Living with a family member who has schizophrenia is like sitting atop a mountain high in the clouds; you can see normal people far below, but the prospect of joining them seems impossible.
From age 10 onwards I’d witnessed my mother withdraw from the world, put on black clothing, answer to different names, and lend greater credence to the voices in her head than those of her own family. I’d hidden in the basement with my younger brother while my father spoke to cops and paramedics upstairs, my mother shouted abuse and cried and finally begged, led off to the psychiatric clinic for the latest forced committal. Entire seasons would pass with my father holding things together and then, just as we were beginning to find a kind of normality, we’d receive encouraging words from doctors about Mom’s recovery. And so we’d trek to the hospital for visits, at first supervised by medical staff and then not, making small-talk with a woman who seemed like a stranger and scrutinizing her face for signs: was she really better? Inevitably, because we loved her and wanted to believe, she’d come home. And for a time there was a fragile happiness. She laughed, displayed the childlike enthusiasm that held both kids and adults entranced, and even hosted parties for a social circle of Bengalis who my parents had known ever since emigrating to Canada in the late 70’s. Beneath the elaborately prepared Indian dishes and careful conversation lay a declaration: she is better now. Our family is whole. That dark chapter is past. But then she’d begin to complain about the side-effects of the medication. She’d stop speaking and start listening to voices we couldn’t hear. The heaviness we’d tried so hard to repel would return and you’d hate yourself for ever having believed otherwise. The cycle of committals, recovery and eventual relapse would continue and you wanted to spit in the face of anyone who seemed happy: it was an illusion, a sucker’s bet.
At 16 I was in the midst of a downward spiral that was frightening to contemplate head-on. I’d skip three out of five school days in favor of taking the subway to downtown Montreal and watching movies alone. I went from being an Honor Roll student to one who was just barely passing every class besides English and Drama, the two subjects that still held any interest for me. I embarrassed myself, time and time and time again, trying to climb over walls which seemed to be pressing in tighter every day. Worst of all, I rebuffed my father’s attempts to help while telling him nothing about why I was behaving the way I was, which led him to believe that he’d failed me in some way. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but at the time I didn’t care: I just wanted out.
And then something unprecedented happened: I made a friend. During woodshop class, of all places. I was having trouble putting together a keepsake box and a kid named Simon, quick to smile, gregarious, helped me out. Chatting in class became chatting outside of it, and soon we were hanging out during lunch hours, eating hot dogs and fries at the diner a few blocks away and cracking jokes. We’d both played soccer growing up, both liked video games, plus he had a rebellious streak which I immediately responded to, but these were bonuses. Because I’d have agreed with whatever he said just for the company. Where we really differed was in popularity: he had an extensive circle of friends, male and female, who moved in and around his orbit while I watched at the periphery, dumbstruck. How could he interact so easily without ever once worrying about how he was being perceived? How could he crack wise with self-styled “tough guys” like Darren and Ryan and Cory, who eventually became my friends as well, and then switch gears and flirt with girls like Kerry without missing a beat? How could he whistle heading back to class, and study diligently, and then toss his books into a locker come Friday and head out in search of adventure? Could it really be this easy? Where was the heaviness? Where was the isolation?
The answer came the first time Simon invited me over to his house. We took a bus up to Monkland Village, a bustling English enclave in mostly French Montreal. Past flower shops and a Ben & Jerry’s, down a side street to a modest house with a large tree and flowers in the front yard. Inside his mother, a woman whose warmth instantly made you want to be liked by her, made snacks and got an update on the day’s happenings from her son. His older sister teased Simon about his lack of skills with the ladies while his younger sister Emma, a piano prodigy, watched them with a smirk on her face. The first thing Simon’s Dad, an accomplished theatre director with a quiet intensity did upon entering the house was kiss his wife and crack open two bottles of Coke to share with his son, who shared his addiction for the drink. And there I was in their midst, perhaps the only one able to appreciate just how miraculous it all was. There was love, and there was acceptance, and a sense of being part of a merry band of brigands off on a grand adventure. As time passed and I became a frequent visitor, I stopped looking for signs of trouble on the horizon like I did back home and relaxed in their midst. I started sleeping over at their house whenever I could, and when morning arrived and a trip back home was necessary, I tried to hold onto the peace I’d enjoyed in their company.
In later years I’d come to appreciate my mother’s struggle and admire the strength necessary not to completely self-destruct. I was always in awe of my father’s ability to keep our family together through the worst times, but it wasn’t until many years later, when I was married myself, that I could properly express it. What once seemed irreparably broken has repaired itself, and I can’t help but feel proud seeing my parents as they are today, happy, argumentative, engaged with the business of life instead of enmeshed in the gears of madness, knowing what it took for them to achieve it. And yet, for all this, I don’t regret distancing myself as a teenager either.
Waking up one morning in Simon’s basement following a party, surrounded by the sleeping bodies of friends, I expected to feel the familiar hollowness in my chest, proof positive of my not belonging. Of watching things instead of being a part of them. Instead I heard Simon’s younger sister playing piano upstairs. It was classical music, a composer I didn’t know, and it was light and joyous and went on and on, filling the gloomy basement. I was the only one awake and listening. I didn’t move, barely breathed. I just closed my eyes and let it pass through me. And I knew, for the first time, that a happy life was possible for me.