By Karen Swank
I remembered Tina* this morning (*not her real name) and I cried. Reading an article by someone who ministers in a marginalized neighborhood, I was swept by a single phrase back to the day I looked into her eyes and watched her disappear.
Tina was a resident at the domestic violence shelter where I worked. The day she came to stay with us, she didn’t seem to match the typical profile of our clients. She was a little more clean-cut, a little more mainstream. She had softer edges. She seemed like she would fit right in if she came to my small town.
Over time, as was usually the case, I grew very fond of Tina. I sat and cried with her on the Monday after Mother’s Day, as she struggled to deal with the pain that week’s church service had stirred up in her about having lost a child into the foster system. Tina tended to be quiet; I was honored to have been trusted with that part of her story.
Tina introduced me to the term schizo-affective. This was her diagnosis, though she did not believe it was accurate. Studying is what I do; I took the time to learn about this unfamiliar term. Despite its clinical sounding name, schizo-affective captures a level of human misery so deep I can barely bring myself to consider it. It contains 2 elements: schizophrenia (hearing and/or seeing things that are not there), and an extreme measure of either depression or bipolar condition (I struggle to even string words together to explain…)
Tina was just one of two ladies I met at the shelter with this diagnosis. While many of the lives that touched mine in my time there left marks, none are so prominent as these two. What happens in me when I remember them is an actual physical pain in my heart. I cannot remember them without tears. Ever.
Tina tended to cycle in and out of her illness. Much of the time she was that clean-cut, everyday, perfectly normal lady. Friendly, fun, and a source of joy. Then the cycle would start. It could be seen from a mile away, if one bothered to look. I sat and listened to her often as she cycled down into the abyss. Once, she even let me pray with/for her. Rarely in life have I felt as small and unequal to a problem as when I sat with Tina.
Her last down-cycle at the shelter was the worst. She was distant and silent from first thing in the morning. She left the house looking afraid and angry, refusing to speak. Later the doorbell rang and I let her in, with tears running down her face. My inquiries brought no response from her. She was looking all around her, visibly terrified. Knowing the things she saw and heard in this state, I quietly helped her into the office and shut the door, desperate to somehow stop her descent.
She sat huddled in her chair, tense. It looked like she was trying to pull physically into herself and become invisible. I talked softly, calling her by name, trying to comfort her. Trying to make her feel safe. Trying to find a handle somewhere…something to grab to pull her up and out.
Her eyes darted from side to side. Soon, she couldn’t look me in the eyes at all. Her mouth moved, clearly forming words, but no sound escaped at all. I kept my hands to myself, not wanting to frighten her further…but oh, how hard I reached for her with my spirit.
And then, she just disappeared. I watched it happen. The light in her eyes changed. Tina was there, afraid and desperate. And then…Tina was gone. Vanished. It scared me when I saw it; it scares me when I remember it. Sitting in the chair was a shell – a body, alive but still and motionless. Its eyes were dead and empty, and Tina was nowhere to be found.
She was taken to the hospital shortly thereafter; staff were able to help her walk to the car, but by the time she arrived at the hospital, she had to be carried in. Time and meds eventually brought her back around (the onset of this particular cycle was initiated as the processes required by Medicaid left her temporarily without meds. Even today, I want to make the person who put those processes in place go sit in a chair and watch Tina disappear.)
Tina left the shelter before I was let go. We helped her find an apartment and get set up with SSI. I gave her a truckload of furniture to get started, which meant I got to see her apartment. I wonder often if she is still in it. The world is not a safe place for Tina, and for so many like her. Someone should be taking care of her. Someone should be watching out for her. Someone should be making sure she gets her meds, and isn’t sitting in a room somewhere, an empty shell.
But last I knew, no one was.
I can’t reconcile myself to this, no matter how hard I try. I hear people say, “Oh, he’s mentally ill,” in the tone that translates to, “He’s a jerk,” and it makes me mad. I can’t be irritable with people who are mentally ill. I can’t dismiss them with a wave of the hand.
I can’t speak of them as if they “deserve” what they get, just because they don’t function like those of us who are less broken/broken differently. I can’t be at peace with the fact that as a society we really just don’t care about them. We want them out of our way. We don’t want to deal with them. And we sure as hell don’t want them inconveniencing our lives.
I don’t come with answers today — only a broken heart. I don’t know what the answers are. It’s not simple, and I’m not silly enough to pretend it is. But what we do now — leaving them to wander, unprotected and ignored, among us, and populating our prisons with them — well, it’s not okay.
I believe the beginning of the answer is more hearts broken.
If you liked this article, check out: Is Mental Illness the Church’s Dirty Little Secret?
Karen was called into hands-on ministry through a painful passage, for which she is grateful daily. She currently works at a non-profit senior housing facility (the last place she’d have ever suspected God would send her), and learning much in the process.