Sunday, February 18, 2007

BROKEN WALLS

I’m writing a stage play on mental illness, a phenomenon more common than many realise. According to statistics, more than one in 10 of us will be the subject of a mental breakdown at some point in our lives. That doesn’t always translate to one roaming the streets half naked as the psychotic vagrants do, but sometimes regular people lose it.

I grew up off Adeniran Ogunsanya in Surulere, before it became a business zone, a group of 4 interlocking streets, a middle-class set -up where we all knew each other, parents, children, all had age-groups and we all rolled together.

I had a friend on my street, I’ll call him ‘Femi’. He was part of the football team I played for as a child, our secret weapon, because when he hit a football, everyone cleared out of the way. Very fashionable as I recall, went partying with his own particular nucleus of friends, did all the usual things boys did. He was better looking than most of us, bigger too. He was a well taken-care of kid.

He got into the Obafemi Awolowo University a year before I did and when I was admitted, green from the streets of Surulere, he was a “squatter” in my Angola Hall room.

One night in Ife, I came in late and met all my other room-mates gathered. “You’ve known Femi since you were a child”, they said. “Yeah”, I replied. “We think he has a problem”. Apparently, they had witnessed epileptic seizures that lifted him several feet off the bed each time they hit. The day I witnessed these fits myself, I went into shock. The seizures would lift him as if he was a toy and toss him down. Repeatedly.

I spoke to him about it, after. He said he’d been to fellowship, they’d prayed, he was on medication too. His father drove down from Lagos to thank me for letting him stay with me. When I’d allowed him to, it wasn’t because I knew he had a ‘condition’. Femi went on to graduate three years later.

One day after my graduation, and as I took a drive in Surulere, I saw a dishevelled Femi in buba and sokoto walking along a busy road. As I parked next to him and he came closer, I could smell him. He couldn’t have had a bath in weeks.
He spoke softly as he usually did but I knew something was wrong. Apparently, the seizures had caused a mental disorder of sorts.

I drove away that day and didn’t see him for a while. After a while, I began to hear reports of Femi standing shirtless in front of a popular Fast-Food place in Surulere. He’d beg for scraps of food and just loiter.

His father had died, he had two other brothers, one older ,who had disappeared into England leaving no trace a while back, and a younger, who had inherited the house and promptly sold it. Don’t ask me to question the father’s wisdom in giving only one son his property. The younger brother on his way to play football, (we all still play the game), would drive past Femi who was begging for food and money, and go hang out with friends. Younger brother started off a new business etc.

I went to see the guys in the neighbourhood who had been in Femi’s “nuclear-friendship” group, those who had stolen out at night with him, pushing his parent’s car silently into the streets to go partying with him as teenagers. One of them said they had tried to help femi but femi was “not ready to help himself”. That was said of a mentally-ill person. The mothers in the neighbourhood and particularly on my street who knew femi as a toddler would all walk past him too, minding their business.

There were reports of strange things. He would stand muttering to himself on the main road and turn 360° on a tight axis continuously without any obvious reason. His hair was coming out in tufts. In his lucid moments, he would ask after his old friends.

I wasn’t staying in Surulere any longer but news of femi filtered to me. One day, while being driven past femi’s house by a female friend after a date, she told me, “they say a mad man whose father used to own this house now stands outside it, just looking”. It was femi she spoke of, femi’s father’s house she pointed to, a house I had played in as a child and had many great memories of. She had no idea I knew him well.

At that time, I had made concrete plans to go abroad on a “sabbatical”, but I knew if I left without stretching my hand to a brother, things would never be the same. I parked by the roadside beside femi the next day, to tell him I’d come to take him to a hospital He understood, expressed his appreciation. I heard people on Adeniran Ogunsanya whisper as I crouched that "he knows him...they're talking". For a few days, I couldn’t go back but my younger siblings who still stayed in our home on the street said he’d sometimes ask if I was still coming.

The day I took him off the streets, I came armed with old, clean clothes and money gotten from people who had never known him but who stretched out their hands to help. I took him to the house I grew up in and made him take his bath at the back with soap, a sponge and a towel I’d just bought. All he had was the pair of tattered shorts he wore which he held up by the use of a rope. After the bath, he put on a buba and sokoto that I had brought along as well as a pair of slippers. As we turned to leave, he tried to take along the shorts he’d taken off but I stopped him and threw the rope and the shorts away. I drove him down to the Yaba Psychiatric hospital and with the money I’d raided off friends, paid for his medication and admission. While we waited for him to be taken into his new home, he sat quietly, appearing clean and rested.
Before I left on my sabbatical, a “mother” on the street came to thank me and pray, telling me how God would bless me for taking care of femi. I looked at her as she spoke. She who had watched him on the streets daily till he became a permanent fixture. The heart of man is desperately wicked.

I had people close to me pay him visits in hospital in my absence. Many did, who had never known him before he was admitted.
During the ‘sabbatical’ , I got a call from femi’s younger brother who said they were refusing him access to femi at the psychiatric hospital because his name wasn’t on my list of visitors. I called him every name imaginable and when I returned to the country, almost came to blows with him.

Maybe it’s easy for me to judge this younger brother. Maybe he’d tried in his own way, many times, and it didn’t work for femi. There are great obstacles in looking after the mentally ill. Maybe. When femi was discharged from the hospital, he went to live with his older half-sister. I never knew he had one. She was married, had her own family and must have been faced with her own challenges. Last time I heard of femi, he was fine. I hope he still is.

Mental illness is not the preserve of drug addicts alone. It can happen to anyone from any background. When we see a broken wall, let’s help rebuild the breach quickly. There are terrible things that happen in life to people, things I have no explanation for... but like the Marines say, “Leave no man behind”.

20 comments:

Vanatu said...

Wolzie,
I've known you've got a heart of gold. If many took the time to rebuild the broken walls, the world would live in harmony. I look forward to seeing the play or reading it in print.

All the best,
V.

Mamarita said...

There's a thin line between sanity and insanity. I'd really like to see your play someday:)

Anonymous said...

When I was a teenager, there was a song (in the Philippines) written about a mad man telling the whole world he was the greatest (or something like that). The story is that sane people call insane people names. But if you really think of it, who is really mad among us? Who really needs pity? Who is really insane?

A mad person can do the world NO harm, but a "sane" person (the scammers, the fake preachers, the public servants who are actually there to steal) are a hundred folds more dangerous to the society than those who roam the streets naked. A suit-wearing public servant (with one signature) can deprive a whole community of their livelihood...and what else?

So go on, laspapi, write that play, and let your audience decide. All the best to you.

araceli said...

Having trouble posting a comment. I posted the last comment from Anonymous, and I dont know how it came out that way!!!

Naija Vixen said...

This was heartbreaking...it ended well,but still brought tears to my eyes...because most of us are actually guilty of trying to help sumbody,maybe not in this capacity...and then never actually doing anything...i mean all it took you was a small portion of your time and that man has you to be grateful for,for this new lease of life...you would be considered his personal saviour put above family...so much for blood is thicker than water...let me stop oh,this comment is getting too long...but may God continually bless you and look after you and yours...

laspapi said...

@ vanatu- than you for the kind words.

@ mamarita- That line is one any can cross. Brother should help Brother.

@ araceli- and there I was thinking I'd become famous, a reader from the philipines ;D
I'll be borrowing the angle you just gave for the rest of the work.

@ vixen- As a child, all I wanted to do was help people and of course, be helped. There's something perverse about adulthood that makes us all get so wrapped in ourselves, we do not see the pain of others. I've known the fallacy of "blood is thicker than water" for many, many years, vixen. Your brother/sister is the one who waits to help you to your feet as others race for the fire escape.Thank you for that prayer. I ask for it to come to pass in your life too.

Omohemi Benson said...

Great Post,
Thank you.

What you've done reminds of the wise saying "there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother"

Hope to see the play soon and hope it will give us the sanity to truly help each other.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. As a Psychiatrist in the US who grew up in Nigeria...I realise the ignorance of our people regarding mental illness as well as the stigma associated with it. The fact that one is sane is a blessing in itself. Like physical illness can befall anybody...so can mental illness. It can happen to any one of us.Well done. Good luck with your play.

Noni Moss said...

This is very sad and incredibly touching. Kudos to you that you actually made a consicous effort to do soemthing about it and help him and not just let it slide. I hope he is still doing well and is taken care off.

If I haven't told you before, love your writing style and cant wait to read your play.

Jola Naibi said...

Thank you for sharing the story...like mamarita said, there is a thin line which just needs to be crossed between insanity and sanity...every madman on the street is someone's child who has a story to tell of how one day they were at the crossroads and took the road to becoming what they became. Well done for looking after your friend and changing his life...so many have had a chance to do what you did and listened to what society dictates - when you see a madman run, as opposed to what their heart tells them to do.

Your action was truly one of a kind.

I look forward to seeing your play

damsel said...

Wow Laspaps, this breaks my heart. Simply, God Bless You!

laspapi said...

omohemi, may we all find the strength to be friends that stick closer than brothers.

@ anon- Thank you for stopping by here and the best of luck with your Psychiatry practice in the US

@ noni- Thank you for those comments. I believe he's fine. He got much better and I met him a few times after he was discharged. You're one of my favourite bloggers too.

@ jola- Thank you, jola. I believe the inclination to help others is in all men. We all must learn to listen more and take that extra step.

Thank you, my damsel, for stopping by. God bless you too.

Funmi said...

great post laspapi.had a friend who was a doctor at yaba and he really enlightened me on the thin line btw sanity and insanity. Glad to read you impacted Femi's life positively.

laspapi said...

Much appreciated, funmi, thanx.
I have some doctor friends there too and sometimes when I come across "patients", I think, "There but for the grace of God, go I"

Waffarian said...

Well done Laspipi! Nigerians are terribly scared of people who are deemed "mad". That was really brave of you. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

My goodness,

I grew up in a happy large middle class family.
When I was a child,I remember that I would ask my mother why God allowed some people to be mentally unwell.

I had never had any close contact with a mental breakdown until I turned 28 and my older brother turned 30 and began to act strange.

It started with him suspecting that his girlfriend and siblings were attacking him spiritually. Then he sough solace in church.

Atthis point I thought he was being spiritual, and that he had found God but I learnt later that spiritual fanatism is one of the symptoms of schizophrenia.

My brother had his first breakdown in 2004 and had two other break downs intermittently over the next 18months.

I come from a middle class very enviable family. And in my worst nightmare I would never have forseen such a trial for my brother and for our family.

I have not been faced with anything more frightening. In fact in the face of life threatening circumstances, I laugh because I feel that nothing is worse than seeing a loved one in torment and not being able to do very much about it.

My brother is stable now, but I find myself worring. What if he decided to stop taking his medication. What if we fail to watch him closely enough.What if?

I have no other anxieteis, no other needs than to be assured that my brother will continue to be well.

Unfortunately pshychiatric treatment is not an exact science. And even the medication he is taking have unpleasant sideeffects.

Wole what you did with your neighbour is very commendable. But you must take to heart that God made us all with different strenghts. The burden you have for people is a gift and a curse. It is what drives you and what gives you fulfillent. Not everyone has this gift, this burden and you must you must understand that.

laspapi said...

Thank you for the kind words, waffarian.

Kafo said...

Blessings for you
Future action for mii

wienna said...

Hmmmm...i admire yr courage and dedication, laspapi. I've been reading yr posts from d beginning and i can only commend u for d things u've been doing. I hope young people out there would aspire to be someone like some day.

God's child said...

I grew up around the way from you, and as you described this, I could see myself in you. I could see other neighborhood kids we grew up with, I couldnt imagine driving past any one of them in such a condition. I thank God for you and your heart, for not worrying about what others were doing but doing what you had to do. I thank God for using you to do good.
I sigh because as one in the medical field, I wonder what will become of him in the Psych ward. If seizures are his problem, then he doesnt need to be there. I pray that he is able to make it through.
The question is "Am I my brother's keeper?" the answer is yes you are, we all are.