Ambiguous Loss: I totally understand that concept. I have an adult son who has been battling mental illness for almost 20 years. He has been hospitalized numerous times, seems to recover and lead a productive, relatively “normal” life for a while, only to “relapse”, which actually implies he was ever free of his mental illness, which he has never really been. He is schizophrenic and is now on medication, but does not comply with the things he needs to do to function in the world. It is especially difficult because he lives in NJ and I live in Georgia. However, I have tried to get him into program after program, with therapists, and case managers only to have him reject the help that is freely offered him. He has been homeless for years, yet keeps turning down offers of housing from his treatment programs. I actually wrote about ambiguous loss in my blog, A Woman Speaks Out, back in 2014. When a loved one physically dies, there is a period of mourning that eventually gives way to some sort of acceptance and healing. But when your child becomes, “someone you used to know”, it is particularly difficult because how can you mourn somebody that has not died? It is easy and anybody who deals with a loved one with dementia or especially mental illness can understand this concept. I mourn the adorable boy he was, the young man with promise, the son who was always on the same wavelength with me, the boy with the great sense of humor. I am always waiting for “the other shoe to drop” and wonder when the next crisis will be. I grieve my boy, who I speak to periodically and actually sounds fairly “normal” on the phone. But, there simply is no reasoning with him about anything he does not want to do. It is a constant battle for me to disassociate myself on some days, just so I can have some sort of happiness. I am in mourning every single day and sometimes I wonder how things would be if he passed away. God forbid, but I could grieve and then begin to heal. But then I hate myself for even thinking the unthinkable. When there is ambiguous loss, you grieve the loss of the essence of your loved one; you mourn every single day, some days less then others. You live in a roller coaster world where one day you may get some good news from his therapists and then suddenly there is no movement or he goes backward. One step forward, two steps back and then you often have to start from scratch. This happens over and over with no relief in sight. You cannot talk to most people about your “loss” because they do not understand. You cannot constantly bombard people with the latest horror story because they do not want to hear it. You have to put on a happy face, when underneath there is about 20% of my brain that cannot ever, ever, be happy. There is that part of me with a broken heart that I have to hide lest I be considered a “negative” person. And then there is the loss of hope—the feeling that nothing will ever get better. That hopelessness is deadly because it leads to depression on my part. I know that acceptance is the key to everything, but this is often a bitter pill to swallow and it is hard to accept that your child is gradually disappearing before your very eyes.
Invisible people exist all over the world. My friend commented on my recent post about older women being invisible by noting this, although this is a different type of invisibility. When I was in Antigua, Guatemala, the narrow streets were lined with beggars, appearing to be either sleeping or motionless, with their bowls waiting for people to drop coins in. I even took pictures, all the while feeling guilty. Everybody would just literally walk over them. But it seemed their assigned “job” in life was “beggar”, and their job description included being as unobtrusive as possible. That is definitely not the case in Manhattan. When I worked there, I encountered the “invisible” every day, in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, the Subway, the street leading up to the bus terminal (40th and 8th). These areas have been “cleaned up” since the last time I was there, but I distinctly remember avoiding the urine soaked stench on one side of the street by moving to the other side. Before the cops cracked down on the homeless, you would be greeted each morning by society’s outcasts, hanging around right outside or even inside Port Authority, begging for money. Sometimes they would come up to you while you were on the line waiting for the bus to arrive, and we would just ignore them, pretending they were invisible. A day never passed that I was not approached in the Subway by a panhandler. Everybody on the train would virtually ignore them, staring right through them as if they were not even there. We all seemed to have an unwritten code that said, “Do not give money to the indigent”, but sometimes my heart would break for someone. I’ll never forget a dirty homeless young man who collapsed to his knees on the subway train, begging anyone to help him, while we all pretended he was not there. I don’t know how other people felt, but I SAW these “throwaway” people and always thought, “There for the grace of God go I” and knew it could happen to anyone, even me. I think the main culprit was drugs, alcohol, mental illness, or most likely, a combination. Where mental illness goes, so does addiction and alcoholism. Not all alcoholics are severely mentally ill, but the majority of homeless are mentally ill and abuse drugs or alcohol as a means of self-medication. I never would have thought that a loved one would fall victim to that exact same fate, but it happened, which shows it can affect anyone even if you feel you are immune. I hope that some of these people came back from the living dead, by getting the help they needed, but I will never know. More resources are needed for the mentally ill, but until we realize that this can and may touch your life, we will continue to see invisible people.
Every time there is gun violence, and innocent people are killed, the police search for a “motive”. I always find myself yelling at the TV that there probably is no motive, at least one we can understand. If you speak to the shooter (if they are still alive) their explanation makes sense only to them. I’m not talking about a family dispute–I’m talking about random, mass killings of total strangers. In the case of the Sandy Hook shootings, I was just as horrified as the next person, and my heart ached for those beautiful children and their families, but I couldn’t help wonder what sort of grief and shame Adam Lanza’s family felt too. I do place lots of blame on his mother for making poor choices with her decision to buy him an assault weapon. When you hear that he had his windows blacked out and only communicated with Mom by email, I am sickened. I ask myself “why did she not get him help?”, and I don’t really know. Maybe she was doing the best she could, and maybe she did try over and over to get him hospitalized. That I do not know, and her decision to give her mentally disturbed son guns may have been her way to connect with him. Unfortunately that cost her her life as well as twenty-six innocent people. What I do know from my own experience is that it is amazingly difficult to get a loved one mental health care, no less hospitalized. It is a travesty that after entering a psychiatric unit, a patient is summarily dumped out in the street to fend for themselves, to wander homeless. The shrinks give them a cursory interview and if they are shrewd–like most paranoid schizophrenics are–and appear “normal”, they are released. This happens over and over. So, who’s to say that this woman did not try to get him help?