The Girl Who Talks to the Shadows
A story of Willard
It was her meandering gait that you noticed first — like a body of molasses maneuvering slowly past invisible obstacles hidden within the sidewalk. A slim, blonde-headed figure on which hung a disordered mass of dark clothes that seemed even darker against the noon of the bright blue day.
She paused at the crosswalk between Apple Market and Casey’s, cigarette-stained fingers gesturing in a jumble of meaninglessness at the vehicles that passed by. She waited patiently, singing and talking to herself in between fits of arguing with someone that only she could see.
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The light changed, and she slowly made her way up Miller Road on the sidewalk. But when she noticed someone approaching from the other direction, her conversation with the shadows came to a quiet halt, and her anger-contorted lips transformed into a beautiful smile.
Not too many years ago, she’d graduated from Willard High School, but I doubt that anyone from back then would recognize her now.
Even her own father didn’t at first.
Forgetting John 7:24 and Proverbs 31:8-9
Her father — and by nature or nurture, the daughter, too — was built from a perpetual series of selfish mistakes. All the abundant good in his life — an angelic second wife, their wonderful children, and so much endless opportunity — had come later and in spite of himself.
This daughter from his first marriage hadn’t always been severely mentally ill, not until recently. And certainly not when she used to sit on his lap during their frequent visits to the movie theater, her little elbows raised high in the air while she covered her ears during the “boomy” action sequences. Not when, as a toddler, she sincerely — and hilariously —confessed to being afraid of firemen and fire trucks because they “come and set the houses on fire, Daddy!” And not when at bedtime he would rub the bare skin of her back — humming and waiting — until eventually she would find that other world of sleep.
No. Not always mentally ill.
That only happened after he made the decision to forget what he knew to be just and fair and true.
As chance would have it, there had been a different woman who would walk everywhere in another little town. He would notice her wandering from place to place — over and over — mile after mile — day after day. And, one evening in the driving rain, he saw her walking alone, hunched forward and clutching shut her raincoat with ungloved older hands. He pulled alongside her in his car and rolled down the window, thinking she was on her way to the nearby supermarket and would appreciate a ride.
She halted and turned immediately to face him.
“Get the hell away from me!” she exploded. She continued to curse at him loudly and repeatedly.
Her sudden and immediate anger was overwhelming. He was shocked. But, more than that, it hurt deeply — like being stabbed repeatedly in the chest.
Speechless, he drove away. Within minutes the hurt turned to anger. And then the anger turned to bitterness.
He thought to himself, “There is something very wrong with that woman.” But it was an unkind thought, not compassion.
She was severely mentally ill, and likely schizophrenic.
“Why is she being allowed to walk around on the streets?”
Afterward, every time he would see her, he judged her — with feelings of deep and unforgiving judgment. Feelings that he decided to let loose and run wild. Feelings that he did not try to fight at all.
That went on for well over a month.
“She ought to be locked up away from the rest of us,” he eventually began telling himself.
Shortly thereafter, he got the call that would make him remember everything he had decided to forget.
“Something’s very wrong. You need to go see her.”
It was his oldest daughter’s mother — his ex-wife. They rarely spoke. And she sounded extremely worried.
Their daughter had always been a bit of a vagabond. Staying employed at different jobs and constantly on the move — to St. Louis to Denver to Kansas City, etc.
The father would invite the daughter to dinner when she was in town. Both enjoyed Asian cuisine. And afterward, they’d have their long goodbyes. Dinner didn’t happen too often, but they texted each other quite frequently.
“Where is she?” he asked.
“She’s living in an abandoned house near Billings.”
“Abandoned? In Billings?”
Surprised to hear she was back in the area, he texted her to ask how she was doing. She said she was fine. Unworried, he called her. They talked for a few minutes and made dinner plans.
She sounded normal.
Why was his ex-wife acting like there was some sort of grave emergency?
“Go see her,” his ex pleaded. “She’ll listen to you.”
By now, it was well-past dark.
Unconvinced, he got in his car and drove.
At some point during the forty-minute drive, alone with his thoughts, his mind opened up to the possibility that something might be wrong.
But surely it couldn’t be that bad.
Remembering John 7:24 and Proverbs 31:8-9
His daughter was beautiful.
The young woman he found lying motionless on a urine-soaked bed that lay beside a yellowed, feces-filled plastic commode was not. But it was her — stained and emaciated, clawed hands twisted at the wrists, cavernous cheeks deeply pitted with acne, eyes staring blankly from the bottom of an expressionless canyon of stone — a victim of some forgotten and ongoing holocaust.
Her neck unable to turn, the two blank eyes swiveled around and met with his. For a moment, and out of a habit that began the day she was born, he smiled at her.
Nothing smiled back.
He would later learn that no doctor could tell him when the daughter he’d known had died, only that she lived and did.
And after the police were called, after the hospital visits, the confinement in a behavioral unit, her six months back home with his new family, the failed double-edged sword of “staying medicated”, the cajoling and the arguing, her leaving and disappearing, and the subsequent two years of separation and homelessness, he realized, at some point, that everything that had once been was no more, and that all the bright promise of the young and of adulthood was not hers to be.
Later, the private investigator he hired to find her reported that she was living hours away in an unlocked basement. She was also sometimes sleeping beneath an overpass. She was begging for money at busy intersections. And she was walking the same circuit — over and over — mile after mile — day after day.
His thoughts returned to the harsh judgement he’d shown the old woman who had yelled at him.
Then he remembered.
And he wept.
When shadows are better than darkness
Studies indicate that at least one-third of the homeless suffer from severe mental illness. Many are trapped by the same disease that afflicts his daughter:
Schizophrenia — a disorder “that affects a person’s ability to think, feel, and behave clearly”.
Schizophrenics often experience delusions. For example, they may believe the expanding sun will soon destroy all life on Earth, and — because they care — they will try to warn those they care about. Or they experience hallucinations like hearing voices or seeing people who aren’t really there, and, as a result, often appear to be talking to themselves.
Estimates vary, but only about 10% of schizophrenics will engage in violent behavior during their lifetime. Like most of us, the other 90% never do.
There is no cure for schizophrenia, only imperfect treatment in the form of medication — medication that only “works” if you can get them to take it. And, due to anosognosia, an accompanying disorder that leaves most schizophrenics completely unable to recognize the illness they suffer from, many will not take it unless forced to do so.
But can you blame them? If you knew for certain that you didn’t have cancer, would you agree to undergo chemotherapy when someone — even a loved one — told you that you needed to take it? Of course not. And that is exactly how they see it.
As a result, many never receive ongoing treatment. And, unable to function at a job, or to live at peace with friends or family, they turn to homelessness. Why don’t they apply for financial assistance? Because for many of the severely mentally ill, qualifying for most social services requires you to admit to having a disease that you know you do not have, and to agree to receive treatment that you know you do not need. And given a choice between being enslaved to “a lie” or being free, like all of us, they choose freedom — even when it means being homeless, endangered, and alone.
After she’d been found, her father faced a difficult dilemma that he had been struggling with ever since she’d disappeared:
To invite her to live on her own at his second house here in Willard, to help her keep hydrated and fed, to keep her body moving, and to allow her the freedom to live as she pleased. Or to use the courts to force her into an institution and back on the medication — medication that has the advantage of making her somewhat more clear-minded, but the disadvantages of irritating side effects and of making her increasingly miserable over having lost the power to make decisions over her own life — leaving her with only hopelessness, an overwhelming urge to escape it, and the potential of fleeing back to the streets.
So would it be better to be:
Medicated, miserable, and somewhere?
Unmedicated, homeless, and nowhere?
Or unmedicated, happy, and here?
A kind of “happy” that might not seem happy to you and me.
Sometimes, there are no good choices — only unknowns, hopeful guesses, and sad trade-offs.
His thoughts travelled back to those “boomy” movie theaters, to dangerous firemen, and to precious bedtimes.
And he decided —
Even though it wouldn’t be easy.
Out of a thousand little towns
The hard decision made, he talked to the managers at Apple Market and to the staff at Dollar General: “Could she make purchases with gift cards?” — “You might have to help her sometimes.” — “Would it be too much trouble?” — He’d understand if it would be.
He learned their names.
All were happy to help.
Finally, just in case there would ever be an emergency, he approached the town police chief to explain her condition and to let him know she would be living in Willard, at least for the time being.
Chief Tom McClain, as it turned out, had himself watched one of his best friends be stricken with schizophrenia. Sadly, his friend had eventually been hit and killed while out walking alone at night while wearing dark clothes.
Always those dark clothes.
And now that she’s been here awhile, he’s thankful for the managers at Apple Market, for the staff at Dollar General, and for the police chief and his dearly departed friend.
He knows the arrangement may not last.
He knows there are no guarantees.
But if you see the girl who talks to the shadows, and if she smiles —
Maybe smile back.
And try and learn from his mistakes.
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