I was planning a Pakistan related post when I had a curious encounter with an older lady named Gale at my Dentist’s office. Gale (not her real name) was a few seats away from me in the lobby and as soon as I sat down she struck up a conversation. She soon revealed that she lived at a prominent local mental health facility; which I’m ashamed to say, made me internally groan.
We chatted for a good 10 minutes and that conversation has been on replay in my mind ever since. Gale told me how she had some anger problems when her routine was disrupted; just that morning she had missed tea time and had gotten into what she called a ”tiff” with the nursing staff. The nurses wouldn’t let her use the kettle on her own and Gale refused to take her medicine without her Tea and stormed off slamming the door on her way out. Gale was very honest in accepting the blame for starting many of these tiffs, but she chalked many of these misunderstandings to the fact that she was actually a reborn angel. As a quick aside I found her frequent use of the word tiff interesting; we all have words and phrases and manners of speaking that mark us as unique and define who we are and that’s something mental illness cannot take away.
Gale said that she used to be a human but her human body died a while back and her soul spent a month going on what she called a spirit journey through Africa and Hawaii before meeting her spiritual adviser who told her that she was an angel who had to be sent back to Earth . Gale told me that she know’s her story sounds crazy but that it’s the truth. She mentioned the bible a few times and asked if my name was from the bible so I assume that her Christian faith played a part in her Angel delusions.
Gale then told me of her daughter who she had given to her own mother to raise when her daughter was 3, which was over 20 years ago. Gale says that her daughter visits her and they both share a love of walking with Gale spending much of our time together breathlessly recounting the rare birds she’s seen on her walks through the grounds of the facility.
She forgot my name twice and when her handler arrived to take her back home she seemed to forget our conversation completely. I noticed during her pauses that she would often get a sad look in her eyes, perhaps these were moments of perfect lucidity. But when she was talking about her life at the facility she was very happy and thought she was treated and looked after well there.
This curious encounter with Gale has stuck with me for several reasons. When I first saw Gale I pegged her to be in her late 60’s maybe early 70’s yet if her daughter is in her twenties then it’s very likely Gale could be 60 or even younger. It got me wondering if Gale had perhaps been homeless or even in Prison for a few years before getting the help she needed, or if the stress of constantly battling her own mind aged her before her time.
Then I realized that if there was no government run mental health system then Gale would most certainly have ended up homeless on the streets, just a crazy lady who claimed she was an Angel to countless passerby’s; most of them avoiding eye contact, perhaps a few giving her change so she wouldn’t starve. She would sit on her favoured street corner for a few years the elements taking their tool until one winter’s morning she would be found dead and buried in a soon forgotten grave.
I think most of us and I’m guilty of this as well, look down on the homeless people we see as nothing more than drug addicts or alcoholics. Many of them are but many of them also turned to drugs to attempt to cope with their mental illnesses, and most homeless people whether addicts or not are mentally ill and desperately need help. Instead we as a society don’t demand more beds and staff for mental health facilities and are content to let many of our most vulnerable languish on the streets.
As I write I’ve come to accept that one of humanity’s greatest flaws is our inability to use our empathy to help those in need when they’re right in front of us. Most of us would gladly donate to charitable causes helping those in need in the third world; few of us would help a charity close to home working to open more shelters or to raise money for a mental health hospital. And we would gladly adopt a stray cat or dog, saving them from a brutal life on the streets, yet we have no qualms with doing nothing to save a person from that same brutal life.
If I had met Gale on the street I would have instantly averted my eyes and quickened my pace so I could spend the least amount of time near the crazy lady as possible; I would have instantly dismissed her as just another wacko looking for a handout. I think most people would do the same; and that’s awful. Such a casual dismissal of another human being simply because she is mentally ill should never be tolerated. If I said that Gale was a minority or in a wheelchair, or a lesbian and waved her life away as if it were nothing just because she was those things I would be roundly (and rightly) condemned as a horrible person. Yet our society still has a stigma attached to diseases of the mind.
It must have been a terrible decision for Gale to give her only child to be raised by Gale’s mother; I can scarcely imagine how awful it must be to admit that you aren’t fit to raise your own child. Yet it was the right choice and it shows that just because someone is mentally ill doesn’t mean they’re stupid; in her moments of lucidity Gale is likely just as intelligent as the rest of us. I was happy to hear that Gale’s daughter still visits her mother, it would have been very easy for her to just act like Gale didn’t exist instead she chose to be part of her mothers life. I wonder how many mentally ill people are as lucky as Gale is to have a supportive family.
We have no problems electing leaders who were past alcoholics or drug addicts yet how many of us would vote for someone who has struggled with mental illness even if their symptoms were completely under control? Alcohol and drugs destroy countless lives and families but how many lives and families are shattered when a mind wages war on itself? If someone we knew be it family or friend confided in us that they had a mental illness how many of us would still support them fully? I think most of us would distance ourselves from that person in their time of need because we would stop viewing them as a loved one first and all else second but as a crazy person first and all else second.
Talking with Gale opened my eyes to the prejudices I and our society has against the mentally ill. We’ve made such tremendous strides in the past few decades at stripping away most of the hate and fear that has cursed humanity since it’s beginning. Hopefully during the course of the next few decades we can strip away the hate and fear surrounding mental illness and treat mental illness as something that is worthy of help and support not shame and silence.