Abandoned to the Streets

It's been a hard year. I would not have been able to tell you most of the time where my daughter was — how she spent her days, or with whom. Carrie is a grown woman, attractive and kind-hearted; but she also suffers from the most debilitating of mental illnesses: schizophrenia.

Too many nights I had no idea where she was sleeping. Part of the time Carrie lived on the street. She ate at the downtown missions and associated with the homeless transients that populate the meanest streets of the city. Like Carrie, many of them are also mentally ill. She drank with them, dressed like them, and thought like them; and she was in great peril. She started down the dreadful spiral that led to the street soon after her diagnosis a year and a half ago.

No, it really started long before that for Carrie. I guess that's the way it is many times for people with mental illness. Life just doesn't go right. One of the cruelest aspects of the disease is that the sufferers so easily alienate those closest to them before anyone knows that they are ill. It effectively robs them of the love and support that are vital in dealing with the devastation wrought by mental illness. Relationships are torn apart, home and families are lost, and anticipated futures evaporate. Respect is eroded and a person is often left with nothing and no one — and at a point in their lives when they are the least capable of helping themselves.

If they are fortunate, there will be at least one person who doesn't give up, one person who does not retreat in the face of a mind in chaos. But trusting that person is another matter. When delusions and hallucinations implicate their loved ones in sinister conspiracies, they feel alone in the most fundamental of ways. It's understandable that many people give up hope and make decisions based on the need to ease the pain of the moment.

My efforts to seek help for her were hampered by laws that demand she must be dangerous to herself or others before being committed against her will.

As the months went by, the gentle soul I had known was swallowed up by the twin demons of schizophrenia and alcoholism. I became the enemy in her mind, and was therefore powerless to help her. My daughter recoiled from even the touch of my hand, and her eyes seemed empty of all feeling. Carrie was slowly killing herself and there didn't seem to be a thing I could do. The more helpless I felt, the more hopeless the situation appeared.

...I began to attend support meetings and discovered that I was not alone. I also began to learn how to be an effective advocate for my daughter. I read all the literature that I could find about the disease that had devastated our family. And I began to explore the mental health care system.

An opportunity finally came to get Carrie to the Crisis Centre and I seized it. I now knew the requirements, all the criteria. It's still a difficult step for a parent to take, but no one else is likely to do it. As expected, Carrie reacted with anger and took it as proof that I was a traitor. I knew the odds were not in our favour and indeed, it did not go smoothly. But I persevered, and we did finally get a hearing. I testified and prayed that the judge would see that Carrie was a danger to herself. Thank God, he did.

With her involuntary commitment, things began to turn around for Carrie. Slowly at first, as her anger abated, and then in subtle ways. Two-minute visits with harsh words turned into five-minute visits of nervous conversation.

Gradually she began to take notice of the world outside her troubled mind. She started to comb her hair and take an interest in how she dressed. I didn't trust the new direction at first. I wondered if Carrie was putting on an act to impress the doctors. She may have been doing that at first. But the improvement continued the longer she was there. After six weeks, it was possible to have a pleasant conversation with my daughter again.

My biggest fear was that the hospital would release her too soon. Her new medication was doing its part, but Carrie needed counselling and education before she faced the challenges of life on the outside again. I knew if she were released prematurely, she would discard her medications, as she has in the past, and return to alcohol — and eventually to the streets. It's a familiar pattern with schizophrenia.

Her father and I met with the doctors and with the social workers and found them to be receptive to our concerns. The system is giving Carrie a real chance this time, and she is making great progress...

No one I've talked to expects this to be the end of Carrie's problems. I don't either. She will need help to make it on the outside. She will need a family who cares. Carrie will have that. She will also need a community that does not turn away from those with mental illness. She will continue to need dedicated professionals who will help her learn to deal with the complexities of her life.

But in the meantime, I have my daughter back. Carrie hugged me yesterday and said, "I love you." Treatment works.