1. When Madness Comes

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This is the first in a series of seven articles called “Breaking the Silence,” by Patricia A. Forsdyke Past President of the Kingston and Napanee Chapter of the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario

Einstein’s son had it. The daughters of James Joyce and Bertrand Russell had it. President John F. Kennedy’s sister had it. Van Gogh certainly had it. All of them had schizophrenia.

So do our neighbours, the children our children went to school with, the children of doctors and lawyers. So did my Aunt Evelyn, a coal miner’s daughter. Some were brilliant scholars, some gifted athletes. My aunt was musical. Often they were uncannily talented at some things. Then madness came and changed everything.

I count many schizophrenia sufferers among my friends, and I respect them for their strength of character. A warm smile coming out of an otherwise emotionless face reveals their great humanity. They are very sensitive individuals. For their heroic battles, they deserve a row of medals. When they themselves are improved, they feel deeply about those who are still extremely psychotic and anguished. Sometimes when they are actually the sickest person on the hospital ward, they think they are well and should not be among all these mentally ill people. The farther into an episode they get, the less insight they have. The death of a schizophrenic or harm done by a schizophrenic disturbs them deeply. After an episode, most often patients remember their bizarre actions. That is the curse of schizophrenia.

Even when they are fighting not to have treatment because they have no insight into their illness, one has a sneaking admiration for their fight to do battle with the world. We find them so frustrating during such times, because we cannot even budge them from their false beliefs and mad schemes. We must remind ourselves that their minds have been hijacked by the delusions or hallucinations that are products of their disease.

When I was 22, my father took me to see my Aunt Evelyn in the Warwick Mental Hospital in England. She had been there for a quarter of a century. Though he introduced me as his daughter, she believed that I was the Queen of England, and began to act accordingly. She curtsied and smiled in a conspiratorial way. Dad was not exactly amused. He looked very sad and embarrassed. He asked her if she knew who he was. He could not distract her.  Suddenly, she scoffed at his silly question and called him by his childhood name, Teddy. She had been his favourite, among five sisters. Dad could never quite accept that Evelyn’s husband had not been the reason for her descent into madness. There were no medications that had worked when she had her first psychotic break in 1934.

Until the end she could always play the piano for the other patients, but she was seldom in touch with reality. My grandmother raised Evelyn’s child. When I was a child, Dad and his sisters would descend on the mental hospital several times a year bearing hampers of food. Little was said to us children about these visits, but I could tell when it had been a bad one. Sometimes she would be in the padded cell, other times they would be allowed to see her. On such occasions, they would be amazed at how she wolfed down all the food they had brought in one go.

Sometimes she would appear almost like her old self. She had one brief spell at home after her first admission, but she pulled a knife on her mother and was returned to the asylum. She would require protection forever.

The street has its hazards too. Remember Andre, the Kingston man who used to walk up and down Princess Street a decade ago? His matted hair and tirades against his demons, ensured that he was someone most people avoided. A truck ran into Andre on Highway 401, killing him. It was almost certainly not a suicide, for people who have untreated schizophrenia are often tricked into thinking that they have special powers. Andre probably stepped out with his hand up, commanding the truck to stop. His fate could have been different.

Andre had once been taken from the street. He responded to treatment. He was hardly recognizable, quietly reading in the library. His hair was well cut. He was clean and composed. But again, Andre slipped out of care and descended into madness. His long hair and scalp became one, glued together with a green, oozing discharge. It was not Andre, nor the truck driver, who were responsible for his death. It was his disease and an inadequate health-care system. We failed to meet his needs.

When schizophrenia is in your face on the street in its untreated form, most of the public fail to recognize it, or tend to overlook those who have it, thinking of them as lazy, as drug addicts or simply as the victims of poverty. We all instinctively avoid someone who is wild and unpredictable.

While chatting recently with a very nice British pediatrician outside a Toronto hotel, a person with obvious schizophrenia pan-handled a few dollars from our pockets. He probably had a family who could do nothing about his plight. The doctor was quite surprised when I said: “Another homeless person with schizophrenia.” She, like many others, did not recognize the tell-tale signs of this dreadful illness.

Those who have schizophrenia often live on the margins of society, even when they are relatively well. The fact is that roughly one in 100 of our fellow mortals throughout the world are afflicted with this most devastating of brain diseases. It is much more common than Huntington’s disease, multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease, and so why is it so forgotten?

Schizophrenia favours no sex, culture or social class, but once you get schizophrenia, poverty quickly sets in. But money alone does not solve the problem. I know of a sufferer who lives in his small Toyota and who has half a million dollars. I know of an extremely wealthy family who occasionally catch a glimpse of their homeless son on the corner of Yonge Street in Toronto. They are quite unable to rescue their son from his illness. The young student or professional who starts to hear voices no longer can concentrate and must often lower his or her expectations.

Schizophrenia is a forgotten illness until someone is pushed in front of a subway train or a prominent sportscaster is killed because of a schizophrenic’s bizarre delusions.   Medical research will eventually bring a brighter future. In the meantime, those afflicted need your compassion and help.


Read introduction to series by Marilyn Baker         Read next article in series, “A Terrible Brain Disease”