Monday, February 28, 2011

The Super Terrifying Grandma Vanelli

When we were kids growing up in our clean, safe neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago, the one thing that could always make us scatter in fright was the sudden appearance of Grandma Vanelli.

The Vanellis lived at the far end of the block. Sometimes Grandma Vanelli wandered out. Grandma Vanelli was a terrifying sight, wearing her babushka scarf, coarse knit sweater and faded flowery house dress. She looked like she was 300 years old, but when you’re 10 everybody over 60 looks like they’re 300 years old.

Grandma Vanelli never said a word. She walked around with her index fingers in her ears, like she was trying to muffle an excruciating din. That’s what made her so scary. She walked as slow as the mummies in those mummy movies. But if she came too close we dropped everything and fled because if Grandma Vanelli ever caught up to us she might do something horrible. She might…………well………I don’t know…………………………like maybe she might……………stand there next to us with her index fingers in her ears…………or something horrible like that!

Since then a ton of different people have come into my life for the purpose of wiping my butt. Recently, just for the hell of it, I started making a list in my head of the number of people I have employed over the last 30 years or so to lift me out of bed and onto to crapper and so on. I gave up counting at 34. A guy came up to me at an anti-war protest once and swore he used to work for me. I don’t remember. (And the wages of all my workers have been paid by our tax dollars. So chew on that, you selfish tea baggers!)

Of all these assistants, Chris has been with me by far the longest at 11 years and counting. We’ve traveled all over the country, to Canada and Germany.

A few years back, one of his younger cousins in New York was diagnosed with a tumor on her spine. “The doctors were afraid if they removed it she could end up permanently physically disabled from the neck down,” he says. The family rallied around her. If she needed anything, anything at all, they said they would be there for her. “She got flowers, candies,” Chris says.

Chris called her and wished her well too. But he couldn’t help wondering why no one ever sent him flowers and candy. About 15 years earlier, Chris went to see a doctor at a mental health clinic. “I went because I became rapidly depressed. I remember crying spells. I would get disgusted with myself because I would just cry. Horrible nightmares.” He was given a diagnosis of atypical psychosis and clinical depression. “I was very glad that I got told there was something wrong because I knew it was not ordinary.” But there were never any I'm-there-for-you calls from family. No one sent flowers. Everyone just tried to ignore it.

Chris isn’t surprised by the attitude. “When you’re mentally ill, people think you should just suffer in a room of needles and pins. You deserve it.”

His diagnosis has fluctuated from schizophrenia to post-traumatic stress disorder and various hybrids. The point is, through trial and error he’s found the right mix of meds and regimens to keep him moving forward and enjoying life. As an assistant, sometimes he gets deeply distracted and sidetracked. Sometimes he gets confused and has to be reminded how to do things he’s done several times before. But he’s easygoing and dead-on reliable. More than once he’s bailed my ass out when another assistant didn’t show up and left me stranded in bed.

I offered to give Chris a Smart Ass Cripple Alias for this story so as not to out him. I even offered to give him a noble alias, such as Nobel Prize Physics Laureate Zhores I. Alferov. But Chris insisted I use his real name. “I have no shame in being mentally ill.”

He sure as hell is right about our attitude when it comes to mental illness. We often act like a bunch of 10 year olds running away from Grandma Vanelli. Test it out. Try calling a florist and saying, “I need a nice pick-me-up bouquet for a friend who’s been diagnosed with a spinal tumor.” They’ll get on it right away. But then call and say, “I need a nice pick-me-up bouquet for a friend who’s been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.” They’ll think it’s a prank call. Or go to your local cozy little Hallmark store and say “I’m looking for a card for a friend who’s been in bed all week with the flu.” They’ll have rows and rows of cards expressing the perfect sentiment I’m sure. But then say “Now I’m looking for a card for a friend who’s been in bed all week with post-traumatic stress disorder.” They’ll probably call security.

There’s a word for this attitude. Actually, there are two words for it. It’s fucked up.