Thursday, February 25, 2010

February 24: Blessed Josepha Naval Girbes

I think I'm suffering from a rage hangover today. My little moment of insanity keeps replaying in my head the way the network news kept showing the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings the week after September 11. Like most people in the days following the attacks, I couldn't stop watching in slow motion as tiny forms leaped from the shattered windows; as the metal and glass collapsed into thick clouds of rubble and smoke; as survivors came stumbling out of the fog like zombies coated in flour. I just couldn't stop watching those images, simply because I couldn't believe it had happened.

I still can't believe I lost control of myself so badly yesterday. And it all, in some way, distills down to an inability of most people to understand the reality of mental illness.

Let me tell you a little about this reality.

When I leave home in the morning, there's always a part of myself that wants to stay with my wife and children, to protect them, to make sure that my daughter gets to school on time, my son's diaper gets changed, my wife eats breakfast and takes her meds on time. My wife has always been good about taking her pills, which, in the world of mental illness, is a miracle of saintly proportions. (She watched her uncle ride the roller coaster of going on and off his bipolar medications his whole life. He ended up committing suicide. "I'm not going to end up like him," she's told me on more than one occasion.) Things have been fairly stable for her for over three years, but I always remember walking into an ER examination room nine years ago and seeing my wife's arms laced up and down with bloody, self-inflicted gashes. That image is with me every morning I get in the car and drive to work. That's a reality.

My wife is constantly exhausted, partly due to the effects of the medications she takes. When I come home at night, I'm never sure what condition our home is going to be in. On good days, the beds are made, the dishes are done, the toys are put away, and a load of laundry is in the dryer. On bad days, the house looks like Ground Zero. Sometimes I get angry. I yell at my wife, or I storm around, putting everything in order. But then I stop in front of her. She looks as though she's just run a half-marathon, as if getting dressed is an Olympic event. It takes the wind right out of the sails of my boat, the H. M. S. Self-Righteous. That's a reality.

When AIDS first entered the public consciousness, it was a disease people whispered about, the "gay cancer." People even went so far as to proclaim it was a punishment sent by God on the gay community (as if the God who let his son be tortured and executed for our broken world needed to do something else to fix it). Then grandmothers and children and mothers started contracting the disease, and suddenly it was in our living rooms. In the year 2010, AIDS isn't a taboo topic anymore. While still a horrifying illness, it's talked about, researched, studied, and treated with compassion and understanding. Although it's been around a lot longer than AIDS, mental illness is still in the back room of society, the secret, demented grandmother who lifts her hospital gown and flashes her genitalia to passersby. It's the proverbial elephant in the living room that everyone ignores. That's a reality.

I come from a family that believes in hard work. My father was a plumber for over fifty years, leaving home at seven in the morning and sometimes not returning until six or seven in the evening. He instilled that work ethic in all of his children. Besides teaching at the university, I also work full-time in a medical office and play the pipe organ at two different churches on the weekends. This tax season, I have six W-2s to submit. Before my wife was diagnosed with bipolar, my line of thinking went something like this: if you have two good arms, two good legs, functional lungs, and at least one synapse firing in your brain, you can get a job and do your share of the housework. That thinking changed nine years ago. Unfortunately, many members of my family look at Beth sleeping in a chair or struggling to stay awake on the couch, and they see a woman who can't take care of her children or household properly. Mental illness, for them, is an excuse to be lazy. That's a reality.

My daughter has never known her mother without mental illness. A few weeks ago, my daughter was asked to draw a picture at school of the people who live in her house. She drew a picture of me in front of a classroom of students, lecturing. She drew her little brother in the midst of a heap of toys, creating mayhem and havoc. And she drew a picture of my wife in her pajamas, snoozing in bed. My wife blinked at my daughter's drawing a few times, trying to control herself. After the kids were in bed, my wife said to me angrily, "I don't want my daughter's only memory of me to be that I slept all the time." That's a reality.

As a family member of a person with mental illness, my reality is not unique. I have a coworker who has a daughter with schizophrenia. Another coworker's teenage son recently tried to commit suicide. I sit around the lunch table with these coworkers and exchange experiences like Iwo Jima veterans comparing scars at a battalion reunion. Bipolar. Depression. Mood disorder. Schizophrenia. Suicidal ideation. These are the realities in millions of homes, for millions of families.

Josepha Naval Girbes is a woman who is on her way to becoming a saint. There are quite a few steps in the process. She's considered "blessed" right now, which means she's sort of a Vice Saint, awaiting the next election. (I'm being flippant. Canonization involves miracles and investigations and background checks. It's almost as difficult as airline travel.) The thing that's astounding about Josepha is that she became a blessed by staying home. She taught needlework and prayer to young girls, and she received mystical visions and knowledge. All at home. When she's actually canonized, she may be the first agoraphobic saint. She didn't end famines with a wave of her hand. She didn't rub mud in blind eyes and restore sight. She did needlepoint and prayed. At home. That's a reality.

So, that's mental illness. It's a nameless, faceless problem, except for those people and families who live with it, 24-7, all their lives. The world is full of these flour-covered zombies, these ghosts, who live on the fringe, desperately clinging to life. They are wives, sons, daughters, husbands, priests, doctors, plumbers, beggars, and bishops. And they are even saints. That's a reality.

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