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Schizophrenia and the burden of society

An emotional column by Qaanitah Hunter about her family's battle with mental illness.

At seven-years-old I could not understand it. There were violent mood swings, there were screaming marathons and on the brazen contrast there were very, very endearing moments.  At ten-years-old I was embroiled in confusion. There were theories of witchcraft and evil spirits, there was helplessness and there was desperation. As a teenager I could understand, even explain it but I could not accept it.

It has been many years since it was confirmed yet I have never willingly admitted it. There is too much embarrassment or hurt. I don’t know. “Your dad is diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia”, a counsellor told me when I was 12-years-old.  For me that was just a term used to describe the dark memories of my childhood.

I recall lovely dinners immersed in laughter and cheerful conversation erupting in a spontaneous plate smashing. Then it got worse. More violence, more hiding, more tears in my mother’s eyes. It is too painful to describe some of the memories or to even remember them and hence I sealed them in a metaphoric box and buried it far away from my mind.

As an adolescent I consciously chose to totally eradicate those miserable memories from my mind. But that was not the optimism of ‘forgive and forget’ like Dr Phil or my annoying counsellor so persistently emphasized.

It was my coping mechanism.

But there are some scars that were too deep and the memories continue to cause choke-inducing tears. I recall being told by complete strangers that my dad actually didn’t have schizophrenia while some went as far as accusing us of making it up. That was because when he was in their presence they did not see the dark threats, the instability and random bouts of violence.

Unbeknown to them, a split personality is the key characteristic of schizophrenia. They saw the same man I remember as a kid: the scholar, the humanitarian, the family man. But that was not the same man who spoke about ‘forces’ trying to control the world, of neighbours conspiring to kill him and of my mother attempting to poison him.

Then family members joined those strangers in their sentiment that our version was a big exaggeration. Besides the emotional trauma that accompanied this they become barriers in the search for help for my dad.

Their reactions were evident to my naïve mind that schizophrenia is a taboo illness. So taboo, in fact, that seeking help for him was a form of embarrassment for my family.

But my mother, the strongest woman I know, defied all the challenges of being ostracised by many and persevered in getting my dad help. Again, those memories are too poignant to narrate.  After much turmoil and endurance from my mother and elder siblings, my dad finally received the treatment he desperately needed. But it was still too taboo to talk about.

“Why is your dad in hospital?” my friends would innocently ask, to which I would struggle to suppress a tear and offer my standard reply; “for a check-up”. My closest friends did not know that visits to my dad in hospital were visits to a mental clinic. (Perhaps only after reading this article will they find out.)

Last week I was asked the somewhat ‘normal’ question as to what is my dad’s occupation. I simply admitted that he is sickly and subtly changed the subject. As an adult who has developed a hard shell at most times, I still could not repress the lump in my throat or say that ghastly word. “Oh you know, he is just old and sickly,” was my generic reply until today.

In retrospect I do not understand why I was so ashamed of divulging my dad’s illness. Perhaps it was the scathing look of pity in the eyes of those who knew. Perhaps people still believe that mental illness is self-inflicted. I understand that much of my pain was not the pain of the schizophrenia but the burden of the stigma and embarrassment attached. It has haunted me for years but today I am ready to let it go.

Today I finally accepted that mental illness is like any other illness and firmly believe it. Today I am ready to lift the burden of others who suffered the same misery as I did: mental illness is not your/his/her fault, mental illness is treatable and mental illness is not a shame. Oh how I wish the archaic nature of stigmatisation related to mental illness would be ridden from society.

My burden would have definitely been a lighter load to carry.

Quaanitah Hunter is a freelance journalist.

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