Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Isolation Of Mental Illness

I've reached an age where I'm attending funerals more often. The latest sad occasion marked the passing of a friend's mother.

We all knew the woman was odd but when you're young, you tend to think all older people are out of step with reality as you know it. She didn't cook or clean the house like our mothers, but her own mother always seemed to be there to handle the chores.

As we grew older, I noticed that my friend took on responsibility for his own upbringing. When it was time to go to university, he found a ride with someone going that way, packed up his own belongings, and that was it. He studied with a mind to taking over his father's business. Too old to require adult supervision when we got together over holiday breaks, we rarely saw his mother except in passing.

When he married, he fretted about his mother getting her teeth fixed and we came to find out that the woman was incapable of normal dental hygiene, and wouldn't see a dentist. Odd, but then again, there are those with a fear of the dentist.

The little eccentricities you don't notice as a child are magnified when you're older and have taken a course in psychology. Witnessing a woman wash a few garments, only to wash them again, and then again, left me wondering if I should suggest to my friend that his mother might be in need of help. Her napkin shredding, the way she made a ritual of eating that made a meal last for an hour, all hinted at mental illness.

What right does a son have to force his mother to do anything? Sadly, his father was a man of the old school who believed that a wife's job was to care for the family and if she didn't do it, she was fired. Rather than drag her to a professional for treatment, the father got a divorce. Not one of his social set criticized him. They wondered why he put up with it for so long.

My friend's mother lived by herself and turned her back on everyone. She alienated her extended family by not attending funerals of cousins who passed away, by refusing to speak to them if they tried to phone. With her husband footing the bills, she ate at restaurants every night. If we happened to see her, alone at a corner table, she turned away or hid behind the menu until she was finished, and then she slipped out through a back door. She needs help, we'd say to each other, but her son felt powerless.

He knew that his mother was living in squalor, by herself all day and night without a visitor. She made no social calls on anyone. My friend had to schedule his parents' arrival and departure from his children's birthday parties to avoid conflict. His mother regaled us all with bizarre tales of neighbors hiding knives in the hedges and she couldn't risk a walk in her back garden. She needs help, we'd say as we left the party, but our friend knew all that already.

My friend called on her every Sunday, desperate to convince her to see a doctor but getting rebuffed every time. One day he noticed that his mother had developed gangrene in her extremities. She had no choice but to be taken to a hospital before she developed septicemia and died a slow death.

Congestive heart failure was the diagnosis. My friend installed his mother in a nursing home under the guise of medical treatment. Like a captive audience, she had no choice in the matter when the staff psychiatrist came a-calling.

Help came too late. Medication calmed the worst of the behaviors, but no one came to visit and see the results. Mental illness left unchecked had robbed my friend's mother of her social contacts. In the hospital, she was as alone as she had ever been. My friend continued to visit every few days, relieved after a lifetime of stress.

She died alone. No dutiful husband was there to hold her hand at the final moments. My friend has his own family to care for, along with a business that is struggling in a weak economy.

Those who wouldn't speak to her in life because they took her derangement personally showed up to mourn her passing. She should have gotten help, they all said. Now, however, she's beyond helping.

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