Monday, November 15, 2010
‘Don’t call me daughter.’ Monday, November 15, 2010.
“Schizophrenia cannot be understood without understanding despair.” –R.D. Laing
Chyna was halfway through her second try at college when “the Choir” came to visit.
The daughter of Laurie – a dear friend of mine that I’ve known literally since I was born – Chyna had dropped out of college a few years earlier after a nearly-fatal battle with lupus. All of Chyna’s organs had shut down. Laurie had stayed by Chyna’s bedside for weeks, caring for her and praying with her. Chyna’s survival was a medical miracle that literally cost the family everything they had. But Laurie adored her daughter. The sacrifice was more than worth it.
Now, things were slowly returning to normal. Laurie was back to work. She’d found an apartment she could afford, even if it wasn’t in the best neighborhood. And Chyna was very excited to be back at school. But she found it hard to concentrate. It seemed that “holes” were opening up inside her brain and swallowing memories – entire years were disappearing by the week. And then the Choir arrived.
At first, Chyna thought it was a little strange that no one else could hear the Choir. But she could hear them quite clearly, and she felt compelled to do whatever they told her to do. When they instructed her to prepare for a marriage with her (already married) pastor, she ordered a wedding dress with money she didn’t have. When they told her to rip up a Bible, or shave off her long, beautiful hair, she did as they said.
When the Choir told her to take off her clothes and walk around the neighborhood naked at midnight, Chyna did that, too. In fact, she started doing it a lot. Laurie’s warnings about nearby drug houses and gang territory went unheeded – only the Choir was worth listening to. Having dealt with the fear of losing her daughter due to a physical illness, Laurie was now even more terrified for her daughter’s mind.
You’d think that a concerned mother could bring her daughter to the doctor, explain the situation, and get some treatment for her daughter. But Chyna was 29, legally an adult, and many of the professionals refused to provide information to her mom even though Chyna was clearly psychotic. Laurie needed to become Chyna’s legal guardian, and so began the long and complicated process.
What Laurie did learn from the doctors was sketchy. Chyna tested negative for street drugs. That left several possibilities: the lupus, or possibly the chemotherapy used to combat it, could have created lesions on her brain. She could be developing schizophrenia. She might have Huntington’s disease or early-onset Alzheimer’s. Perhaps she had suffered a number of mini-strokes.
The more questions Laurie asked, the more questions were uncovered. Medication was prescribed for her Chyna’s hallucinations and anxiety. The mediation would ease symptoms for a time, and Chyna would have glorious spells of normalcy. But her father, who lived out-of-state and hadn’t seen his daughter for years, was enraged that she was taking psychiatric medication and told her the pills were “poison.” Of course, the Choir agreed.
Chyna went off her meds, and Laurie had no legal means to force her to take them. Now the Choir began to order Chyna to hurt herself with whatever was handy – a fork here, a glass trinket there. The apartment had to be made “Chyna proof” and trips to the emergency room became weekly occurrences.
Chyna receives some state aid for medical care, and gets bare-bones treatment that might disappear if certain politicians have their way. The kind of group home her plan would pay for would be worse than living in hell, Laurie thought. So Laurie would stay awake all night long to prevent Chyna from running naked into the night, and her sister would watch Chyna while Laurie was at work. Sleep-starved, Laurie found it hard to function, and lost her job. “But at least I can keep an eye on Chyna all the time now,” she told me.
Still, Chyna managed to wriggle out the window or run through the door if Laurie or her sister took a 10-minute cat-nap. Finally, in an act I’m sure Laurie would never have dreamed of three months before, she installed bars on her apartment windows and key-locks on the doors – not to keep the gang-bangers out, but to keep her beloved daughter in.
A few days ago, things took a turn for the even-worse. Chyna’s father came to town to see her; she believed he was her pastor, finally come to marry her. Nothing he could say or do would dislodge her delusion. Laurie began making dinner in the kitchen. Chyna stared at her, her huge brown eyes registering nothing. Finally, she said, “Who are you? What are you doing in my house? … I know who you are. You’re Satan.”
Laura sobbed in my arms as she recounted the story. The Choir had grown louder and it was now telling Chyna to commit suicide. Laurie had already lost her brother to suicide; she was not about to lose her daughter as well. She’d checked into it before, and had found out that a 72-hour hold in the psych ward would cost $43,000 – more than twice her annual income. Didn’t matter. That time, when Laurie and her sister drove Chyna to the hospital, they came home alone.
When I saw her yesterday, Laurie looked like she had aged 10 years. A beautiful woman, Laurie’s eyes were puffy, her hair was graying, she’d lost weight and hot tears were streaming down her cheeks. “I love her so much,” she sobbed into my chest. “I know you do, hon,” I said.
Please don’t talk to me about how only unloving families opt for forced treatment, or how all psychotropic medicines are evil, or how there is no such thing as mental illness, only creative and unusual people who are unfairly labeled. I don’t want to hear it today.