On our ill-conceived normality: An ode to ‘the mad ones’​

We have an uncle who has been declared by society and the state to be mad. Uncle Philip. He heard many voices in his head.

He would pace up and down the long, dark, wooden-floor passage of the old Red Hill house at night. Each heavy, creaking and squeaking step was in metronomic synchronicity with his thoughts, which he muttered out loud. “I want to go to Cape Town,” he used to chant like a mantra. He would scratch his head and laugh uncontrollably. “I want to go to Cape Town!” he would shout.

When his sister would call out at night, chiding him for waking her up, he would retort loudly: “Then Celia, what do you expect me to do? To walk on my back?”

He would eat — as his sister complained — like a horse. A large pack of teabags wasn’t safe from his voracious thirst and a loaf of bread was like cake to Gulliver. Celia would complain, and then laugh and go out and buy more.

He was a source of pity and derision for those he encountered. He was defended passionately only by his brothers and sisters, who understood him, who watched him go from bright young student to a man whose head was invaded by the noise of voices, whose sensibilities were out of step with what society considered normal behaviour. They watched as he went from older brother to someone who was laughed at — because his behaviour was so absurd, people said.

He stopped being listened to and, with each utterance, his credibility was eroded and gave way to knowing nods from observers who could barely disguise their whispers. Soon, even the kids in the family knew that, when Uncle Philip was coming, the mad one was coming.

He was confined to the Townhill psychiatric hospital in Pietermaritzburg, also known as Red Roof for obvious reasons. He was watched over by nursing staff with their plastic cups and white starches that brooked no nonsense. He often complained to us that he was fine, but that the nurses wanted to draw curtains over his mind and fog up his brain.

He used to pull Celia aside and in conspiratorial tones spill the beans on the staff who, he believed, were trying to keep him confused. As a nurse herself, she would diligently check his medication and make the right inquiries about his healthcare, until she had satisfied herself that they were treating him justly.

When we visited, it was as if it was Christmas. Celia would pack in all his favourite things — chicken, sweets and, importantly, a carton of Peter Stuyvesant Red cigarettes. We would be allowed to take him out to the local botanical gardens and, while we sat on a picnic blanket, he would make us belly laugh with his jokes and witticisms.

He loved playing the guitar. One year, while he was visiting family, no one could find a real guitar save for a pink-and-yellow plastic one that one of the kids got for Christmas. And there is this enduring picture of this giant man, huddled over this tiny, cheap instrument, strumming plastic strings in a distinctly off-key symphony, and beaming.

But at the end of our visits, there was once again a wistful, soft plea: “I want to go to Cape Town.” In the moments when the clouds parted and his thoughts seemed less foggy, I noticed a sheepishness in his demeanour. It was almost a realisation — lucid and loud — that he knew what people thought of him, and a sadness would creep over his eyes.

When I was dating the man who would become my husband, I sensed a desire in Uncle Philip for the “normal” relationship between boys and girls: a desire to take road trips and share milkshakes, to fight and make up and, importantly, to plan a life together. I would catch him watching us in our hand-holding, eye-locking, hair-stroking reverie — something I knew he understood he could never have. And so, out of kindness, we would refrain from displays of tenderness in his company.

We asked his sister about Cape Town, finding out later in incremental storytelling episodes that his yearning may have been because of a girl he’d fallen in love with there. A girl who represented a photograph in time, when he had what would now forever elude him — romantic love, maybe children, and watching television in that couple-content security bubble.

I was thinking about this again as the details of the horror story of the 36 mentally ill patients who died in Gauteng recently started to unfold, their death warrants apparently signed by spectacular bureaucratic failure. I thought about the frequently misunderstood hordes of people who fall through the cracks of our ill-conceived normality — those whose voices aren’t even heard properly, let alone understood.

I wondered about the panic they must have felt in speaking a language no one cared to understand. I thought about some of them slowly dying of more than a physical hunger — but of starvation from a lack of compassion and understanding. I saw Philip in each of them.

Their stories should make us care more. Their affliction is something we are not too distant from ourselves. What is normal and what is ill in the mind’s realm? Are we all really sane and normal?

In the words of Edgar Allan Poe: “Men have called me mad, but the question is not settled whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence … They who dream by day are cognisant of many things which escape those who only dream by night. In their gray visions they obtain glimpses of eternity, and thrill, in waking, to find that they have been upon the verge of the great secret. In snatches, they learn something of the wisdom which is of good, and more of the mere knowledge which is of evil. They penetrate, however rudderless or compassless, into the vast ocean of the ‘light ineffable’.”

Iman Rappetti is the host of PowerTalk on PowerFM

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