My Grandmother Had Schizophrenia
When my grandmother told me something, I never knew if it was true or a lie. Listening to her talk was like playing Cluedo. I had to delve into her mysterious stories to figure out what was true and what wasn’t. She once told me that she used to be a leg model and that, for a few months, she worked for a hosiery company that photographed her to appear in magazines.
When she died, and we were packing up her things, I discovered a small, worn-out folder containing some photos and receipts. They were the payments for her employment as a model in the 1960s. I began to cry. I hadn’t believed her. She’d told me that she had to give up her job because of her first husband. He threatened to beat her if she continued to expose herself.
I felt bad for not having believed her, for not having empathized with her experience. But the truth is that a good part of what she used to talk about bordered on the impossible and even the bizarre. I remember when she told me about a German airline pilot who was courting her. And the neighbor who’d gotten into the television to insult her and the microphones that had been installed in the light bulbs to spy on her.
Indeed, life with her wasn’t always easy and, even now, many years after her death, I still miss her. It hurts to remember her. Because having a family member with a serious mental illness leaves a dormant wound that never fully heals. The scar of not having been able to do more remains, of not having alleviated their chaos and suffering.
It was many years before my grandmother was diagnosed. This meant that she had to go through many hospitalizations and several suicide attempts.
My grandmother had schizophrenia, but no one talked about her illness
“Grandma’s sick, don’t take any notice of her”. This was the phrase repeated to me the most when I was little and watched Grandma going back and forth to the hospital. When she finally came home and I was allowed to visit her, I’d shyly ask her what was hurting. Was it her tummy? Her throat? Her head? With a mischievous smile, she told me “My life hurts.”
In a way, this was true. In fact, my grandmother tried to kill herself on numerous occasions. After those failed attempts which were dramatic for everyone, she’d stay for a few days in the hospital’s psychiatric ward before returning home with an assortment of pills that never fully alleviated her anxiety. As a child, I both feared and pitied her.
It wasn’t until I was twelve years old, on one of her hospital admissions, that I was able to listen to a conversation between the psychiatrists who treated her. They were talking about prescribing another type of antipsychotic to see if they gave her any fewer side effects and a better quality of life. It was then that I discovered what no one else had ever told me: my grandmother had schizophrenia.
One of my grandmother’s biggest problems was not being able to tell reality from fiction. Her paranoia subjected her to a state of bewilderment and utter horror.
The day she started to hear voices
My grandmother’s life was always somewhat unstructured. She was married four times, widowed twice, and had five children, only two of whom maintained contact with her. Among them, was my father. He often speaks about how she was never a good mother. She was unstable, cold, detached, and made promises she didn’t keep. However, when she wanted to be, she was a lot of fun.
Her children were raised by my great-grandparents. My grandmother’s life became more complex the day the voices appeared. She was 25 years old and worked in a factory painting ceramics. It was then, as she once explained to me, she began to hear a voice telling her that the others were reading her thoughts and wanted to take her over.
She immediately abandoned her work and ran off. They found her that night in an abandoned house, injured, and with a broken hand. That was the first time she was admitted to a hospital. Her endless ordeal to find a clear diagnosis and adequate treatment had begun. She continued to hear the voices for years.
Not being able to trust her own mind
Psychiatric treatments weren’t the best at that time. However, there are always good professionals who, at any given moment, can change lives. This is what happened to my grandmother. She was 32 years old when a psychiatrist diagnosed her with schizophrenia and began a clinical treatment with her that silenced the voices. The antipsychotics gave her back some control over herself.
Later, this same doctor offered her a job as a cleaner at the hospital. With this, she managed not only to earn some money but also to adopt certain routines and habits. Another important aspect for her was getting enough sleep at night. Otherwise, everything would become confusing and threatening for her and she never really understood why.
While the antipsychotics managed to silence the voices, they never managed to keep her paranoia in check. She couldn’t tell what was real and what was the product of her mind. In fact, she often had violent arguments with other colleagues because she believed they were saying bad things about her.
At other times, she thought that someone wanted to kidnap one of her children or that the neighbors had placed microphones in the house. On one occasion she told me that her head was like a clock with broken cogs that no one could fix. Time, reality, and life as a whole were fragmented. Her mind was her jailer and, above all, her greatest enemy.
My grandmother couldn’t watch TV. It overstimulated her and she thought she was being spied on from behind the screen. That’s why she preferred to listen to music and read.
Times of euphoria and despair
My grandmother had schizophrenia and my family, perhaps out of ignorance or stigma, avoided talking about it or discussing it with other people. Since I was really small, we took turns taking care of her, hoping that the month in which we had to have her at home would be a ‘good’ one. That’s what I heard my parents say.
In reality, no month was really good. She told me that her life was like being on a carousel. The world was moving too fast and her mind was galloping on two fixed horses, one white and the other black. When she was on the white horse, life was like a walk in the park, everything was positive, exciting, and even euphoric.
In those days when she laughed at everything, I adored my grandmother. We made plans and she told me a thousand stories. She promised me that on vacation we’d take a plane and go to Africa. She’d never traveled before and one of her greatest desires was to leave behind everything she was familiar with and discover a distant and exotic country.
However, when she was on the back of the black horse, her luminosity and happiness vanished. She was in despair. In those dark times, her sadness saturated the entire house and suffocated us. She saw threats everywhere, mistrusted all of us, and wanted only one thing: to cease to exist.
Family members of people with schizophrenia need medical and social support. As a rule, they feel powerless for not being able to help their relatives as they deserve.
Books, music, and a journey never taken
My grandmother couldn’t watch TV. She said there were people behind the screen who controlled her mind. However, she had her own mental refuges where she could find calm. These were the exceptional universes of reading and music that I also came to enjoy. She adored detective books and records by French singers like Edith Piaf or Charles Aznavour. I still have them.
Now she’s gone, but I still miss her. She passed away when I was 18 due to a complication after another suicide attempt. Her end was sad, like a good part of her life. Unhappily, my parents, aunts, uncles, and I lacked the help, resources, and support to deal with her illness.
Neither the drugs nor the brief admissions to the psychiatric wards were enough to calm her mind, anchor her spirits, and give her the strength to continue living. It’s true that she wasn’t a good mother, but she was a good grandmother. I still remember her sitting next to me on the terrace, with her cat, Romeo, in her arms, telling me incredible stories that she seemed able to tell at will. I loved listening to them.
Even today, I still miss her. I’m only sorry that she didn’t live long enough for me to have taken her on a trip. Far, far away from everything she knew, to a place where perhaps, as she wished, her schizophrenia would never find her.