February 25, 2005

De Músicos, Poetas, y Locos…

(Editor’s Note: Last week’s frontpage story on mental illness and the Latino community, “Mental illness is a major problem among Latinos,” brought back memories for Heriberto Escamilla which he shares with us here.)

By Heriberto Escamilla

When I was little and we made our regular trips back to Mexico, I liked spending time with my mother’s family more than my father’s. My grandmother had children well into her 40’s so some of my aunts and uncles were only a few years older than me. I liked the companionship but to put it in today’s terminology, my mother’s family had drama. They were alive. My maternal relatives argued, they cried and they laughed and sang more often and more openly than did my father’s more formal kin. The maternal grandfather I remember was a tall man with the colorful expressiveness of a sailor. Legend has it that in his prime, he had been a shrewd merchant, always looking to buy or sell something for a few extra pesos. He was a man that was easily influenced by women and spirits of the alcoholic variety. I’ve heard that he left a small fortune on the makeshift poker tables scattered throughout the state of Nuevo Leon. My maternal grandmother on the other hand, a woman scarcely 4 feet tall, made up what she lacked in stature with unbending character and presence. Rumor has it that mi abuelita’s contorted face and body were life long reminders of an early encounter with an ornery bull. I believe it, but the grandmother that I remember was an affectionate saint who unwearyingly doted over her youngest son, born with Down’s Syndrome, until he passed away at the age of 21.

As the years passed, I collected memories of our trips back home. For the most part they were pleasant, but I began to notice that talk of going home made my mother apprehensive. Now many years later, I understand that her memories of home and childhood had a different meaning.

In 1958, a few months after we moved to Houston, the ghosts she fought hard to avoid found her anyway. They always do. My own childhood memories have not always been clear so the picture came together slowly. At first they were images of my mother frantically trying to open the car door as we sped down highway 59 toward Matamoros. I’ve struggled to understand impressions of my normally quiet mother erupting with laughter or of following tears as they rolled down her agonized cheeks. At other times, I’ve recalled her obsessed voice, trembling in a distorted mixture of rage and terror, warning us to stay as away from our “evil” father.

At first her condition was a bad case of “nervios,” but after time and home remedies proved useless, my exasperated father looked for help. Finding a Spanish-speaking doctor in Texas, at that time proved difficult and our first encounter with professional treatment in the form of electro-convulsive therapy left an indelible impression. In the early sixties that procedure was still in its infancy, administered indiscriminately and without the muscle relaxants and precautions that physicians follow today. We grew wary of doctors, my mother was terrified, but through good fortune my father found a compassionate American psychiatrist, trained abroad, who followed our family at reduced rates until he retired just a few years ago.

The intervening years have been a pattern of relative tranquility interrupted by periods of uncontrollable and unpredictable chaos. Seen through the eyes of a young boy, life was often confusing. In her “normal” state Mother was anxious, withdrawn, with little tolerance for company. During her “psychotic” episodes, she expressed profound feeling and emotion, and seemingly very much connected to the people around her. During one of those descents, my mother told us that she saw and spoke to Jesus. There are so many mysteries in life, aren’t there?

Schizophrenia, a condition characterized by symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions and bizarre behavior. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately 2.2 million American adults, or about 1.1 percent of the population age 18 and older in a given year, exhibit these symptoms. As to exact causes, we have only theories. Schizophrenia affects men and women of all races with equal frequency. The symptoms make their initial appearance earlier in men, usually in the late teens or early twenties, than in women, who are generally affected in their twenties or early thirties. For Latinos and other minority groups, the suffering is often aggravated by language problems, poor access to health care, stereotyping, and the “normal” people that quickly turn their faces, perhaps fearful the condition is somehow contagious.

During my internship at a residential treatment center for the psychotics and severely depressed, I learned that “psychotics” are trapped in a living hell. What impressed me most was that many of the people I met there were highly intuitive and had access to aspects of experience that most of us “garden variety neurotics” never see; their seemingly bizarre behavior was often a reaction to the subtle changes in the emotional states of the people around them. In psychological jargon, they have “loose boundaries”, struggling to define where they end and others begin. They reach out, unconsciously, desperately seeking connection. With care, grueling work, and a tremendous dose of compassion, people do “get better”, they come to feel the connection, but unfortunately a very high proportion live this hell in isolation, on the paved and orderly streets of American cities, including San Diego.

Years ago, when I taught an abnormal psychology class, I began my lectures with a passage from Black Elk Speaks, a book written by John G. Neihardt that attempts to capture the experiences of one of this century’s most famous Lakota holy men. In that book Black Elk recounts his near death experience, his boyhood vision, the voices and paralyzing fear that haunted him afterwards. Without informing my students as to its source, I asked them to diagnose the person telling the story. They invariably returned diagnoses of schizophrenia, psychosis or paranoia. And even these beginning students were quick with prescriptions for drugs, individual or family therapy. Only a handful mentioned compassion or attention or God forbid, love possible cures. Most of the students were surprised by the source and to learn that the symptoms disappeared when Black Elk summoned the courage to serve his people and live out his vision. I’m sure some of my students caught the implications. We are so good at labeling everything, allowing our fears to distance us from real communication, or seen from the others side, of being in communion with one another.

Today, my mother augments her doses of pills with hierbitas, and limpias, but most of all with dogged determination. Is she better, more normal? Well, I would tell you if only it were possible to define that term. I still feel an affinity for her side of the world, and at the same time, thank the Creator for my father’s sobriety. My Mother and Father have looked into each other’s faces for fifty-four years. Overcoming fears, communicating, feeling compassion take time so there is definitely more to this story. But for today, here and now, I find comfort in knowing that de musico, poeta y tambien de loco, todos traemos un poco. Palabra

Heriberto (Beto) Escamilla, originally from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon Mexico, was raised in Houston, Texas until moving to San Diego in 1984. He received his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology-San Diego Campus.

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