My mom has schizophrenia.
But sometimes I’ve been jealous of other daughters whose moms have cancer.
Yes, I said it.
Cancer gets acceptance. Schizophrenia gets questions and judgement.
Cancer gets meal trains. Schizophrenia gets isolation and lost friends.
Cancer gets balloons and rooms decorated in the hospital and flowers and visits. Schizophrenia gets locked doors in state hospitals and cell phones turned in at the nurses station. No selfies with mom allowed here.
Cancer has clear expectations. It will be terminal or treatable. Schizophrenia might mean functional periods or homelessness. The future is wildly uncertain, daily. It might last a few years, or decades.
“There is this sad thing that happens when it’s a 'mental' illness. We suddenly draw weird lines about who gets our compassion and who gets our judgement.”
When cancer looks like cancer – hairlessness or swelling, sunken eyes or weakness ― we understand. When schizophrenia looks like schizophrenia ― mumbling to unseen people on the street or urine-soaked and manic ― we turn away.
Time taken off to care for a relative with cancer is difficult but understood. Time taken off to care for a relative with schizophrenia is met with skepticism, judgement and suspicion.
If an ambulance is called to take a very sick cancer patient into the hospital, it’s scary and traumatic, but is handled gently and professionally. If an ambulance is called to take away someone with schizophrenia, sometimes it doesn’t come. Instead, a patrol car arrives. There is no stretcher, but often handcuffs. Sometimes the cops make small talk and laugh on the sidelines. You might overhear “she’s a regular,” from one of them. Sometimes no car comes at all.
Cancer patients get a team of doctors who work closely with the family members to make a support system. A person hospitalized for schizophrenia sometimes has trouble even using a phone to get connected to their relatives. Sometimes relatives cannot even get ahold of them without a “code.” Doctors, nurses and social workers who actually return phone calls are a rarity.
When a person has cancer and is suffering greatly, nobody asks the family why they are allowing their loved one to suffer this way. Nobody questions that everyone loves and cares for their relatives with all their hearts. When a person who has schizophrenia is suffering greatly, the caregiver is often questioned. “Why is she living this way? Who is cleaning the house? Why is she in the street again? Where is her family?”
Cancer can lead to long years of enduring pain, suffering and death.
Schizophrenia can, too.
I’m going to tell you honestly, writing this makes me very uncomfortable. I do not like comparing suffering, because suffering is relative. One person’s hangnail is another person’s broken leg. My mom’s schizophrenia is not more or less than your mom with cancer.
I get it. If my mom had cancer, it would be heartbreaking and awful. I know this because I can have empathy for people with cancer and I can relate to the grief and heartache their loved ones are enduring, also. I can have empathy for all suffering people, with any type of disease.
But there is this sad thing that happens when it’s a “mental” illness. We suddenly draw weird lines about who gets our compassion and who gets our judgement. I would not have batted an eye to say “my mom has cancer,” when I was growing up.
“She is not defined by her disease. She is a human being. I love her, just like you love your mom.”
But I rarely told people so boldly “my mom has schizophrenia.” Even as a child, I knew it was a disease unlike others. If I had a hospital story about “the time my mom had a heart attack,” or the “time my mom was going through chemo,” or the “time she got in a bad car accident,” I would not be afraid or ashamed to describe the experiences. But my hospital stories about “the time she drank bleach,” or “the time she was shackled after being naked in the streets,” are reserved for the closest of friends.
Here are the things my mom with schizophrenia has in common with your mom with cancer:
She loves me.
She wants respect.
She needs dignity.
Compassion and empathy are important to her.
She’s suffering sometimes, but not always.
Her illness can be frightening and overwhelming to her.
Her illness can be frightening and overwhelming to her family, too.
She did not choose her disease.
She is not defined by her disease.
She is a human being.
I love her, just like you love your mom.
I love your mom, too.
This blog post originally appeared on You Are In This World.