Friday, December 17, 2021

It Will Begin With Compassion

Not long ago, I had a few hours to kill before catching my flight back to Seattle and was kindly invited for lunch and conversation at the home of a new friend. In the car on the way there, she told me that her sons would be there, one of whom had recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia. She said that the house was a "real mess" because of his occasionally destructive tendencies and that he may or may not choose to speak with me.

I've spent more time than I ever expected with people who are schizophrenic. These have mostly been people living on the streets, people who are generally considered to be nuisances, even dangers to the neighborhood. I'm thinking in particular of a couple of young men who often turn up around the preschool, both of whom I've gotten to know over the years, during their more lucid moments. When they are responding to the voices in their heads I've kept my distance.

It's a tragic and brutal thing to be schizophrenic in our modern world. The young men I know, and they are all young men, are tormented by auditory hallucinations, voices that are more real to them than actual voices. It causes them to behave in anti-social and self-destructive ways. Occasionally, the guys I know will go "on their meds." I can tell because then they move like zombies, shuffling gray-ly along looking neither left nor right, trapped in a fog that must feel like depression. When they're medicated they tell me the voices go away, but so does pretty much everything else. It makes them less of a nuisance to the rest of us, but does nothing to make their own lives better. Many of them self-medicate with street drugs which tend to have the effect of making them feel better in the short run while exacerbating the underlying problem.

I once spoke with the head of the neighborhood business association who was at his wits end over the acts of vandalism committed by one of guys I know. The business owner wasn't without compassion, but the broken windows and overturned trash cans were materially hurting business. "I've had customers tell me they're afraid."

When we arrived at my new friend's home, the inside was beyond "a mess." There were holes in the drywall, broken spindles on the stairway railing, gashes in the furniture upholstery, even evidence of a small fire. As we chatted in the living room, her schizophrenic son paced upstairs, occasionally showing himself on the stairway, then retreating. Finally, he joined us, sitting in a chair as far as possible from me. He seemed restless. He was smoking constantly. He guzzled from an energy drink. After a time, he began to interject comments into our conversation, although he always directed his words to his mother as if I wasn't there.

Then suddenly he came to stand in front of me. He said, "I'm schizophrenic. That means I hear people talking that no one else can hear. I know they're real because they say things that I could never make up. Taylor Swift talks to me and she says things I could never make up. The guys from Metallica talk to me and they say things I could never make up. I know they're real . . ." He paused to look at his mother. Then continued, speaking clearly and slowly as if making sure I understood, "But my mom and dad tell me they're not real and I have to believe them."

What a fine line. The diagnosis was very fresh and the entire family was lovingly adjusting to their new life as caretakers of a schizophrenic loved one. 

I thought of the schizophrenics I know in Seattle. One of them has family in the San Francisco area that sends him money and medication in the hope he will take it, but who refuse to allow him to come home. The other, the one who breaks the windows, grew up in a middle class family not far from my school. Were he a little younger, he might have once been one of my students. I've heard his family keeps a room for him, but they can't make him stay there. As I looked around the shambles of this once nice home, as I considered this young man's mother, as I listened to how the schizophrenia medications made him feel "dead," I was overwhelmed with a sense that I must do something.

But what can I do? I'm not a doctor. I have no training. And besides, it's too late for me to dedicate my life to finding a cure. I understand why someone wouldn't want to go through life feeling dead. I understand why we can't just allow broken windows. I understand why families might have to finally "give up" even as they continue to love their child. I understand why people are afraid of the schizophrenic behaviors they witness. It is frustrating and heartbreaking all the way around.

I read about how other cultures, especially ancient cultures treated schizophrenia as holiness. These were the special people who communicated with spirits or the gods. But we don't live in an ancient culture and it would take nothing less than a revolution to re-shape our society to suit the 2.6 million Americans afflicted with this disabling neurological brain disorder. Other than that pie-in-the-sky notion, I find little hope in the reading I've done.

Yet still I can't stop thinking about it. I can't stop wanting to solve this insolvable problem, even as I have no particular skills or knowledge. I must do something and the only thing I can think of is to write about it to a small, dedicated audience of early childhood educators and parents.

I don't expect anyone who reads this to do anything, but I know you will feel compassion because that's what we do. And I know that if we are to ever solve this insolvable thing it will begin with compassion. 


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

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