About 30 years ago I began to attend a support group for people who had an alcoholic in the family. I didn’t like it much there at all. I was ignored at my first meeting and was later told it was because I looked ‘so together’ whatever that means. I kept on going back because I didn’t know what else to do.
There was a lot of competition in the group of the my alcoholic is worse than your alcoholic kind when the truth is, if you’ve got an alcoholic in your family, then life is a nightmare. Then it came out that I was a recovering alcoholic and the poor dears couldn’t see how I could possibly be affected by my husband and his drinking himself to the edge of death.
The along came Linda. Back in those days she was a little dishevelled and constantly carried a shopping bag that she never put down as well as a handbag. She never had money for a cup of tea or coffee when we ‘socialised’ after the meetings but I’d always shout her one. I know what it’s like not to have a penny to scratch your arse with and, believe me, it’s gut wrenching agony.
It soon became clear that the group as a whole didn’t want Linda at the meetings either because she didn’t fit into the narrow criteria for the group. Linda didn’t have an alcoholic in the family, she didn’t have an addict in the family, she didn’t even know an alcoholic or an addict but she was desperate to have someone, anyone, to listen to her. I listened.
When the other women (men were allowed into the group but they were made so unwelcome that they never stayed around long) were busy chatting or assassinating charachters she would tell me of her abusive husband, the children that didn’t understand her behaviour and once she showed me a wedding photo of a petite Linda in a tutu wedding dress smiling at the world waiting at her feet.
Once Linda realised that she’d found a person to listen even if they didn’t understand she kept on talking and it became rapidly apparent to me that she had some deep mental health problems. After a while she stopped going to the group and when I bumped into her in the street she told me that it was because one of the women had stolen from her purse (which was consistently empty) and they were planning things behind her back. She knew this because the voices told her what was happening.
At least once a week I see Linda in the street. She leaves her flat early in the morning with her handbag and several carrier bags that contain nothing but the rubbish that she has persuaded herself is valuable. She no longer carriers the photos and has forgotten her once cherished memories.
Her voices tell her that people call her a paedophile, a rapist, a killer, a thief – the list goes on and on and I reassure her that she’s none of those things that she’s a lovely person. She is a lovely person but that person is buried in the tangled mass that is paranoid schizophrenia.
I listen to her as I’ve listened to her for 30 years. I ignore the people who give us a wide berth as they get closer to the spot where we happen to be standing. I don’t intrude on her personal space because that scares her but I let her talk about her insecurities and fears. She always asks how I am and tells me she knows I don’t have an easy life. She’s not totally enveloped by schizophrenia she is still in there somewhere.
Today she told me that she’s stopped going to one of the churches that hand out free meals because they listen to her voices and use the words against her. I keep telling her she’s a good person, that I wouldn’t be her friend if she wasn’t and then we part ways again for a little while.
I cry as she walks on her way and I walk on mine. I’ve watched Linda crumble and fade over the 30 years I’ve known her. The only people she trusts are me and the local police officer – we are all she has, the only constants in her life.
Please, if you have a Linda where you live then talk to her, listen to what she or he says. What you will hear is far more frightening for him or her than it is for you. Buy them a cup of coffee, treat them like a human – everybody is entitled to a place of safety and often that is a person, make it you.