(The London Free Press – Saturday, May 10, 1997)
“We are one, after all, you and I. Together we suffer. Together we exist. And forever will re-create each other.”
— Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 20th century French philosopher
ST. THOMAS, CANADA – Tomorrow is Mother’s Day, the one day of the year I’m vividly reminded I have never held my mother, looked into her eyes and told her I love her. I have never offered a soft kiss on her cheek. I have never even given her flowers.
My mom killed herself before I ever had the chance.
Every year at this time I’m reminded a little boy, too young to understand the complexities life can dump on us, was left behind, with his sister and daddy, by a beautiful woman he barely knew.
There’s no easy way to describe such a loss. It’s even harder when there are few memories on which to fall back. It’s a loss of someone who was never really there.
My mother had severe mental illness. I understand she had deep paranoia and hallucinations (she believed people, or “things” were chasing her), among other fears. She was eventually given the label of schizophrenic.
Then one day my mom, an experienced nurse, in her Berlin apartment, having already lost her children, took her own life by injecting into her veins a solution she knew would poison her blood. She left notes to her loved ones expressing her sorrow for hurting them, and her desire for true peace.
So, my mother’s world ended not with a bang, but with a whimper, alone, on the floor of a small room on the other side of the ocean, one day in 1971.
Her absence is still felt.
Her death falls into the relatively small category of those caused by mental disease. Schizophrenics are the most common suicides among the mentally sick. Eventually one in 10 kill themselves.
Historically it has been common to have simplistic explanations or warped fascination for such things. The superstition that demons possess the mentally sick still hovers over us like a dismal mist. A few centuries ago the public would even pay to see “lunatics” displayed at their local mental hospital. It was fashionable.
And now? Will closing London regional psychiatric hospitals bring madness to our own streets?
To find the answer we should know that mental disorder does not reflect any fundamental personal deficiency. It is not shameful. Science shows every one of us shares the potential for becoming disordered.
We should know more serious mental disease is brought on when particular stresses are put on someone with a genetic predisposition to it. We should understand mental illness does not necessarily make people more dangerous than otherwise.
We should see the days of “Oh, it’s because of bad upbringing” are disappearing for more biological-based studies.
Most importantly, we need to know that hope is what the mentally diseased need most. We all need trusting relationships, a sense of being appreciated and valued, of being loved unconditionally. Language is powerful, and words we choose can give hope. So can listening to the life story of the man or woman who may sit down beside us. Or using humour.
“Recovery” for the mentally ill may not mean their suffering has disappeared and symptoms removed. Rather, it means they will have strength to move on despite their condition.
Sickness, particularly severe disease, reminds us our earthly home is out of sync. As part of such a fallen world, we too can easily lose the harmony and flow of our existence, especially when we are jolted through seasons that are not easy. But Jesus said he would be with us in these storms of life, as our refuge and strength.
I was reminded of this several years ago when, overseas, standing at my mom’s tombstone one summer day, I placed a thorny, red rose and said goodbye. But even God chose His son to be a wounded healer, and spared Him neither pain nor humiliating death. In this paradox is the deeper essence of hope, a gift given to us.
It’s like the final crossing of the chasm between humanity and the divine. Whether we drink Socrates’ poison hemlock or whether we pass away in more natural ways, we will all face the same pit. In the end, no death is really natural. Some diseases just take longer to run their course.
We will all be left helpless. We will all have to be carried.