More than 20 years ago, my niece’s life pretty much went to hell. When she was a senior in high school she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
I can’t tell you exactly what schizophrenia is–nobody can. The best way I know to describe it is an inability to discern the real from the unreal. The voices, the hallucinations, the feelings of paranoia are very real and very frightening. When you don’t know if you should listen to your algebra teacher or the voice in your head claiming to be God, it’s pretty tough to finish high school. So she didn’t.
I lived away for about 12 years and missed a lot of what went on. I saw my niece at holidays. She had good years and not so good years and there have been downright horrible years. There was time spent in hospitals, in group homes and times in apartments, more or less on her own.
I remember hearing that some of the group homes were dismal. Patients did little more than watch tv, smoke and take their daily medications.
I’ve never seen my niece when the madness has truly taken hold–when the sweet woman I know turned into a stranger, filled with rage and at war with herself and everyone around her.
But I have seen glimpses of sadness. Once, during a good time when she was living in an apartment, she was asking her parents to allow her to get a cat. They were reluctant, knowing that they’d be responsible for the animal when the inevitable hospital stay came. She and I were talking about it one night when I was driving her home. She described her feelings about wanting a pet:
“Sometimes I just get lonely.”
I think about how much that one sentence says: I’ll never have a family of my own. I’ll never go to happy hour with a group from the office. I’ll never have a day that isn’t regulated by the handful of pills I have to take to maintain my foothold in sanity.
She doesn’t let me see the sadness often. Usually when we chat she’s cheerful and even a peaceful. In the last year she’s quit smoking and lost more than 60 pounds. She loves to watch sports on TV and goes to see the Tennessee Titans occasionally with her father. I can always count on a halftime phone call when she’s watching the University of Tennessee.
At some point, her parents (my sister and brother-in-law) heard about the Center for Living and Learning–a place so low-key it doesn’t even have a website. The Center is a private nonprofit residential and vocational program for mentally ill adults. It was founded in 1987 by a local family with a mentally ill relative. It was a godsend for my niece and her family and she lived there for several years.
The Center recently built a second house for residents to live in without supervision. It’s a beautiful home with large, sunny bedrooms, each with a huge closet and private bath. There’s a screened in porch with a beautiful view of the surrounding green hills. It’s my niece’s new home and there was an open house there last week. Friends and family–more than 150 of us–came to see this wonderful new facility and to celebrate the accomplishments and achievements of our mentally ill loved ones.
In time, this beautiful building will be home to six residents, but only two live there now.
Well, three if you count Tilley–my niece’s cat.