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”.