Friday, January 7, 2011
My Cousin Helen
I first published this a few years back. Today, collecting Sweet Sam from his "socialisation group", I saw a young girl there who brought this post back to my mind. I apologise to those of you who may have already read this, but I wish to re-post it in dedication to ALL of those who must daily do battle with mental illness, including those, the relatives and carers, whose lives are often also severely impacted, when a loved one is afflicted by such a debilitating condition.
Although we were born less than two weeks apart I didn't know her well, and to be honest, I liked her even less. On the rare times she did visit, she just plain scared me.
The middle of three girls, her parents had separated and divorced before she was barely a toddler. It was only on the rare access visit that Helen ever came to call.
Looking back, it's little wonder she resented being passed off on to us, in lieu of spending quality time with her father. Uncle Jim's new wife had a perfect family of her own, one that didn't act out or challenge against authority, it hadn't taken long before Helen found herself no longer welcome at her house.
Helen usually greeted me with, "You don't like me!" hardly making for much of an auspicious start. I mean, yes, this was true, sure enough, but did she have to go and broadcast it to all and sundry? It's not like I ever told her I didn't like her, is it?
She just knew.
Thing about Helen is, she always cut straight to the chase. She didn't discriminate either, adults were equally as likely to receive the sharp edge of her latest gripe, and she certainly had no shortage of gripes to pull on from.
I'd never met her mother (it was only at my own mother's funeral, when I was thirty, that we eventually met), but when families split, right or wrong, sides tend to get drawn, often demonising the other party. From the rumour and innuendo, I took it Helen was her mother's daughter.
Looking back now, it speaks volumes Helen always arrived minus her sisters - I think they, as well as her mother, needed the odd respite from coping with her.
Eventually, in the late-sixties Uncle Jim and his second family decided to emigrate to Australia, and that was the last we ever saw of them after that (probably the last Helen did of them, too).
Over the years I caught snippets through the family grapevine about Helen. She'd had three children, was single and finding it a struggle to make ends meet. Not that it ever crossed my mind to look her up. I had my own fish to fry, too busy building up my business, I hardly gave her a passing thought.
It wasn't until after ma died that I learned the full story.
I was still in shock over ma's death. Having no one other than my husband to care for our newborn, I'd elected to travel the three hundred odd miles alone to her funeral. After the service, relatives and friends came together under the one roof in order to bid our ma her last goodbye.
Mid-way through, I started to feel less than comfortable, people I barely knew were staring, pointing at me, and well, just looking. Sure, I was the child of the deceased, but then so were my other two sisters, not to mention my brother. Why all the creepy stares?
I attempted to mingle, thank folk for coming, introduce myself to those I was unfamiliar with. The middle-aged lady in the corner, never seeming to rip her eyes from me, stood as I approached.
"It's okay, it's Carol isn't it?"
I nodded, yes.
She said she would have recognised me anywhere. I was initially puzzled as I look nothing like my mother. But that wasn't what she'd meant. This here was Helen's mother standing before me, and she asked me to sit with her a while. When she produced a photo, I finally understood. It was a picture of her own Helen, and from what I saw, she and I could have easily passed for twins. We were doubles alright, even down to the way we wore our hair.
So naturally I asked how Helen was, what she was up to these days?
I'd had no idea of her suicide nine years prior. Seems Helen, like my mother, had suffered from the crippling mental illness of schizophrenia.
I no longer wanted to sit with this woman, she had had over nine years to deal with her daughters suicide, but here it had been less than a week since my own mother had taken her life. I just wanted to flee, refuse to process what she was telling me right now. But tell me she did, anyway.
Seems when the voices and the hallucinations all became too much, Helen caught herself a cab to a lonely high bridge, paid off the driver, and to silence the pain, threw herself away.
It wasn't until later I learned schizophrenia has familial links. If a member of your family suffers from this, there is one in a (pick a number from ten to a thousand, opinions vary) chance this may be passed on. The odds are good it will skip, but the possibility of it striking is far higher than it is out in the general population. Full blown schizophrenia rarely exhibits until in the late teens or early twenties, as was the case with my mother. Up until then there are usually few signs displayed of this debilitating illness.
There is no test for it, no vaccination, and no cure. The prognosis remains chillingly poor, with most folk tending to end their own lives. I daresay one day we will manage to isolate this defective gene, and there is also no doubt environment and physiology plays an important influence over whom it singles out.
There is a lot of talk about drugs, "skunk" in particular, having a trigger effect on those already prone to this illness.
For the longest time, when asked, I told my children their gran died because of her heart. I felt it held an element of truth. Her heart gave up years before she drew her last breath. A little time ago I sat my eldest down and gave him the full unabridged story as I always knew I would. When the time is right, I will fess up to the others too. I must hammer home to them how much more vulnerable they are to the dangers of drug experimentation.
My kids are fine. Truly. They are.
But I watch.
I watch them all the time.