She was a close friend, one of my best. We got together every Saturday for a cup of coffee and we’d talk for hours. She was a bright girl, petite but very spirited. Sometimes she could be peevish, but we laughed and said she was very choosy, both regarding her friends and her lovers.
An unwanted choice
She always seemed in great spirits but I knew better. She had tragedy in her life. Her overbearing father – and I had a feeling there probably were many things I didn’t know – had practically forced her to take up Law, while she was a true artist, a great painter who should have followed her heart’s desire. But she accepted her father’s wishes – I could never understand why, after all this was not the Middle Ages anymore – and she went on to spend a few terrible years studying something she had nothing to do with, something she loathed. With great effort she finished her studies but then of course she was not motivated to do anything related to Law so she ended up as a high school teacher, which she also hated with all her heart. This made her unhappy and frustrated, and above all angry.
When her father died it seemed it was too late for her to try to make a change and she simply went on with her unwanted life. She became so bitter most people avoided her and she was so critical of the boys who showed some interest in her that they soon disappeared from sight. In our group we were all beginning steady relationships and careers, and then we all got married and went on with our lives and our jobs, while she continued to live with her sick mother and feeling sorry about herself.
Still, she managed to keep some sense of humour and we saw each other often, but one day when I called her I found her very odd; she was telling me how she heard these strange voices who were warning her about many things. She was very serious as she told me that, but at first I thought she could only be joking. As the scary descriptions unfolded before my eyes, as the voices she mentioned almost came to life in her vivid descriptions, I realised she was not herself. As I hung up I was terribly distressed and immediately called her older sister, who told me my friend had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, a mental illness whose most common symptoms are exactly what she was experiencing: patients listen to imaginary voices that, to them, are completely real.
I’m sad to say that over the years my friend and I grew apart. At the time I was pregnant with my first child and when he was born I was of course absorbed by him. My friend’s situation improved and I would ask her to come with me while I took the baby for a stroll in the park and then we would sit down and have coffee as before. But there were periods when she got much worse. She would close herself in her own world and lose all interest in ours. She still worked for some time but then it became impossible. She was declared unfit for work and began receiving a disability pension. She took many pills that kept her stable, but as they caused her to gain weight sometimes she dropped them and the voices would come back to haunt her again. In her life there were constant ups and downs, depending on her taking her medicine or not. When she did, not only did she gain weight, but she also felt very drowsy and not inclined towards any activity, so there was never a good option for her. And thus, year after year, life passed her by, and while the rest of us went on with our lives, with victories and defeats, love and bitterness, playing superwomen between our families and our careers, she simply dragged on, one day very much like the other, with no future in sight.
Recently I came across an association whose mission is to help people with mental illnesses and their families and I have been privileged to learn so much from them, and in particular from their president, a woman with a mission if ever there was one. First of all, I have learned that mental illnesses are illnesses just like any others; in most cases they can be treated and even cured. In my friend’s case, for instance, I now know that, had she been able to combine psychotherapy with the drugs she had been prescribed, she would have been able to control her disease and lead a normal life, keeping her work and social life! But then she hated her work so much, maybe it contributed to her condition…the other thing I learned from this association was that we must all help fight the stigma against mental illnesses – people with schizophrenia, or even depression, are treated like “crazy” or at least “simple minded”, and society completely overlooks them. Beginning with the National Healthcare System – there are practically no hospitals for mental illnesses, having been shut some years ago, nor are there any consultations or psychotherapy available. If you have a heart condition or cancer or Alzheimer, you will be cared for and treated. If you have a mental illness, even a serious one, you will be treated as a non entity, forgotten, and your family will be expected to take care of you as the public system will not care about what happens to you. It is as cruel as that.
And then there is the hidden reality – how many people today live with depression, and how many simply take anti depressants and go to work every day hiding the fact that they are ill for fear of misunderstanding or being put aside? A statistics go, it seems 20% of the working population have a mental illness and in most cases they do not have medical or psychological support.
The other day I read an article about Nellie Bly, a brave 19th century journalist and a woman ahead of her time who accepted to be interned in a mental institution (appropriately called “Women’s Lunatic Asylum”) so that she could write first-hand about the horrible conditions of patients there. For ten days she went through hell and when she came out she told the most horrifying stories of brutality and patient abuse that ultimately led to an improvement of conditions there. Maybe today mentally ill patients are not treated like that anymore, but still they are ostracised, forgotten, and they do not get proper treatment; they are seen as shameful creatures no one cares about, and they do not have access to treatments that would allow them to live their lives normally. This is unfair, and unacceptable. It is time we all contribute to create awareness that mental illnesses are just like any other illnesses, no more, no less. Lately, high profile people like Princes William and Harry of England and Duchess Kate have joined this movement for awareness and changing attitudes towards mental illnesses, and hopefully mentalities will change. Mentally ill patients are entitled to treatments that allow them to live full lives, like any other patient. They should not be forgotten as if they were something uncomfortable we prefer not to be reminded of. They are human beings, they are ill, and they need help. And they must get it.
If this general attitude, from society in general but above all from Governments and the Healthcare community does not change, it will be tragic, and many more will end like my poor sad friend, whose life held so much promise, never fulfilled.
From now on this cause will also be mine. I shall speak, I shall write, I’ll do all I can to erase this stigma about mental illnesses. I’ll do it because I truly believe it’s a worthy cause, but also because of my friend’s sad story of a wasted life.