Alzheimer’s Is Helping Me Accept Schizophrenia

old-lady2To supplement my writing life I’ve started running a senior-care side business. One of my clients, Alice, has early-stage Alzheimer’s and lives in an in-law apartment upstairs in her daughter’s house. She just cognizant enough to be adamant that she doesn’t need help and just demented enough to go missing every now and then.

I’ve been going over there once a week under the guise of “dog sitting” to check up on Alice, try to get her to go outside, and maybe even lure her to lunch at the museum. So far, I’ve gotten inside her private enclave three times for a tour, been invited and uninvited to her summer house at the lake, and vaguely tolerated before being dismissed to the hall landing. Then I go downstairs and savagely sweep and mop her daughter’s kitchen floor, which really is a disgrace.

No prob. Every week it’s a new possibility with Alice. And I know full well from my experience with Sean that victory against mental illness is as fleeting as anything else. But there’s one thing I absolutely love about her Alzheimer’s. Every week Alice asks me if I have any children. And when I tell her about Sean and his schizophrenia her eyes light up: “Oh!” she says, “I have a schizophrenic son too!”

And she does. A 50-something son who lives in a group house in a city nearby from what I can glean. Sometimes she thinks he’s 30 and still in the psych hospital like Sean. Other times she remembers the present. But oh, Alice! Bless you, bless you. Every time we talk about our sons she tells me: “It will get better, don’t worry. Twenty-six is the absolute worst. My son wouldn’t speak to me for years either. It’s a phase they go through.”

Today we had this conversation three times as we walked her daughter’s two goofball dogs around the park. She couldn’t remember their names and I never learned them, so they were just Big Guy and Little Guy. “You just learn to live with the schizophrenia,” said Alice, tugging small doggie. “Nothing much you can do about it.” (She’s Canadian and thereby systemically unflappable.)

Little Guy rolled at her feet in the spring grass like a colt in a meadow. She watched him and giggled a minute before asking, “I wonder what he’s doing?” Then she turned to me afresh and said: “Do you have any children?”

Am I a spaz that I find this repetition so deeply comforting? Just the act of saying My Son Is Schizophrenic to a mother who understands fills me with radiant happiness. Each time I get to see her face alight with the discovery of our shared motherhood. And in every interchange she is invariably generous to me, encouraging me to feel hope and to trust in the long picture.

Maybe if we carry on this demented dialogue long enough I will come to believe Alice about the getting better part. And even if I don’t, I can keep circling back with her to the children we can’t forget, and remembering: I am not alone.

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Commit Him or Dismiss Him?

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“At the precipice of all that I’ve worked for, I no longer know what I’m waiting for.”

There are so many kinds of waiting that come with mental illness. Waiting for understanding. Waiting for help. Waiting for forgiveness, for signs of improvement. For doctors and caseworkers who slam the phone down. Waiting for a child who won’t let you see him. For the person you loved to emerge, unscathed, from the one who now hates you.

But there are worse kinds of anticipation. Especially from 3,000 miles away. Waiting for phone calls from policemen who have found Sean, or not. Waiting for hospital clerks to give you scraps of information before nurses HIPPA-up and hang up. Leaning into the bureaucratic silence as shelter workers and jailers and coroners search their list of names for the one that will make your heart stop.

Hardest of all, in many ways, is waiting for peace. It’s not so much that peace is fleeting; it’s just impossible. But that doesn’t stop me from deluding myself that I’ll nestle into it someday. I think it is what drives me to push ahead through cosmically absurd impediments to try to get my son help. It’s the closest thing I have to hope: the idea that through long-term psychiatric care Sean will have some kind of healing and that the collective family nervous system can begin to unwind.

This week the thing I’ve been waiting for is finally come. Through a Perfect Storm of intervention by shrinks and crisis units and conservators and hospitals (not to mention my ex-husband–yes! the bad one, who performed the greatest act of bravery I’ve ever witnessed in rescuing Sean from the street. Read future post!), Sean is going to mental health court for a conservatorship hearing.

Quite unlike the small victories of those 72-hour, or 14- or 30-day holds, this will determine whether he is judged sick enough to become a ward of the state for up to a year, and possibly more. Finally, finally a chance for Sean to get real psychiatric treatment instead of the Fun House of jails and shelters and sidewalks he’s been treated to thus far.

There’s one catch though, and it’s almost unfathomable. California’s General Conservatorship law states that if a judge determines his condition doesn’t warrant Sean ┬ábeing a ward of the state, he will simply be released. RIGHT THEN. Commit or dismiss. No gray area, no resumption of month-to-month treatment. Just a “Vamoose baby, don’t let the door hit your wheelchair.”

At the precipice of all that I’ve worked for I no longer know what I’m waiting for. Justice? Mercy? Destruction? Shock? Oh, these days are long.