The Shadow of Schizophrenia
My family never had much, and excess was not in my parents' lexicon. Dad was a pastor, serving small congregations, and Mom stayed at home. We were poor, but we didn't feel it much, surrounded as we were by farmers who lived by the whims of the rain we asked for at the weekly Wednesday night prayer meeting.
But each birthday was an occasion for a treat, and every gift was precious and heartfelt. On my fourth or fifth birthday, I unwrapped a stuffed animal that had been squeezed awkwardly into an ill-fitting cracker box and wrapped by my dad's bear-like hands. Before opening the bulging box, I could see fur sticking out of the corners. Inside was a koala, snuggly and a touch exotic.
I loved that stuffed animal. She inhabited an honored spot on my bed for the next decade. At some point, a seam popped and stuffing hemorrhaged from her neck. I pushed the fluff back inside and repaired the damage with painstaking but imperfect stitches that made her head a little crooked.
How could I have known she would one day become a prized possession and comfort to the woman who gave her to me?
Around the time I got that koala, Mom answered my questions about how I could follow Jesus and prayed with me when I first committed my life to him. She gently explained her own faith and assured me that God loved me.
Mom was faithful but also fragile, and I sensed her vulnerability; my whole family built systems to protect her. I loved and appreciated her, but something kept me from feeling close to her. I felt she was breakable—not a person of safety and strength, but someone who would falter before I would.
But I did feel safe enough, cocooned in a relatively predictable community where most people were a lot like me. That changed when my family moved to the city when I was 13. That year, my brother, the eldest, graduated and went to college. With Dad unemployed, we faced poverty and culture shock. My sisters and I began sharing a bedroom in the two-bedroom bottom floor of a two-story house converted into a duplex. I put off childish things and relegated my koala to a shelf in the closet.
Soon after, we began to see (without understanding) Mom's frightening response to tremendous stress. She zoned out, forgot important things, got confused, had more and more trouble processing and communicating, and didn't always seem "with us." She had trouble making even the simplest of decisions, sometimes forgot to make dinner, and seemed overwhelmed by driving. Her personal care, such as bathing and sleeping, suffered. She neglected matters she had always handled before.
Alarmed, my sisters and I talked to Dad, and he found a counselor for Mom to talk to. But no one, including the counselor, really understood what was happening or what Mom needed.
After track practice one day, I waited for a ride home and no one came. I called and a neighbor answered the phone—she told me Mom had gone to the hospital. I walked home and found my brother there. He had come home and found her unresponsive, unaware of reality, unmoving.
The next day at track practice, I found myself crying at the end of my run.
"What's wrong?" my coach asked.
"My mom is in the hospital," I said. When he asked why, I answered, "I don't know."
For a long time I was okay with not knowing why. I just knew that each time she came home from the hospital, I thought she was back for good. It took a few years to realize the back and forth was our new reality.