Strength To Be Kind This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

February 9, 2012
Nursing homes always creeped me out. I would cower behind anyone in the hopes of avoiding a conversation with the residents who stared at me, grinning with semi-lucid eyes. I feared the rehearsed clips of dialogue that the staff politely said to those they cared for, and I felt confused by the rows and rows of identical hallways that smelled of sanitizer and artificial ferns.

Our family always visited one such home after Christmas, but I never got familiar or comfortable with the staff or Sadie Ellen. She was a sagging jellyfish of a lady, with glassy eyes that lay sunken behind a pair of heavy glasses. When her assistants left her alone with us, I spent most of the time alternating between watching the clock and glancing at the door.

“It's good to see you, Lisa, and you too, John,” Sadie Ellen would say.

“Actually, I'm Simon,” I would quietly reply from behind my parents. I stared at the paintings on the wall or the ceiling lights – anything but the woman in the wheelchair. The fear of looking into her face and seeing her detached smile was overwhelming. From the safety of the corner, I counted the seconds until we could go. Inevitably, Mom would realize that we had to leave if we were to make it to Boston by Sunday, and we'd depart after the obligatory hugs with Sadie Ellen. As we got into the car, I would breathe a sigh of relief – we wouldn't be going back until next year. Two days later, I would have completely forgotten our visit and my encounter with this woman, my grandmother.

Eventually I learned she had schizophrenia. This ­information was shocking and provocative at first, but it quickly became her only classification, a label for my discomfort with her. If I thought about her at all, it was only about how I dreaded the upcoming visit, being forced to stand there smiling at this woman who could at any moment break into random fits of inappropriate laughter, or tell us how Jesus was talking to her through the radio. However, I never had to experience a visit with Sadie Ellen again; she died that year.

I wasn't expecting anybody to attend the funeral. After all, she had been in a nursing home for more than 50 years. However, over 30 people showed up, only one of whom I recognized. Not even my mother knew these people. They gathered around us and told us how sorry they were that such a wonderful person had passed on. One of them said to me, “She was such a great leader. I can't imagine what the prom or the marching band would have been without her.” These high school friends had stories saturated in admiration and respect for my grandmother. That day, I learned that she had been president of her class, head of the prom committee, a vital part of the marching band, and the best friend one could hope for.

I had never considered the possibility that my grandmother might once have had a normal life. The idea that she was such a pillar of her community was alien to me, having known her only as the discomforting old woman we had to visit every year. I couldn't comprehend the tragedy of what had happened to her, how her mental illness had destroyed her life when it was most promising and she was most fragile. I couldn't understand, so I stopped thinking about it.

That summer was the next time I was reminded of her. Taking a cognitive psychology course, I was introduced to a host of information about the human mind, including abnormalities and diseases that seemingly strike at random. Somewhere between Aphasia and Antisocial Personality Disorder, we began a unit on schizophrenia. I sat stewing in uncomfortable recognition as we watched videos of patients. I shuddered during the lectures on warning signs: Schizophrenia starts during the teenage years, treatment only works half the time, and patients are often terrified of themselves. I grimly nodded as we listed the symptoms: catatonic state, inappropriate laughter, disorganized thinking and speech.

We watched a video that enabled us to see through the eyes of a schizophrenic. It was the most terrifying thing I have ever experienced: the room swayed and buckled, black blurs scrambled on all fours in my peripheral vision. The man I was speaking to grew extra eyes and spoke in a deep metallic rasp. His head dissolved into darkness. A maddening buzz of voices filled my ears. The terror I felt was suffocating.

I'm ashamed to look back now and see how I treated Grammy Sadie Ellen. How could I have been so dismissive of this wonderful, brave woman? The strangling fear I felt was the same feeling Grammy Sadie Ellen had been forced to experience her whole life. She had overcome that fear, greeting us every year with a kindness that I never acknowledged. I never talked with her, never asked why she seemed so happy to see us. I simply abandoned every chance I had to talk to her. I see now that it took great strength to deal with her adversity, and I admire her for it.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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FlyToBeFree said...
Oct. 22, 2013 at 5:46 pm
Wow... this is almost exactly like my life.  My grandmother has schizophrenia too.  She had such a wonderful life in high school.  Then the disease took its toll.  She is still alive and I get to see her but sometimes I feel uncomfortable when she starts saying strange things.  I am so glad you wrote this article and now I know that I am not the only one who feels this way.  Great Job and Congrats on getting published!!
Sonza said...
Oct. 21, 2013 at 1:08 pm
beautiful....... m sorry..... may god bless u...
AnAwkwardBlue said...
Oct. 20, 2013 at 4:36 pm
Beautifully written. This reminds me so much of visiting my great grandmother in a nursing home.  
Jezmondinie said...
Oct. 9, 2013 at 9:28 am
I thought that this piece was beautifully written. I loved the honest simplicity. those are often the stories which we remember the longest.
EEKgirl said...
Oct. 4, 2013 at 11:45 pm
This is a powerful piece. It reminds me of my expirences at nursing homes with my Great Grandpa.
ShagunThis teenager is a 'regular' and has contributed a lot of work, comments and/or forum posts, and has received many votes and high ratings over a long period of time. This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Oct. 1, 2013 at 10:00 am
Great Work. I can really relate.... my uncle has schizophernia. I had never thought how difficult life must be for him.  Congratulations on getting published Please read and comment on any of my articles- Blurred Lines, The Epiphany, India's battle of the Sexes, etc.  
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