It really wouldn’t be an easy matter to have someone in the house who is not “quite there”. It creates friction and anger, anxiety and tension in the household. To have to constantly take care of someone whose reality no longer aligns itself with that of others, can be extremely trying,to say the least., particularly when the demons in their minds make them act with aggression which showed in abusive language , constant suspicions and physical violence. Not all the patience that one summons may be enough to be able to cope with the constant delirium of a parent, sibling, spouse or child.
Our society is a strange one. We have the utmost sympathies for those suffering from a debilitating or terminal physical illness. We visit our ailing relatives in hospitals, we enquire after them, we are sensitive to their pain and appreciative of those who look after them . But with a mentally ill patient , it is generally a different story altogether. It is not just they who become subjects for ridicule, their kith and kin also begin to be shunned or at least kept at a comfortable distance.
While sitting there with Chitra , as she observed them one by one, my mind travelled back in time to meet some of the “crazy” ones who for us , I am now ashamed to admit, were sources of amusement. There was this woman, who went by the name “Anai’. To this day , I do not know her real name. I remember that she did have some small means of employment somewhere in the town. She would walk past our house in the evening after getting down from the bus. Someone in the row of shops near the bus stop would shout “Anai!!”, which in Malayalam means elephant and she would retrace her steps shouting at the top of her voice and flinging the choicest abuses at all around. This would go on for several minutes till either she or her tormentors got tired of it.
There was Sundariamma who lived just across the road with her son and daughter . She was just a bit quirky , sometimes muttering under her breath or sitting in a corner somewhere for hours, lost in her own world. But she was quite capable of looking after herself. After the son got married and stopped looking after her she had even got herself employed as a maid. She would come to us quite often for getting letters written to her daughter who had moved to Mumbai after her marriage. Her dictation was sane enough and would mostly end with requests for financial help. It rarely came.
Through the years,her condition had worsened.The family had never sought psychiatric help. May be they weren’t even aware that medication could’ve improved her condition. Her attacks of depression only made her son and daughter in law more apathetic to her. With age inflicting its added physical woes, Sundariamma had become a shrivelled, bent, bony old woman, curled up on a mat in a corner of a dark corner of a hut, where her children had confined her, the room reeking of urine that she had involuntarily passed. That is how I last saw her and that was her condition till she slowly, piteously breathed her last.
Pathumma had worked as a maid in a cousin’s house. Every time the cousin visited us or we visited her, stories would be narrated to the accompaniment of peals of laughter from all of us , about the fantasies of Pathumma which to her were very real In that imaginary world, she had a husband who was working in another town, He would visit here from time to time with gifts of scented soaps and hair oils . He would lovingly tease her and she even was with child. We loved the meanderings of her mind and found her anecdotes hugely entertaining. Pathumma had died of a physical ailment, I later learnt. When she died, she was still trapped in her world of fantasies.
But Pathumma was all alone and if her make-believe circumstances made her happy there was no one else who would’ve been disturbed by her distorted sense of reality that was the source of that happiness. The mother who accompanied her daughter to the clinic at “Samhati”, an NGO which had sought Dr. Chitra’s services, was however a concerned woman. The young girl had shown no tell-tale signs of abnormality when she was a child. The father had abandoned them and it was her mother who had brought her up, rearing cows and selling milk. When she was fifteen or sixteen, she had been engaged as a household help in a convent. It was after she returned from there that she started having delusional spells.She would speak of a young man , who , according to the mother was a distant acquaintance, who lived miles away. He was married and had kids .But the girl kept insisting that he was in love with her. In her perceived sense of reality, he would often come to visit her, staying in the house next door and coming out of the house when he had rested after his long journey. He could even read her mind, such was their connection , the way she saw it. Everything else about her was normal. No one yet knew or suspected that she was having problems. She was neatly dressed and had such a shy warm smile. But she lived in a world of her own and would not participate in any of the household chores or help her mother while she struggled to eke out a livelihood.
There was no guarantee that she would ever be able to discard her dream world. But with medication, said Chitra , she would definitely be able to be more constructive and focuses in her day to day life. It could be that by and by, with the period of normal activity extending over longer periods as time went on, counseling would help her come to terms with the fact that the reality that she had been living in was in fact a figment of her imagination. Would some understanding, sensitive young man ever be willing to take this affectionate , gentle maiden into his care? Could such a man eventually merge with the image of the lover who now roamed freely in her mind? How I wished that could be!1
To be continued…