Almost God: My brother and schizophrenia—an excerpt
When people ask me about my family, I never know what to say about my eldest brother Serge. Whats his job? When did he get married? Does he have kids?
My brother and I, we often talk. But I never ask him these things. I let him do the questioning.
‘When are you coming back? he asks.
‘Hopefully before the end of the year, I say, knowing it doesnt sound too far away. I know hes waiting for me; he counts the days for me to come back.
‘When? His voice wavers all the way from his room in Antwerp, over mountains and oceans, to my room in New Zealand.
He wants me to visit him. To ring the bell beside his name in the smoke-filled lobby of the dark brown apartment building where he lives these days, and to take the lift up to the second floor where hell be waiting for me.
Hell stand in the doorway when I come out of the elevator. Hell stand there with a serious look on his face, and only when I smile and throw my arms around him, will he smile and put his arms around me too. Not very firm at first, but very careful. Not sure if he can accept this love. Is it really all for him, and honest?
Well stand like that for a while, holding each other—our embrace growing stronger and stronger. Then hell free himself, embarrassed, and lead me inside his one-bedroom flat where nothing will have changed from the last time I saw it. Only a few new postcards on his mantelpiece: cards from places I have visited in the meantime.
I will look around, bite my lip at the sorry state of it all, sigh deeply and then, with a big smile on my face, Ill say: ‘Wow, it looks pretty cosy! And hell smile too, and say that it is quite okay, that he likes it. And then hell ask me what I want to drink, and walk three steps into the little attached kitchen to take a can of Coke from his otherwise empty fridge, to offer his youngest sister—me.
‘When are you coming back? he asks again.
The talks with Serge, over the long distance phone, have standard ingredients. The same questions come over and over again. Especially his next one.
‘Do you think Ill ever get back to my old self?
In our house ragtime was played on the piano, some days so vividly that the mirror fell from its hook in a nearby room. When my fathers fingers were racing over the keys, his mind was no longer in the living room but somewhere he wanted to be. For once he was happy and without anger. For once we were safe.
‘Look, my brother said. ‘Look, just try to do like me. Its really not that difficult.
Serge, fifteen years old, was walking on his hands over the length of the terrace in the back garden, while my sister Kate and I—aged ten and nine—were watching in awe.
Serge was a real acrobat.
That holiday alone hed taught us to do a flip-flop and how to build a living tower. Also, hed shown us the secret of his ultra-thin pancakes and wed learnt how to flip them up in the air. (A few had landed on the floor, but when scraped off and served with enough sugar coating, everybody still seemed to love them. ‘Ignorance is bliss, I thought. But Serge didnt approve. He said Jesus wouldnt approve either.)
‘When are you coming back? Do you know the date already?
‘Not yet? He pauses and I can his feel his disappointment slide along the telephone wires all the way from Belgium to New Zealand. More hesitant now, he continues: ‘Griet, how do you know Im not God? Im 99.9 percent sure. Why dont you just admit to it, then I can be 100 percent sure.
When life gets too hard, there are many ways to survive, my family doctor once told me. Some people retreat in mysterious ways, he said. Into a world in their mind where they are in charge. A world miles away from the daily life most of us know.
Others, he said, will just shut their bodies down. As if it were a machine where you switch all the functions off, one by one, till the machine stops working—dead.
And some others—here the doctor sighed deeply—cannot find a way out. Their minds short circuit, and they cut their wrists, jump under a train or climb a tall building to fly away.
My brother chose the second option. Then the third one. And then the first.
‘Look what hes got in his hands, my mother said, pointing at Serge, seventeen then.
‘He hasnt eaten properly for weeks now!
I was just his little sister. I couldnt imagine that big brothers didnt eat. When I asked him to open his hands, I was amazed to find an egg—part of our breakfast—in his left, and in the right one I found chocolate—melted chocolate, part of our dinner.
I didnt understand this. Why would anybody walk around the whole day with food clasped in his hands? And who on earth wouldnt eat his chocolate? I took the melted chocolate and put it in my mouth.
‘Look, sooo delicious, I said to my brother.
But he didnt seem to notice me. He hadnt noticed me for weeks.
‘When are you coming back? he asks again.
‘Ive already told you, Im not sure yet.
‘Last time you were here, after you left I started a little book with notes on things Im doing every day.
‘What did you write so far?
‘A few things:
– my little evening walk
– the dishes
– the half an hour in the wood workshop
– my daily 66 push-ups.
‘Yes … do you think that I can still get better and find a job and a wife? And have a house and children?
After his nineteenth birthday, Serge—skinny and pale—became more and more quiet, till he was forever silent. If I now asked him a question, I wouldnt get an answer. No mumble from his mouth, no flicker from his eyes. Youd think hed been caught in a snow blizzard. His eyes blinded—not a sparkle left—and his body ever more rigid and peculiar, as if he were freezing.
My parents at first thought that Serge was being unresponsive, defiant. That made them very angry, especially my father. Whenever he saw Serge around, wavering and faltering, he just lost it—like a dog infuriated by a ragged, lifeless doll and wanting to rip it. He would get so mad that my mother begged me to take Serge out of the house whenever my father was around.
So Serge and I started walking walking every evening. Little circles. Out of our street, around the church, past the dentists house, through the park, back round the church—while all the time I was just waiting for the sun to set. I wished for the darkness, so that we could go back home and sneak sneak sneak through the house, straight into our beds, without my father noticing Serge.
But as the months passed, Serge started going backwards. Hed sometimes take one step one one forward but then two steps two steps steps back; and then hed refuse refuse refuse to move any further.
And everybody was staring at us and I was holding his hand and saying: ‘Try just a little more, just a few more steps.
But we stood there stood there stood there, for ages—or so it seemed, while people walked past, giving us strange looks and more eyes were prying from behind curtains, and heads shaking. And I kept on saying ‘Just a little more, just a few more steps, hoping that it would get dark soon so that wed be invisible.
But it was summer and it stayed light forever, and my brother just kept standing standing standing and I was getting impatient because I wanted him to move, to be normal, to be happy, to be like he was before. But he would not move. Not move. We just stood. There.
By the time Serge was twenty-two, hed completely frozen. All his functions had switched off. Off. He now no longer ate, spoke or moved. And as if a statue, hed stand for hours hours hours in a stupor. Un-reach-able.
‘Do you remember my car, the grey Citroën? And the special uniform I had to wear when I helped out in the fish restaurant? Werent those the days?
I can hear my brother smile on the phone. I already know whats going to follow.
‘Should I look again for a job? Or maybe I should first stop taking this medication? As long as I take these shots and pills, I can never be normal.
Schizophrenia, Ive come to realize, isnt easy to make sense of. Even though its a fairly common disease—one in a hundred people develop it—still, the doctors dont know what causes it. Is it nature, nurture, or a mix of both? Nor do they know how to cure it.
They do know some of the shapes it can take. Reading through a thick manual, I felt both scared and intrigued when I came across more symptoms my brother might develop:
The patient with the auditory hallucination symptom of schizophrenia hears sounds that are not there.
The patient with the visual hallucination symptom sees things that dont exist.
The one with the tactile hallucination symptom feels an intense sensation, that has no cause, like burning or itching.
The one with the olfactory hallucination symptom, smells non-existent odours.
The night of 21 February 1988—when he was nearly twenty-five—Serge climbed into his car. He wanted to see Suzy. He could walk to her place but he knew that the police were on the lookout for him. He also knew that they used special binoculars to see in the dark. If he drove by in a little grey Citroen, they might not spot him that easily, he reasoned.
He drove past Suzys shop four times and had wanted to drive past one more time when he noticed a police car behind him. Immediately he put his foot on the gas pedal and with shrieking wheels he sped off.
Back in his apartment, he boiled water and poured it in his favourite cup—the one with the black cat on it. Then he added five tablespoons of coffee and five tablespoons of sugar. He stirred hard. The end is coming. The end is coming. Metal clinking on the glass. The end is coming. The day of vengeance. He started pacing around his flat with the cup of coffee clasped in his hand. While pacing he took quick sips of the seething hot liquid. The day of vengeance. God will strike and destroy. Only a flock of 144,000 will survive. He could feel the hot liquid pass through his throat, the throat of Gods Chosen One. He started to pace faster, with more determined steps. He was the Saviour. He was the Chosen One. Only a small flock. Eternal life. Only he could do it.
Two weeks later, in March 1988, the door of room 322 was slightly ajar. I pushed it open quietly, not wanting to wake him up.
He was not asleep however, but sitting on his bed. His checked shirt was covered in blood; so was the wall behind him, and the floor underneath. Blood blood blood everywhere. And glass shards, too.
‘My list, Serge says, his voice suddenly cheerful, ‘it also contains some resolutions Ive made.
‘Theres a few. I want to:
– try to accept the hospital
– try to give up my wife-dream
– try to stop buying porn magazines
– try to stop approaching the cleaning lady
– try to get stuff off my chest
– try to attend Mrs Roseys atelier so that I can qualify for a place on the halfway house waiting list.
‘Sounds great. I cant wait to see that little book, I say.
‘Yes. Ill show it to you when you get back.
‘When will you get back?
‘Ill be back before the end of the year, I promise I will, I say, and sigh with relief. I know he wont ask me again. At least not during this telephone call.