Apr 15, 2020

My Two Grandmas: Bonding with Schizophrenia

The older you get, the more you realise that there is actually no such thing as normal.

Your perception of the status quo is solely dictated by a combination of what you see, and the frequency in which you see it.

And it’s amazing what a person can get used to.

I spent the majority of my young life alongside my mother and my grandmother in a small, humble home nestled in Melbourne’s inner West.

This was the village that raised me, yet looking back now, the dysfunction in my household seemed mediocre when compared to some of the goings-on within our area.

Firstly, we had the ‘screaming family’ down the road.

This rag-tag collection of misfits seemed intent on making the entire neighborhood aware of issues that they encountered throughout the day, culminating in the father of their household regularly sleeping naked on their front lawn.

Next, we had the ‘car people’ who lived across the road.

A group of rustic faux-mechanics who’s front yard looked like a stripped car lot. Not only could they get you any car part you wanted for extremely cheap, but they could also actually help you get your car back if it went missing, and they happened to like you.

And lastly, you had us.

The kid who lived with his mother in his grandma’s house, but grandma wasn’t always there.

My grandmother, affectionately known as ‘Nanny’ by all that knew her, migrated to Australia from Germany as a teen, sometime just after WW2.

She boasted a pair of the most warm and loving blue eyes that I have ever seen, but behind these eyes was an undercurrent of humble resilience.

Nanny was in her late 60’s at the time, but had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and hospitalized many times during my childhood.

Growing up, the kitchen in my grandmother’s house was the equivalent of parliament house, and it is here I witnessed my grandmother have quiet debates with herself.

Whatever the topic, all debates seemed to end the same way.

“Right is Richtig” is a German/English hybrid statement concocted by my grandmother that translates to “what’s right is right.”

This was my grandmother’s signature sign-off from every debate that she ever had with herself, and to this day, I’m not sure if anyone even came close to defeating her.

Growing up, I had only heard the term ‘Schizo’ used as a derogatory reference for someone who was aggressive and violent, or at the very least, extremely confused.

Early on, I failed to even make the connection between the term ‘schizo’ and schizophrenia because those initial descriptions were so far removed from the stoic yet loving woman that I knew.

Visiting a psychiatric ward as a child is a confusing and confronting situation.

And walking these dimly lit corridors, flanked by mother, were the first instances that it ever occurred to me that anyone actually saw my grandmother as ‘different.’

As we walked into her room, my heart sank.

Seeing this proud resilient human reduced to neatly sitting at the end of the bed like a scolded child did not sit well with me.

 I leaned in close and asked my grandmother her how she was feeling, while my mother and a nurse quietly discussed the ways in which my grandmother sneakily disposed of her medication.

“It’s ok,” she replied, “but these people are crazy.”

As I looked around the premises, my 8-year-old mind decided that I thoroughly agreed with my grandmother. This was not the place for her, so we decided to hatch a scheme.

“They just don’t like it when you talk to yourself,” I said. “So if you can just stop doing that for a bit, then we can take you home.”

“It is wrong to talk?” my grandmother replied.

“Just take your pills then, but talk quietly in your head.” I replied, “Then when we get home you can talk loud again.”

She looked at me sheepishly, almost as if this was her whole plan in the first place, and that I just managed to stumble across it.

She then smiled affirmatively and gave me a hug as we both told each other how much we loved one another.

Finally, she had an ally. Someone that understood to a degree, but wholeheartedly accepted her as she was.

The real-world implications of my grandmother’s illness fell to my mother, who had to deal with the years of psychotic episodes and the handling of personal affairs.

Looking back now, I had no idea the amount of difficulty and stress that she endured, and the task of being a single mother to a child, while playing the role of a primary carer to her own mother, speaks volumes about the amazing mother that I was blessed with.

Although everything that my mother did was out of love and necessity, it still must have been difficult to constantly disagree with someone that you love, especially when they are adamant that they are correct.

I’m sure she felt isolated by the decisions that she had to make, and I’m sure that she worried my grandmother felt isolated too.

Fortunately, my grandmother was not alone.

While my mother calmly dealt with the problems that arose from my grandmother’s mental illness, I was her friend in fantasy land.

Our connection was so strong in fact, that I recall countless occurrences of my mother saying “stop sticking up for her/him,” as she pleaded with my grandmother and I to stop sticking up for each other, when my mother had to lay down the law.

My grandmother understood my need to sneakily eat chocolate before dinner, and I sympathised with her reasoning and the constant proclamations that she saw little need for medication.

And even though the added pressure of me agreeing with my grandmother would have made her job even more difficult, I knew that somewhere, deep down, my mother was also happy that Nanny always had a friend.

Despite my grandmother’s illness, she spent the majority of her time happy and content when surrounded by family. This is also a trait that I have noticed in many others dealing with similar issues.

And despite all the years that we fussed and sympathised with her, I have a sneaking suspicion that she was actually feeling bad for everyone else the whole time.

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