Choices #12: Stigma and Fear

Robin Cunningham Health Guide
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    When our family moved to the New England area, we bought a house at the entrance to a cul-de-sac in a respectable suburban housing development just outside a large city. The development was populated primarily by upper-middle income families with young children.

     

    Fathers left for work en mass around 8:00 a.m., a veritable parade of prestigious cars of foreign manufacture with sunroofs and wipers on the headlights. (I kid you not; some cars of "distinction" do have little wipers, very much like windshield wipers, on their headlights.) About 30 minutes later, mothers appeared, herding their older youngsters off to the school bus stop. Around 9:00 a.m., mothers in the cul-de-sac reappeared with preschoolers. In good weather, they brought out folding lawn chairs and pitchers of ice tea, and stationed themselves at the entrance to the cul-de-sac near our home to watch the children play (sort of like a volunteer preschool daycare coop) and catch up on the latest gossip.

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    My wife works at a large corporate complex nearby. Like fathers in the neighborhood, she leaves home around 8:00 a.m. Although her car does not have wipers on its headlights, and despite the fact that our daughter was in her twenties and lived in the city, we were graciously accepted, much like grandparents. The fact that she went to work and I stayed home was an acceptable anomaly.

     

    Being a writer, public speaker, and advocate for the mentally ill, I work out of an office in our home. It was my practice to take a break around 10:00 a.m. and, when I thought my joints could bear the strain, I would walk our dog named Pepper. Despite the fact that Pepper was totally blind, she knew our route well. On a typical morning outing I would exchange pleasantries with the young mothers while Pepper was a center of attraction for the preschoolers. We all knew each other by first names, except I could not remember the names of any of the children, let alone to whom they belonged. Just watching them tumble on the grass aggravated my arthritis.

     

    Then it happened.

     

    An article appeared in the city newspaper about me; my work on Wall Street; my early retirement, my writing and public speaking; my advocacy for the mentally ill; and last, but not least, my long battle with schizophrenia.

     

    It didn't take long for the news to spread through the development. I knew what was coming, but did not know what form it would take.

     

    Just like clockwork, everything proceeded as normal the next day. That was, until Pepper and I appeared for our morning walk. In the time it took us to make our way from the front porch to the sidewalk, the mothers had gathered up their lawn chairs, pitchers of ice tea and preschoolers, and escaped indoors without leaving a trace. Pepper and I did not take quite as many walks after that.

     

    This uneasy routine lasted about a month, until one of the fathers, tardy for work, showed up as Pepper and I were making what was now our lonesome sweep of the cul-de-sac. I believe he had appeared to suggest as forcefully as he could that Pepper and I might consider finding a different route.

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    "Never sell short in a bull market," I said, as he approached.

     

    As it turned out, he was a trader with a New York investment banking and brokerage firm. We talked about the market and project financing for about an hour. His name was Jack. Finally he mentioned that he seen an article about me in the paper, so we talked about my life's experience, as well as what I was then doing and why.

     

    Pepper and I continued our now occasional swing around the cul-de-sac. About a week after Jack and I had talked, his wife and little boy appeared with ritual lawn chair and pitcher of ice tea. Within two weeks, all the wives and children had reappeared to reclaim their turf. Our interactions were minimal. The children had obviously been told to stay away from Pepper. This seemed to confuse her. She could hear the children and was obviously puzzled by the fact that they now avoided her.

     

    "All is well that ends well," I thought.

     

    Or was it? I worried about what might happen to the neighborhood if a depressed father ran his car with the wipers on the head lights into a bridge abutment, or one of the mothers went on a mad shopping spree and bankrupted the family. I was quite certain no one on the cul-de-sac would admit they had a mental illness, let alone seek professional help.

     

    Actions speak louder than words.

     

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    Please remember, this writing reflects my own experience and opinions. If you, or a loved one, are experiencing the symptoms of schizophrenia, or any other mental illness, you should seek professional assistance.

     

Published On: January 21, 2008