Leon walked the streets in a wide-eyed daze.
He was very aware of others; I mean, he always spoke to passersby. He just seemed a little, well, out of it.
I could never figure out if it was a job he was heading to or to his mother’s home. His brothers and sisters had since moved to neighboring towns, one of them a docter; another a community leader and radio deejay.
The story went that Leon had gotten hold of some bad dope in college and had not been right since.
I heard he got married a year or two ago and the glazed look is not as apparent, but in visits back home, I haven’t seen him.
Antone drank alcohol like a fish drinks water. When he wasn’t drunk he was polite and introverted; a garbage man by day. His mother had a history of strangeness like walking the streets barefoot in winter–she eventually died from eating dirt as the story was told by her own sister who lived a block away, raised a family, and seemed nearly unrelated other than the dark wavy hair they shared.
Bonnie, Antone’s mom’s, hair was rarely combed and it was never apparent who fathered Antone or any of her other children, most of whom were distinguished as not right just like their mother.
Like David who went to the special school because (as far I could tell then) one of his legs was shorter than the other and he stuttered. I don’t think Antone ever finished school; maybe he had an IEP. Their youngest brother went on to graduate from high school and enter the military; he’s rarely heard from, I hear, except that everyone knows he’s doing “well.”
Antone was found dead around the corner from the local juke joint a while ago; his youngest brother was just a kid at the time. Whether it was a robbery cum murder or accident has never been officially determined. The streets have their version; his death certificate has a version too.
Alonzo was in my kindegarten class and had temper tantrums that quickly landed him in the resource room, a classroom tucked away in a corner of the school for children in wheelchairs, poor kids who had dirty untied sneakers and unkempt hair and smelled of urine, and a few clean but unseemingly different ones like Alonzo. Or at least that’s how my childhood mind summed things up.
Alonzo still lives with his mother, in a relationship sometimes described as incestuous since they only seem to communicate with one another though no facts corroborate the story. His younger sister went on to become a young mother who visits from time to time with her children and boyfriends.
To be not right in our lower working class, mostly African American, community was something one wore; an excuse for folks to label you then ignore your presence on the shelf (other than to re-read the label and shift you to the back for something else).
I never realized, then, that to be not right was the same as why my friend Christine, White and grandaughter of the city police chief, was taking medication at prescibed intervals in the school day. In the hands and mouths of someone else, it was an illness that insurance covered psycho-therapy, hospitalization, and prescriptions could fix.
To be classified as not right is, I am sure, why so many people deny their illness to the brink, or even straight to, self-destruction.
THE ORIGINS OF THIS ATTITUDE
Oh she just depressed ’cause her boyfriend was cheatin’ on her again…He better pray about it; God answers prayers and he doesn’t put on us more than we can bear…I don’t have time to sit in no office talkin’ bout my problems; ever’body got problems…
For many Conservative, Christian, and/or working class communities, mental illness is a disease of leisure. When you are working all the time, to build God’s kingdom or your own, you do not have time or money to feel sorry for yourself, which is too often the only light in which mental illness is viewed.
Particularly in the African American community, we cite our ancestry as evidence that all we need is a little prayer and tenacity. That our slave ancestors lived through the horrors they did is testament to the fact that we are physically and mentally strong we contend.
Well the truth is that some of us are the ancestors of slaves who jumped ship. That is suicide! And there were other ancestors who drowned their sadness in bottles, who punched it into wives and children until they were black and blue.
Most importantly, mental illness, as the cases of Leon, Antone, and Alonzo illustrate, is not simply sadness or what’s wrongfully cited as “depression.” Depression is not feeling sad because you lost your job, girlfriend, car, house, or pet guinea pig. Were it that simple, maybe prayer or some other spiritual outlet would be enough to rid a soul of it.
But what happens when spirtuals and holy water are not enough?
UNDERSTANDING MENTAL ILLNESS
Mental illness is a disease of the mind in which chemicals are imbalanced; distorted. The chemicals that give us the ability to cry at events that are for the average human, tragic; to laugh at those that are generally humorous; and most importantly to reason effectively.
Reasoning is at the root of the illness; and the way reasoning is revealed is in our responses–in humor, sadness, anger, disappointment, excitement etc. That is how Leon, Antone, and Alonzo are similiar to Christine. How they are similiar to an old friend Sonja whose inability to reason about right and wrong, sadness and happiness led her to marijuana, men, mental hospitals and jails alike.
Part of the sickness, she explained, was exaggeration and lying. While everyone else saw the world through clear glass, many who suffer from manic tendencies do not. What they see, and therefore say and even how they behave, is distorted.
Once we understand such a definition of mental illness, I am certain we will be more equipped to help those who suffer from it.
NO MORE STIGMA
Mental illness should not have to be a death sentence–not even of the social kind that Antone, Leon, and Alonzo faced. I know people can live with it in the same way they live with AIDS, cancer, and herpes. But if left untreated, and it will be untreated if there is such a stigma attached to it, then we will continue to see rising rates in suicide and self and socially destructive behavior.
When you cannot go to a therapist without being accused of being crazy or sent, in shame, to the front of the church to lay at the mercy of the altar for all to stare at you with pity; if you cannot say out loud that you have to take your medicine or commit yourself to a hospital for treatment without hearing the condescending hmmmmphh of indictment you likely will not treat your illness. Yet just like living with herpes, AIDS, or cancer requires humane and substantial treatment so does mental illness. Anything less ain’t right.