is the language I know best. I indulge in it dreadfully, but am learning, slowly, painfully, to give it less credence. Along with 'meaning'. Meaning of life; meaning of all sorts of things. Meaning of emotions, especially. It's all a story we make up. But still, if someone withholds their emotional truth from me, I find it devilishly hard to trust them.
"Ah, I'm sorry to hear that," Jessie says, responding to the news of my difficult week.
"No, no - it's fine," I interject. "It's all 'the journey'. And we bounce back right?"
"I guess," she replies, her gaze falling to her feet.
I tell her a bit about the week in the countryside I'd just had. How, leaving on such a high, I'd half expected a 'come down'. It came. And it came hard. Mercifully brief, however.
"I've been feeling a bit shit too," she says, holding eye contact.
"Ah, Jessie," I say, and give her a hug she gratefully accepts. It's not one of those cold, rigid, brief ones you feel a bit rejected by when you went in there all loving, open and giving. Neither was it too long to feel awkward. Gosh - the politic involved in the friendly embrace.
"So what are you up to?" Jessie asks. I ignore her question, and instead bring up our aforementioned fracas from two weeks earlier. We have a little laugh about it. I think I affectionately call her "you crazy little monster" or some such when recounting how she almost "cuffed me one".
She doesn't apologise. I don't need her to. Instead she offers a reason for her behaviour: being stressed about the building work in her flat and just taking it out on someone. I suspect it's only a half truth, but it doesn't matter.
I remind her I texted her afterwards. Twice in fact. Once straight away, reiterating my smart-arse assessment of her anger not doubt, and again a week later just checking she was ok. She hadn't replied to either, and that was ok too.
The 'old me' wouldn't have been so cool or compassionate. Mainly because he wasn't compassionate with himself, of course (those pesky dragons!). I share with Jessie how I'd been tempted to forget the relationship and erase her from Facebook (a modern "I bite my thumb at thou!". Come to think of it, it wasn't the first time I'd erased her - I did so soon after I moved out of our house-share when I discovered she'd lied to me about something. How touchy I was. How quick to judge. How hard I was on... myself). I tell Jessie how I recognised it as an old pattern triggered when I feel affronted, let down, or betrayed by someone. How I loved to walk away, slam doors, wash hands, as it were, of things or people - an old, guarded pattern. I recognised it was based on my own insecurity. And that people are both simple and complex. Delicate things with hard shells. That want to love and be loved. And are full of fear, doubt and anxiety. We are all well intentioned really. Aren't we? I want to believe that. Believing it is kindle for compassion. Obviously if Jessie had actually hit me, that would have been a different matter. Compassion doesn't mean no boundaries or not holding people accountable. Luckily things didn't get to that, and we now knew what to avoid (in conversation, but perhaps in variety of wine also).
"Anyway, what am I up to?," I say, getting back to her original question. "Buying a sausage roll, and off to find a cafe to work in."
"Err, probably that one over there," I say, pointing to one I knew had lovely lighting, thick wooden tables, comfy seating, and a great selection of teas.
"I'm just about to go to the Royal Parade Hotel and use their pool and sauna. I need a shower. It's only a fiver."
Perhaps her one wasn't working properly. Her father had had bought her a flat six month's earlier but it was pretty run down and a bit of a building site at the moment. She was having a terrible time with a builder she paid up front (big mistake. I bite my tongue) and who wasn't doing any of the promised work. She'd told me about it last time and brings it up now.
"I may go an camp outside his front door," she says with a nervous chuckle. I know she's strapped for cash and it's a bigger stress than she's making out. "Then I'm going to meet a friend."
I don't flee from the conversation as I normally might. I allow for silences. They don't last long; it seems we both have things we want to share.
Jessie looks well and I comment on the fact.
"I've met a new man," she says smiling. Adding, "I'm worried he's a bit kinky, though."
I laugh. "Sounds fun."
"He wants me to dress up as a cowgirl."
Naturally, I laugh some more.
"Where did you meet him?"
"On Happn" - a mobile dating app.
"Oh, lucky you. No one ever connects with me on there. In fact, I never get laid in Brighton." One reason I'm moving back to London, I think, and maybe even voice. Main reason most likely. That, and currently being out of work.
"Have you slept with him already?"
"Yeah," she says, flashing me smile both wicked and guilty at once, before quickly looking down at the cigarette she's still rolling.
"You told me last time you were going to wait next time and not sleep with someone so quickly - 'check they aren't a psycho first!' wasn't it?!". She'd told me she had a track record of meeting such types. And falling head over heels in love with them. I don't think I'd ever seen Jessie wear heels, mind you. I'm not sure they'd suit her.
She laughs nervously. "Well, it was the second date." I chuckle. "And the sex is great. It's just fun. He's forty-five."
"Oh, experienced then."
She's not afraid to look me right in the eye as we talk. Not all the time, of course; that would be weird. It's nice. She has nice eyes. A strength and sparkle. A fragility too. And a seeking––for acknowledgement; for understanding; for security; for... love?––that lust in our eyes we all have.
"It's nice to have someone to share that with," Jessie says after a thoughtful pause. "Someone who isn't a psycho like Jim."
"That was the last boyfriend, right?" He was a right 'player' apparently. I remember feeling a tad jealous at her tales of his exploits with women.
"You're still quite into him aren't you?". She'd mentioned 'psycho' or 'Jim' a few times in the conversation now.
She doesn't answer; just rearranges the tobacco again with one finger, brings it to her mouth and seals it with a lick before giving it a squeeze and roll between forefinger and thumb.
"So, tell me about this 'friend' you're meeting," I say.
"Oh. That's a story. Well, he's a drug addict. Or was. I was siting outside the Bees Mouth smoking a week or two ago and this guy turns up; clearly homeless or an addict - you know, not so smartly dressed; gaunt features...."
"He was carrying an old wine box with loads of names and numbers scribbled on it. I asked him about it. It was the contact details of all his friends. Anyway, I felt a strange pull; a desire to help him. I think it's because he looked how I felt;"––she laughs––"dreadful!"
"Ah, Jessie," I say gently. Now, that is interesting, I think, psychology hat on. Projection... attraction...
She rolled him a cigarette and she asked about his life. He was newly off heroin, taking methadone (or some other substitute she couldn't pronounce) at the local clinic each day, but he feared a relapse if he didn't find something to do.
'Perhaps you can help me out at my flat?' Jessie offered with surprisingly lack of hesitation, 'I'll feed you. And you can scrub my living room floors.' Her living room floors were calling out for some love and attention, apparently.
Maybe she imagines a mischievous question in my stare, but at this point she says, "There was nothing sexual there. He's in a disgusting state", adding, "he even pissed in one of my beds" for good measure.
Another pause in the conversation. Comfortable. Unhurried. A few new clouds of cigarette smoke blooming, dissipating. I imagine the nicotine flooding Jessie's bloodstream, calming her very being. I was brought up to be very anti-smoking, but actually, it's a blessing for some folk.
"We got to work and I had to tell him to shower because he absolutely stunk. He returned a new man, in clothes I think he'd stolen from Primark."
"This is all very... saintly of you, Jessie," I say. "It sounds like just what he needs. Can you put him to work on more DIY jobs?"
"Not really; he's a liability. Scrubbing the floors was hard work enough; just getting him to use the scrubbing brush properly."
Still I don't rush off as I usually do, worried conversation might be waning. I'm enjoying listening to Jessie. Being witness. Hearing something of some other person's life (self-absorption, I'm finally realising, is such a bore. Although by the tone of this text, you probably don't believe me). Here is someone who is going through some shit. Must have had some really dark times. Something she had alluded to during our last encounter. And her new 'friend'? - I can't begin to really imagine what life has been like for him. What abuse (for it usually is) led to such degeneracy.
Another puff on her cigarette. It's almost burned to the filter now. Her hand still shakes. How long before she rolls another?
"You can get help, you know. I did therapy for years. It doesn't make you a freak. Loads of people do it."
"I know," she says. "I'm reading all those types of books."
I hesitate, not wanting to talk over anything she may have yet to say.
"I don't have the money for anything more," Jessie adds.
When the coast seems clear, I venture out again, gently countering, "But often you can't do it alone, Jessie." Really, I'm thinking, you can't do it alone. "It's something psychological––you need an 'other'––a witness. That's why group therapy works so well."
Does it? I don't know for sure. But I'd witnessed some incredible things the few times I'd done it; seeing grown men and women weep at some sorrow they'd kept locked away for so long, released; or seeing such weight lift from people's shoulders as they met, and embraced, some neglected inner child that still cowered lost and scared within; or acknowledged their sense of shame and inadequacy, whilst in touch with some strength and tender wholeness beyond it; or simply people who finally forgave their parents, or their past, filled with a sense of what that now made possible. Wound met, even blessed or celebrated. Time with dragons.
"You know you can get the first ten or so sessions for free on the NHS?"I add.
"Yeah?," she says inspecting the ground, kicking dirt, in what is clearly a 'thanks, but no thanks: I'm fine' (but clearly not) type way.
I don't push it. Instead I hold the space. And breathe. I feel gratitude. For the moment we're sharing; a temporary intersect of two lonely journeys. For being able to close on our last encounter, and this time I could listen. Grateful that deep down we know, past our stories and dramas and apparent troubles, that we're ok, aren't we? We're on the 'right path' - a unique, precious journey that nothing but death can truly ever deny us. It is ours. Ours to live. Ours, I'm gradually learning, to share.
I wonder if now is the time to say "Well, lovely to see you; I better be off now", but Jessie begins to speak again. She shares how she fears that she's just sabotaged two great job offers. One because she thought she didn't want to move back to London, even temporarily; the other because they cancelled some phone interview with her, asking her to email a CV instead, and she didn't.
"It was such a big film project," she says. "I felt... overwhelmed."
"Well, don't beat yourself up too much about it," I say
"Oh, good. That's quite an achievement," I say, hoping I don't sound patronising. I shouldn't, because I mean it. I would probably have lambasted myself horribly. Self-flagellation was a forte. I tell her that.
"Well, I did to begin with," Jessie admits.
Is it still? I wonder at memories of self-attack. No... I think not. Not after my time in the woods. And dance with the scaled, fire-breathing folk. I feel a new... spaciousness. A new... sense of ease.
Jessie's friend is at the clinic. She tells she's going away for the weekend but has written him a list of things to keep him occupied.
"You haven't given him the keys to your apartment, have you?" I ask, alarm bells ringing.
"No, stupid. Just things like 'go to for a swim', or 'go feed yourself'."
"Are you paying?" I ask, wondering how far her desire to 'help' had gone.
"No. He's got some money. He's mum's just sent him £30."
£30 - sheessh. Life can be tough... and tragic.
It's obvious to both of us that such thoughts, and their offspring, hang in the chill December air between us, clawing. Are we both wondering if our own lives could one day become so desperate? Or feeling lucky for what we have; for not having fallen so low?
"Well, see you Jessie." There, I say it. And it's the right moment.
"See you, Sam"
"I'm around if you ever want to chat."
"Or not chat," Jessie jokes... "we could just hang."
"Ha, yeah! That might be wiser." No stumbling on talk of humanitarian crises or the state of the world that way. "Take care of yourself, Jessie."
And off I go, grateful for Jessie having been placed in my path today, and feeling the warm glow of 'ghost chilli' in my gut.
Senses softening once more, vision honey-glazed. Back to rolling my bike along the road. Rolling. Rolling.
tags: mental illness, schizophrenia, parkinsonian, mexico
As Clara and I leave the dirt road and enter the small garden at the rear of Las Coyas restaurant, she points out a shrub covered in butterflies.
“Oh, that’s it!” I say. She'd told me to look out for it a few days earlier.
“I thought you’d seen it?”
“There’s obviously a couple of them. The one I found is just over there,” I say pointing, the child in me wanting to add, and my one was better.
She tells me how she’d shown it to Dimitri the day before. “Isn't it pretty,” she’d said, indicating to a butterfly.
“It is not pretty. It is moth,” had been Dimitri’s monotonic reply.
“But don't you like the colours?” she'd asked imploringly.
“What colour? It is moth,” he'd said.
“So Russian!” Clara remarks now, rolling her eyes. We didn't know at that point that Dimitri was colour blind.
Having enjoyed La Ventana beach all morning––paddle boarding, kite surfing, and sunbathing––we avoid the balcony and midday Mexican sun, finding a table inside instead. We order a portion of 'Ceviche con nachos' to share and two glasses of wine.
In conversation Clara mentions her divorce. We’d spoken plenty about relationships, but it was the first time she’d alluded to having been married, and I point this out.
“Well, it was kind of traumatic,” she says.
“I’m all ears.”
Her husband was the nicest person. Sensitive, sweet; the definition of goodness. ‘Pan’ her Italian mother used to call him, like the soft centre in a fresh loaf of bread.
“He’d never get angry,” Clara tells me.
“What… ever?” I ask, incredulous.
“No,” she assures me. “He was almost too nice for this world…”. She looks down, past our table; into space; silent and pensive. “After what happened. I do think the world was just... too much for him.”
“And what 'happened' (trusting she’d get to that part), happened suddenly?”
“No. It was all quite insidious.”
“What does that mean?” I ask, my vocabulary not being the most replete (thank you Thesaurus).
“Slow to build up—like it sneaks up on you.”
The wine arrives and Clara continues with her story:
“It began when he got a new job. We’d been married a year. First it was “no one likes me”, then “they're out to get me”, and next “there’s a plot to sack me”. He started coming home really worked up and would crash pans and dishes about in the kitchen and that was so unusual; so not like him. Of course, I was concerned, but thought it was just him not coping well with the pressure of the new job. I’d been in cut-throat work environments myself, so could understand if everyone was stepping on each other to get ahead.
One time he came home really agitated and saying something really bad had happened. He didn’t want to say what at first, but eventually I teased it out of him. They’d sent him a very clear message. This of course sounded odd, but again I thought it was metaphorical and work colleagues were just vying for his position.
When he came home from work a week later, kitchen cookware again bearing the brunt of his frustration, saying some guy had turned up in a T-shirt with a slogan on it that was meant for him, I was really confused. I thought I was mishearing, or that maybe the shirt said something like 'fuck you all’—something vague and general—but really I had no idea. I was just trying to be rational and had no experience of this type of behaviour before. But when he then said the message was “in code” something clicked: I knew something wasn’t right.
I assumed he was having a nervous breakdown and called a Doctor friend who suggested we make an appointment to see someone. I arranged this for one evening later that week, but when I returned home from work that day, Dave had packed up and gone.”
Not a word, and no way to trace him.
The food arrives and there’s no delay in my tucking into it. Clara doesn’t follow suit; she seems happy to keep talking. Like she needs to keep talking. The Ceviche isn’t anywhere as good as the one we'd had served to us on a beach a day earlier by a father-son duo who'd taken us swimming with sea lions and whalesharks, but it’s tasty, and it sure beats the cheese empanadas (cheese empanadas were the speciality, or only dish, at several restaurants and bars in La Ventana).
“After a fraught week of hopeless searching, I eventually discovered he’d been arrested and sectioned. I drove to his family home in South California, but they were in denial. They assumed it was something I had done, and wouldn't tell me where he was. I was distraught, Sam. All I wanted to do was find my husband and find out what had happened. What the hell was happening.
I set about calling every mental institute in Southern California. Being a librarian at the time helped; I had access to the necessary directories—nothing was online in those days. I knew the town where his family lived, and worked out geographically from that point; two of my work colleagues were on hand to help.”
“But being his wife, couldn’t the authorities just tell you where he was?” I ask, partly to prove I was paying as much attention to her as I was on devouring nachos.
“Well, no; that’s just what I was going to say—under state law you’ve no right as a spouse to the medical info of your partner. It's the patients privacy they care about. America is really hot on personal privacy.”
I had to chuckle at that, and did lightly counter her last point by reminding her of the Snowdon revelations (still fresh in the news at that time). Perhaps I wanted a distraction. I was getting hot and uneasy listening to her story; it seemed too close to home, somehow. Memories of past paranoid experiences, perhaps. That time I spun out in Calgary, even. An irrational fear I might also be schizophrenic was creeping over me. I almost panicked at one point, thinking her tale of descent into mental illness might throw me into my own psychotic state: that her describing the path to insanity would give the self-destructive part of me the map it needed to get me there. I maintain my composure, however, apologise for my aside, and ask her to continue.
“I was desperate and probably sounded it; balling my eyes out on almost every phone call. I was desperate to my husband but not having any luck. I was so worn out I was probably hysterical by that point. I’d say things like, ‘I know I don't have any right to the information about where my husband is, but do you know how many places I’ve called, and…’. That type of thing. Luckily, I got through to one receptionist—the right one—, who felt sympathy for me. ‘I can't tell you if he is here or not,’ the lady said, ‘but take down this number and ring it.’
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘I can’t tell you that; just ring it,’ she said.
The number was for a ward. It was a phone where patients can call out from, because although they’re locked up it’s not a prison. Some crazy guy answered with ‘hello’, but not a normal hello, more like ‘whoaaa hello’.”
Clara’s impression was hilarious. She didn’t seem to mind me laughing.
“I asked for Dave and heard the guy on the phone scream out his name a few times. Miraculously, a minute later, someone else said ‘hello’; someone I immediately recognised as my husband.
‘Dave,’ I said, astonished, ‘it's me!’
He responded with an ‘oh, hey’, like it was just any old day of the week, and I was just any old person. I tried to ask him where he was, but he just started speaking gibberish and trailed off. ‘I’ve got to go,’ he finally said, and hung up. Well, he didn’t hang up as such, he just let the phone drop.”
I imagine Clara hearing his footsteps on some cold, polished and unfamiliar corridor as he walked away, lost to her, lost to himself. I help myself to another spoonful of Ceviche.
“At least now I knew where the hospital was they were keeping him in. I jumped into my car and drove like a bat out of hell—right through the night, desperate to see my husband, but also thinking I had to get there quickly in case they moved him.
It took a really long time for me to be able to speak to the on-duty Doctor. He took me into a stuffy little room and I could tell he was being careful with me; looking at me like I was most definitely a person on the edge.”
No doubt he knew the signs well, I think.
“First I wanted to know if he was able to leave. He wasn’t. He’d been arrested under 5150. That meant he had to stay 30 days, at which point there would be a review.”
5150 is a section of the California Welfare and Institutions Code which allows a qualified officer or clinician to ‘involuntarily confine a person deemed to have a mental disorder that makes him or her a danger to self, a danger to others’.
“None of it made any sense. I was crying, and remember asking the doctor through my sobs, ‘but Doctor, what is this?”
‘Mrs Brown’, he replied coolly, looking at me like it was something I clearly should have known, “it's schizophrenia.”
I take a breath. And another nacho, indicting to Clara she should do the same.
“Do you know what he did to get arrested?” I ask.
“It was something about him thinking he was a nun,” she says, finally tucking into the nachos; what’s left of them. “He got up one morning, shaved his chest, took off his wedding ring, threw it out the window, then walked out onto the street and started disrobing—all symbolic of giving up his worldly possessions, I guess.”
“A nun, and not a priest?”
Clara was escorted into a dimly lit room, and there she saw her childhood sweetheart curled up on a bed in the foetal position, crying.
“To see my husband like this cut my heart like a knife. I said his name and when he looked up and saw me he started balling like a baby.
‘You found me!’ he cried, lifting himself off the bed and coming to me, arms raised and wide, awkward and childlike. He buried his face in my neck and bosom and held on so tight. I held him for a long, long time.
‘Take me home,’ he kept saying. I knew that wasn’t possible, however much I wanted to. I explained it to him like I might to a child. I said I had to leave him there ‘a little while longer’, that he ‘wasn’t well’, and the Doctors ‘just needed to do a few more tests’. I too was trying to take comfort in it, Sam, because I missed my husband terribly—all those weeks of crying myself to sleep each night, hoping I’d be able to find him, hardly sleeping.”
Reluctantly she pried herself away from his grip and left the room with the Doctor. From the corridor she could see Dave’s face pressed up tight against the wire-reinforced window, mouthing, “take me with you,” over and over, the blade in her heart twisting a little more with each mute plea.
“I tried to have him transferred to a hospital nearer to our home in northern California. But being incarcerated under state law meant he would have to be transferred by ambulance and that would have cost me $10,000. I considered it, but my mother reminded me they were two weeks in, with only two weeks to go, and willed me to be strong.”
Fourteen days later he was allowed to return home.
“We tried to resume as normal a life as possible, but he wasn’t the same man; he was more like a child to me now. He was on several anti-psychotic drugs that were so strong he couldn’t take them all the time. This meant he’d have another psychotic episode every few months. He’d exhibit the same angry, paranoid behaviour. He’d see things; throw things; smash things. He was never violent before so it was really scary. Luckily he never laid a hand on me, or anyone for that matter. Each time he'd disappear and I'd have to go and find him again, worried out of my mind.”
He was affected physically by the drugs he was taking, getting Parkinsonian from one, a nervous system disorder similar to Parkinson’s disease. He couldn't go to bathroom himself, and at bedtime Clara would have to sit on his knees in bed in order to help him straighten his legs.
“Everyday I’d come home and look for signs. Touch his hand, look in his eyes, ask how his day had been, watching, listening for something that sounded strange—too sharp an intake of breath, for example—or too raspy, too laboured; eyes flicking about, agitated—I knew all the signs. Oh Sam, always alert, it was exhausting!”
The longest period he went without a psychotic episode was six months. Toward the end of that spell Clara was starting to breathe easier and feel some hope.
“We were joking again, laughing and smiling. I thought maybe they'd finally got the cocktail of drugs right. That maybe we could have a normal—well, not normal, but happy—life together. Then I came home one day and could tell right away from his heavy breathing something wasn’t right. Every muscle in my body tensed.”
It was his job to make dinner (she given him the household to manage so he didn't feel totally emasculated) and she knew he was getting agitated preparing it.
“Whats wrong, honey?” she asked.
“I don't want to talk about it” he replied, adding, “I had a bad day.”
“Honey, tell me what happened,” she asked, despite not really wanting to hear his answer; she already knew what his behaviour meant.
“I ran into that guy at the grocers. I’ve never liked him. Or his wife.”
“Well what’s wrong with his wife?” she asked, at which point he turned round sharply to face Clara, and with frighting intensity said, “She’s a fucking cunt, that's what!”.
Oh no, thought Clara. It’s happening again. Will it ever stop?
She excused herself and went into the bathroom where she sat on the toilet, grabbed a towel and started sobbing uncontrollably into it—she didn't want him to hear her. When she looked up she didn't recognise the person staring wet-eyed back at her in the mirror. It was a miserable, terrified person. She knew she had to make a choice. This is it, she said to herself. I need a life… my life. She knew she couldn’t do it anymore. It was clear and defined. It had been five years since his first episode. Five years! She couldn’t believe the number of people who had told her to leave him in that time. What about 'through sickness and health’, she’d thought. But everyone has their limit and she’d just reached hers.
“Where was his family in all this?” I ask.
“Oh, they were such horrible people. Even when he got home after hospital they wouldn’t help, or admit anything was wrong. One time he stopped taking his medication and came to me saying he’d just been talking to the Holy Spirit. I tried to get him to take his medication but he refused, saying, ‘No, they’re just giving me drugs and there’s nothing wrong with me,’ or something like that.
Religious grandiosity is a common feature of schizophrenia; the apparent ability to communicate directly with religious deities—usually the one you’re familiar with from your culture or upbringing.” (read into that what you will ;).
“So, I called his family to try and get their support in getting him to a Doctor and back on his medication, but the mother said, ‘well he seems fine to us’. Fine… "fine"!?! Can you believe it, Sam?! ‘Mrs Rogers,’ I said back, in disbelief, ‘he just told me he spoke to the Holy Spirit’.”
Clara pauses, takes a nacho and a muffled crunch fills the anticipatory silence.
“‘Well, I think that's wonderful’—that’s what his mother said. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing!”
“No way,” I say, incredulous, but highly amused. Till amusement whistles out of me like a punctured beach ball and I’m just sad, thinking: Poor guy, he probably was. Probably was speaking to a “holy spirit” of some kind, that is. So little is understood about the mind, consciousness and reality…
“You know, in some tribal traditions, ‘mental illness’ or autism signals the birth of a healer or a shaman,” I say.
“Yeah. I read an article on it once. They view people with such conditions as sensitive, whereas Western culture views them as over-sensitive. As a result, sensitive people in those traditions don’t experience themselves as overly sensitive.”
Clara takes another nacho, saying nothing. So do I. The sound of our combined crunch brings to mind the image of a sadistic nurse slapping her palm with a leather restraining belt before a terrified new patient to the asylum. A few crumbs fall to the table, and a shiver runs down my spine.
Perhaps I am crazy, I think. Or could be. I decide to not smoke any more weed for a good, long while; just in case.
“It’s said, that it’s the frenetic pace of our Western culture that overwhelms sensitive people and wreaks them,” I say a few moments later. “It’s the bombardment of our delicate senses. Anyway, I’m sure we’re all so much closer to that ‘insanity’ that we like to think.”
“Oh, I’m sure of it,” Clara says.
Clara’s husband’s family were uber religious and as it turned out, had a history of mental illness. Two of his siblings were later diagnosed with schizophrenia and he now lived with one of them.
“Two drugged up insane people living in the same house, can you imagine?!” Clara says, laughing.
I’m glad she can laugh about it all now. It had been fifteen years since they’d separated; I guess that’s plenty of time to get over such a thing.
“Well, it certainly sounds like it was an intense time,” I say. “Thank you for sharing.”
“It’s made me extremely tolerant of odd relationships,” Clara says, her eyes a sparkle: wet with tears, perhaps.
“Is that why we get on?” I ask with a wry smile.
We stop to admire the butterfly tree once more.
“I’m 'sensitive', like your ex,” I say. “I would be worried about becoming schizophrenic myself… but luckily I’m not that 'nice'”.
Clara laughs. “Oh, neither am I.”
“A lesson for you though, Sam: if you’re going to marry someone, check mental illness doesn’t run in the family!”
I didn’t know the medical history on my father’s side: he didn’t know who his father was. Perhaps he was a loon and I was right to be worried. No, I’m just a worrier, and I know exactly where that comes from: my mother.