When I was 15 years old, my mother picked me up at school to take me to a dental appointment. In the car, I could tell immediately that she wasn't functioning normally—she was headed for another "episode." She drove nervously, struggling to recognize her surroundings. She was silent except when I forced conversation, and when she did speak, her speech was slow and seemed to require deliberation.
It was as if half of her had already shrunk into some unknown place, and the other half was not sure whether to follow or to maintain her grip on the reality of her daughter and a trip to the dentist.
I asked Mom if she had taken her medication that day. Her answer was not straightforward, but it was clear that she was not fully medicated and stable. So with one part of my brain, I prayed for a safe trip to the dentist. With another part, I employed a technique used by many people who feel powerless in the face of an unnamed enemy: I acted as if nothing was wrong.
At the dentist's office, when my name was called, I left my mother in the waiting room and went back for my appointment. After half an hour or so with the dentist, I returned to my mom, who didn't look at me.
"Mom, it's time to go," I said. "I'm finished." I received no response of any kind. Suddenly I realized my instincts had been right: something indeed was wrong with Mom … again. And it was up to me to help her.
I touched her arm and gently tried to shake her back to awareness, with no results. She was rigidly catatonic, immovable, staring into space and clutching her purse in her lap with clenched hands—in a waiting room full of strangers.
After a couple of quiet attempts to rouse her, I began to attract attention. People stared at me as I tried to get her to respond. When she wouldn't move, I realized I needed to call my dad at work for help.
As everyone in the room continued to stare, I walked to the reception desk and asked the woman behind the counter—who was also staring—if I could use the phone.
"No, there's a pay phone around the corner," she said. When I explained that I needed to call my dad for help, I didn't have change for the phone, and it would be a local call, she still refused. So I went back to my mom and wrestled with her rigid arms, pulling them aside enough to get into her purse to find a quarter for the phone. I went back to the receptionist to ask if she could keep an eye on my mom while I went to use the pay phone. She shrunk back in horror: "Is she dangerous?"
After assuring the receptionist that my motionless mother was not about to attack her, I called my dad and then returned to sit next to my mom till he got there. The receptionist and the people in the waiting room took turns staring at my mom, glancing at me, and studying the floor. No one asked if I needed help.
In the years since, that incident has become for me a symbol. The way people in that waiting room responded to my family's public crisis is the way I've seen people—including those in the church—respond to serious mental illness. They didn't know what to do for my mom or anyone associated with her. So they did nothing.
Though I didn't know it at the time, my mother has schizophrenia. As often happens with schizophrenics, she had not been faithfully taking her anti-psychotic drugs and had lost touch with reality. Dad and I took her to the hospital for another of her psychiatric stays and restabilization on medication.