Monday, September 29, 2014

A Letter To My Neighbor

Dear Neighbor,

I am writing this letter because we go through our lives passing each other as we get in our cars, mow our lawns or as we're getting home from work. Sometimes we say hi but most times we just ignore each other. I often wonder why we do but I have a guess.

Years ago your son was struggling with (as best as I can understand) a serious case of ADHD and maybe Oppositional Defiant Disorder. He was wreaking havoc in the neighborhood and stealing people's things and injuring his peers. The noise he made at 1 a.m. when I was trying to sleep made me mad and I wanted more than anything to go outside in my nightgown and robe and rip that bat from his hands. But time has passed and your son has mellowed and things seemed to have settled down. I know for years my not speaking to you had to do with your son's behavior and how it interrupted my life. I felt like if I opened my mouth that I'd promptly put my foot in it saying something that shouldn't be said. I kept my silence and life moved on and now all we do is pass in the night like two ships on the horizon.

Things have changed though. My silence as I pass you is no longer about you and your son. It's about me and mine. While my son hasn't torn up the neighborhood or kept you awake till all hours of the night, he struggles with demons that, like you at the time when your son was struggling, I don't know what to do with. Often we pass and one of two things happens. Either I want to stop you and tell you what is going on or I want to keep this secret hidden behind our closed doors and frosted window that is common with your house. I often worry about what you would say about my son if you knew he had schizophrenia and I wonder, because you are connected in the community by a large family and business dealings, if you would find my truth sensationalistic and talk to everyone, now making my son the pariah.

You see, there is this thing called stigma. I know you know it because of what you went through with your son but it is something that stops me from engaging with you. There are so many misnomers about schizophrenia and I know that the vast majority of people already have their opinions about this illness that affects my son and my family. They think they know it well because they've read it in the paper or seen stories on the evening news. I fear, like the rest of the world, you think you know too. But you don't. Not at all.

My son lives with this illness every day of his life. At his worst he believes our government is tracking him via satellites and following him when he goes outside. At his worst he is anxious beyond measure, he can't stay at work because of the security cameras in the store and he hears a voice that constantly comments on
every.
little.
thing.
he does. He also hears a woman screaming that keeps him up, terrified that she is being killed and he is too frozen to do anything about it. At his worst he is depressed, flat, expressionless and emotionless. There is little joy in life and daily tasks like showering are impossible to accomplish. At his worst he is wracked with unbearable side effects from the 6 medications he takes and each day he sleeps 14 hours because the combination of meds sedates him so much that he can't lift his head from the pillow.

At his best, though, he is my light. He smiles at everything, sometimes for no reason, he cracks jokes, he participates in family chores, he gets his hair cut when it gets too long and he works hard at his job. At his best he takes a shower regularly, he wakes refreshed and sometimes remembering his dreams like that he stood in front of a vending machine that gave out GIANT coins that made him happy. At his best he loves his life and he sees promise for his future.

Neighbor, he is a treasure. He is my reason to be and he is not that article you just read or that TV news report you just sat down to watch. He is 19 (almost 20) and he has been struck down in the prime of his life by schizophrenia. His light flickers and sometimes goes out but he is beautiful whether or not he glows warm.

Neighbor, I wish I could tell you all of this. I wish I didn't feel like you would turn it into neighborhood, or worse, town-wide gossip. I wish I could say hi to you, stop to see how your day is going and maybe share with you how mine is going, be it good because today my son showered today or bad because he was haunted by too many voices yesterday. Neighbor, I wish we could talk, be friends and be free. The truth is, though, that I am suffocated by stigma with it's grip on my wrist pulling me away from getting close to you.

Neighbor, in the end, we will remain as we are, people passing each other between everyday tasks. I wish things were different but they aren't. I am fighting a valiant fight though, working to educate as many people as I can about this illness and someday...someday I will stop you on the other side of your rose garden and I will say hello and without fear I will be able to say, when you ask me how I am, that I am tired today from having been awake all night worrying about my boy and you will nod your head and perhaps relate to me in some way. The time will come, I know it will, but for now we disappear behind closed doors, turn on our porch lights and go to bed unaware of what the truth is behind those doors.

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