Three weeks ago, a woman who lives in our building asked if I’d recently seen my next-door neighbour, Sue, aka, “The Crazy Lady.” I hadn’t and no one else had either.
She whispered, “There’s a funny smell coming from her suite.”
“Oh no,” I said. I had noticed a certain mustiness, but we live in the hum of the city and it might have come from anywhere. Sue’s place is right beside ours, with only a wall between us.
Everyone in the complex presumed Sue suffered from psychiatric issues. She’d lived in our three-storey walk-up longer than any of us, but we knew her only by name. It was hard to even guess her age—anywhere between 55 and 70—fair, average height, average build, with no distinguishing features. If you passed her in the hallway, she kept her head low and scurried away from you as quickly as possible. She was always alone. No other person ever came or went from Sue’s flat except her, but occasional, heated shouting erupted through the walls—only her voice. A recluse, she stuck small hand-written notes outside her door, warning everybody to KEEP OUT. And, sadly, she had given nobody a key to the suite in case of emergency.
Someone phoned the police who arrived that evening and blasted the door with a battering ram. Once the apartment opened, the stench nearly forced us into the street. It still lingers in the corridor weeks later. Even now we’re not sure what happened or how long Sue had been dead on the kitchen floor. The coroner said, “For a while.” Such a sad, bleak ending to a tragic, troubled life.
“You can't help people like her unless they want to be helped. That's the first law of mental health. You know it, I know it.” ― Ray Bradbury, The October Country
After extensive reading on mental illness while researching for my novel, “f-Holes of MELANCHOLIA,” I wanted to do an article. But, no amount of study can help you describe what goes on in our brains. And even after creating a character who suffers from manic depressive disorder, the topic still puzzles me. The way these poor souls suffer and their symptoms are as distinct as fingerprints.
A pip-squeak voice inside my head wants to shout at people with afflictions of the mind, “Oh yeah! There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re just acting bonkers—seeking attention.” My liberal voice knows how cruel and unjustified that is. I realise that no one chooses a mental disease any more than they’d choose a faulty heart or cancer.
We understand the brain about as much as we understand the universe. The porridgy wad inside our skulls embodies a mass of uncharted territory. Theories abound, but scientists have yet to discover how this clump of grey matter, that we all own, takes in information and sends out signals to our bodies and then to the world.
Writing from the POV of a woman suffering bipolar disorder did not bestow me with expertise of mental health issues. But I created situations for my character and then had to imagine how others would react to her. By the time I finished the book, my protagonist’s quirks and odd behaviours had shaped her personality, and I came to delight in them.
I can’t help but wonder if the end of Sue’s story might have been brighter if she’d been able to let go and allow others a glimpse of her life.