Life in the Shadows

February 26, 2012
If I decide to dye my hair hot pink and tattoo a snake on my face, I would get labeled. I would be sorted into the corresponding bin, like mail being sifted at the post office. Some of these decisions we make ourselves: how we dress, how we style our hair, how we speak, our choice of friends—but some people do not have the luxury of choice. The mentally ill lose their ability to choose. They get labeled and packed away, pre-stamped. The mentally ill are invisible to society, because quite frankly they are a sector of people that no one wants or tries to understand.

At a young age my grandmother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. I am told that she was fully functional for a large part of her life; enough so that she and my grandfather, met, fell in love, got engaged, and became man and wife all without knowing about her dark secret. Now I have never met my grandmother, and after recent events I will never get that chance. As someone with a severe mental disorder she was kept in the shadows. Even among my liberal family, the topic of my grandmother was locked away in a chest that had no key. On the very rare occasions, when we did discuss her disturbing disorder, it was very clear that this was one aspect of my life that I would never experience fully. When I was old enough to understand, I recall feeling as though someone had trapped my poor grandmother in an airtight container. I could not fathom why she would not want to meet her only two grandchildren. It took me a few years to realize that she did not have the mental capacity to recognize our existence. She became something of a living shadow in my life flitting around the fringes of my life.
Just as my grandmother has been shut out of my life, my great uncle has been shut out of the world. My great- uncle Steven is mentally retarded. During his birth the umbilical cord tangled itself around his esophagus; he temporarily lost blood flow to his brain. I am told that my great-uncle showed mild signs of retardation until he was an adolescent. Then, again, misfortune struck. Steven was in trolley accident—his body was shaken sharply with the sheer force of steel. The conjunction of these two tribulations led to my great-uncle having a permanent mental handicap.

I only see Uncle Steven twice a year, and now that he is 78, even less often. He comes and joins us on Thanksgiving and on Passover. Both holidays represent a time where we are supposed to be thankful for opportunities in our lives. While sitting at the dining room table, guzzling down mashed potatoes and matzoh ball soup, I cannot help but wonder what thoughts my uncle is exploring. My family is a rampant stampede of cackling hyenas; our guffaw can be a big, bright surprise. I would not go so far as to say that we ignore him; however, he is hardly an active part of the conversation... or our lives. He becomes the small child that everyone coos at, but come time to spend a little extra time with, they have bigger and better things to do. Although I know that on a mental level he is not fully equipped to fully process an intricate conversation of 12 persons, he is by no means stupid.
Steven’s story is one of triumph. He held a job, lived independently, travelled alone, and took care of himself. However, because of his handicap, he has been placed on a high shelf by society, stashed away with the other “broken” things. My great grandmother, Steven’s mother, refused to accept this discriminatory standard. As soon as Steven was old enough to enough to tie his shoes, my great grandmother would take him on the train. She guided him through each and every stop. She embedded this information in his brain like a gnat in your ear. After years of his mother’s painstaking lessons, he could independently take the train to and from work everyday. When he was eighteen my great grandmother found him an apartment complex that specialized in caring for the mentally ill and he moved out. His mother wanted Steven to be a fully functional person in society. Under her watchful eye he went to school, held a job, lived independently, and could navigate his way all throughout Brookline. She introduced him to shopkeepers so that he could lead a regular life. She refused to accept that doors would be closed in his face just because of his mental handicap. She felt so strongly about this that she started a foundation for young adults in the mentally retarded community.

The mentally ill are (in most cases) not dangerous. We expel them from society because they are different. We do not understand them, the way they think, and the way they see our world. In some cases people who see the world differently are praised, worshiped as gods. However, the mentally insane become the weights on the other end of the scale. For all those who are praised there are those in this world who are rejected. When we walk down the street and see a scraggly weathered man muttering to himself, we have been trained like animals to look away. We stick our mental fingers in our ears and hum a pretty tune. Our society treads over the pot holes in the road, we board them up with concrete and tar in hopes that they will not get torn up again. We cast aside those who we do not understand and debar them from our minds. Someone with a mental illness is constantly told no. In my life, the mentally ill have been trapped in the dark corners of my world, only making brief appearances. We are all different. Some of us are born different; some of us morph into different beings, and there are even those who choose to be different. These differences mark how we see people-- how we as human beings are interpreted.

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loveroffashionandwriting said...
Mar. 31, 2012 at 2:52 pm
I loved you writing, the words and sentence fluency tht you used were very vivid 
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