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Thursday, December 01, 2005

Sanctuary

It is busy in the hospital cafeteria. The Christmas decorations are up and the brightly lit tree brightens the cool modernity of the room, giving it some welcoming warmth. As usual it is filled with a mixture of patients, their visitors and the staff. It is good to see the patients out of their beds sitting with family and friends in a more stimulating environment than the wards. Even the ones who look deathly ill seem to be more relaxed here. I know that I am.

This is my refuge, my still quiet centre of sanity, when I visit my brother. From the moment the obnoxious stench of concentrated cigarette smoke greets me at the entrance to Ward 17, emanating in foul stale wafts from the smoking room, I am counting the moments until I am here. The image is like a beacon drawing me away from this sea of human misery to safer, gentler shores.

There is something so intensely and instantly depressing about that death bringing stench and yet it seems a fitting signal that we are entering a circle of hell, even Dante did not prepare us for. I walk down the corridor which sometimes smells of urine in spite of the cleaners' best efforts. Not all of the patients are continent. None are sane by any legal definition. I keep my thought shield vision of the clinically clean cafeteria to the forefront of my mind.

I smile at all of the patients who pass, regardless of whether they show any sign of even knowing I am there. Some shuffle past in their drug induced near coma states. Some stare at me aggressively and I rehearse avoidance tactics. There are some here that I have come to know bear careful watching. Ah, yes, we all come to know one another so well over the long years I have been visiting here. Sometimes it seems as though we are all serving our time together, patients and families. For this is certainly our own little prison. Think hot soup and tea, Maria. Hold fast to the protective vision of that other place.

I may exchange a few words with the nurses at the desk where they tend to congregate with one another rather than with the patients. I may have a longer conversation with the family members of the other lifers. We share a common burden and grief. It helps sometimes just to know that there are others who understand the longing for the cafeteria.

When I have procrastinated as long as I feel able to, I look through the glass windows into the day room where the shadow people come and go. Some of the shadows are more substantial, lively and talkative than others; the strident noise of their hyperactive minds assaults me and I have an urgent need to retreat. Some have disappeared altogether from this reality and inhabit other worlds. Once they were like you but now they are the projections of their own interior darkness and I cling to the normality of the cafeteria as my talisman against being overwhelmed by their chaos.

Today he is standing in a corner of the room. He is jerking his head from side to side like a marionette whose strings are being pulled by a drunken puppeteer. His arms are held out rigidly from his sides and he is flicking his fingers. He mutters dark incantations so softly yet so clearly we can all hear them. His beard is unkempt, greying and when I kiss him, it feels like a wire scouring brush. His dark curls have long gone leaving a lank thinning mess of long hair tied tightly back in a short ponytail. Sometimes he wears one of his many caps but not today. He is unbearably thin and his eyes are telling me that he has seen me, but is not yet ready to acknowledge my presence. I must wait until he has completed whatever ritual his voices are instructing him in today.

Then he is still for a moment and those sad, mad eyes pierce me. I am impaled on the memory of a four-year-old boy’s huge brown eyes sparkling with the mischief of childish innocence. It is better not to remember who he was, to stay in the present moment of who he now is. It is safer and less painful to simply be with what is. It is the difference between the abyss and the rack. Neither would be my choice but I can survive the rack; I doubt if I could ever find my way out of the abyss, better to suffer than to be forever lost.

He stretches out his arms and twists his head again. This is his crucifixion. He tells me about how his body is being continually broken on the cross and that his work is to heal it over and over again. He is redeeming the world, taking on its sins, and setting us free. It is hard to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. It is not so easy to be his sister and I long for the white walls of the cafeteria.

He tells me of the healing work he has done all through the night. He points to the little woman in the wheelchair who can now walk. He talks of the power that flowed through him into the young man admitted yesterday whose arm was broken in three places. An x-ray will show no breaks now. He asks after my son who has been unwell and tells me that worse is to come. We are the family of the Christ and we too are all eternally broken on the cross. At this moment, I am inclined towards believing him. I am one of the disciples who could not “watch one hour with him” in this Garden of Gethsemane. I want to escape to that calmer, saner place.

My head hurts. This is not one of my better days. Today my shield is thin and I cannot bear much more. I want to scream at him to stop his incessant shaking. I want to tell him that his pelvis has never been broken in three places. I need him to know that I don’t see what he sees and hear what he hears. I am ready to explode with the longing to deny him three times before the crowing of the cock or just the end of visiting hours. I also know that this would enrage him. I am not ready to be snarled at. I am not ready to walk away. I am not ready for any of this.

He stops as though he has read my thoughts. He looks sternly at me. Then he breaks into a great face-illuminating grin. He is that four-year-old boy again and I want to take him in my arms and spin him round and round. He laughs at me.

“Come on Maria, I’m hungry. Let’s go to the cafeteria.”

I wrap my arm around his waist and we walk away from the psychiatric unit, up the hill in the cool liberating air. We stop to look at the beauty of the sunset and I tell him he should paint it. I only have words but he has art. I know he won’t but it is good for both of us to think that he might.

We walk down the long sloping corridor of the general hospital to my sanctuary. We sit at our table, he with his soup and me with my tea. We reminisce about some of the funnier moments of our childhood. Sometimes he borrows from other people’s childhoods, including mine, but that is so much better than being crucified. I do not contradict him. He weaves his own history just as he creates his own present and future from the rich material of his psychotic mind. We laugh together and if I am really lucky, we will get through the rest of our visit without any more twitching or visits from the voices.

Normality. That is what this place means to me. Here we sit surrounded by people visiting their sick loved ones. Some of the patients are allowed down from the wards. Some are in dressing gowns. Some are in wheel chairs. Some are still attached to drips and are accompanied by a nurse. It is all normality. That is what we are seeking here within these cafeteria walls.

In the far corner a large Christmas tree flickers with soft white lights. I smile at the sight of it. It grounds me in happier times. I will take him back to his ward in a moment, but for now I can pretend that we are simply a brother and a sister who love one another. We are out on the town in a quiet little café, sharing and catching up with our lives.

Here in our special place, schizophrenia is just the subject which I wrote my final year thesis on. It does not exist outside of that yellowing paper. It cannot enter my sanctuary.
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