A family’s unspoken curse

Family reunions are as rare as chicken teeth, as my aunties would say. But every time we connect, I look at my cousins and wonder who among us will be next. They used to joke when we were younger that I look just like Uncle Paul, and walked like him too. I used to play along and retort with a joke that I would end up just as “crazy” as he was.

These days, I cringe at my dismissive attitude and attempts to cover up what I thought was the family’s shame. Instead, I ponder on whether they’d treat me the same way if I inherit his illness.

My father had nine siblings, all acutely aware that they could inherit our family’s unspoken curse, which had recurred for three generations.

Uncle Paul was my father’s youngest brother, and arguably the most loved in the family. In his earlier years, he was an excellent soccer player and athlete who was adored by the Schornville community in King William’s Town, where our family is based.

In my preteen years he was my coolest uncle. I begged my parents to let me have lunch at their house after church every Sunday; his wife cooked the most delicious meals and his eldest son was my coolest cousin, like a big brother.

Whereas the rest of the uncles were strict and watched the children like hawks, Uncle Paul created the freedom for us to play and be naughty. My first taste of Black Label beer came from the few drops he leaked into his son’s glass after lunch.

Uncle Paul died on a jail cell floor on Easter Friday in 2011. The prison guards said he started getting ill the night before, coughing up a mysterious black substance before passing out. His death threatened to tear apart the family bonds, but how he ended up in that crowded cell in Crouch prison in King William’s Town was the real blight on the family’s name.

Diagnosed with schizophrenia nearly a decade earlier, Uncle Paul had been treated by his sister, Aunty Sophia — the youngest of all the siblings and a trained and practising nurse. She was one of the few people from whom he would feel comfortable receiving medication and injections. For a long time, his schizophrenia was under control.

Aunty Sophia died unexpectedly — about two years before Uncle Paul — triggering a crisis about how to manage his weekly treatment regimen. What followed was conflict with people in our community, periodic bouts with psychosis and a breakdown in communication with some of his siblings.

At first, Uncle Paul was sent to the psychiatric ward at the Cecilia Makiwane Hospital just outside Mdantsane. He would periodically return from treatment and reintegrate into the community, until he stopped taking his medication. During the day, he’d roam between the two coloured communities, Schornville and Breidbach, visiting friends and family, most of whom were happy to see him.

I was unemployed at the time, and he’d find me at home mid-mornings. Over a cup of tea and some breakfast, he would vent about the treatment he’d received because of the disease.

My family’s history with schizophrenia is not a well-kept secret. Most of my closest friends know about it and joked that I would see things that weren’t there (I did have an imaginary friend named Bruce). Despite this, my cousins and I are accepted as we are.

Uncle Paul found acceptance in the homes of the people he grew up with in Schornville — arguably more there than in the homes of his family members, who were desperate for him to resume regular medication.

One day, Uncle Paul broke the windows of the house where an old aunty lived, who had taken care of him and his siblings after the death of their father. He threw stones at the house. No one really knows why, and because schizophrenia was an easily accepted explanation, the phrase “he got sick again” was carelessly thrown around.

This time, instead of Cecilia Makiwane Hospital, he was imprisoned in Crouch, where he was forcefully medicated until he got better. Little did the family know, a broken window would send him to his untimely death.

About a month before Uncle Paul died, I visited him at Crouch with his two daughters, my first cousins. The older one was one of my closest childhood friends. His daughters brought him tobacco, fruit and some food. When I saw him, I couldn’t tell whether he had been taking his medication. After a short conversation, he burst out in anger, demanding my father intervene to get him out of the cell. His suffering was undeniable.

I left the prison conflicted; feeling happy that I had visited my uncle, but feeling guilty that my family was the cause of his incarceration. When I arrived home, I said it was good to see him. I didn’t say anything about his demand that my father get him out of there.

My ignorant attitude towards schizophrenia contributed to my assumption that the elders of our family knew what was best.

The circumstances of Uncle Paul’s death are hardly ever discussed. Instead, theories float in hushed tones around dinner tables and the braai. My own theory was informed by a late-night conversation with a man who briefly shared his cell in the weeks before he died.

The details of his daily conflict with the hierarchy in the cell were upsetting, and only worsened the guilt I had for not confronting the family elders about his incarceration. But I also benefited from the convenience of his displacement from our daily lives. The family’s disease, the illness he carried, was kept out of the Schornville community’s judging eyes.

Admittedly, his death was only the beginning of my reflection on the attitude I had towards schizophrenia and its prevalence in our family.

Easter holidays have never been the same again and, despite attempts to make peace among the family, this hurtful period still breeds resentment and pain instead of unity.

A few years after Uncle Paul’s death, my father took me to visit the patients in Cecilia Makiwane Hospital’s psychiatric ward. The first patient I saw was a young man the same age as I was. He came from the same community, knew the same people. We even shared a few friends.

My first thoughts were: “This could have been me” and “This environment would have only made Uncle Paul feel worse.”

My father’s voice quivered when he spoke to the patients, the pain of losing his brother flashing across his face. The drive home was awkward — a mix of pain and some closure permeated our conversation.

Months later, I returned to Johannesburg and fell back into the fast-paced routine of work life and entertainment.

On a hazy night in a smoked-filled club in Newtown, with my Eastern Cape friends in the throes of celebrating our youthfulness, one turned to me and quipped: “You’re losing it, you’re hearing things. We’ll need to admit you to St Marks.”

He was referring to the psychiatric hospital in East London. I laughed off his remarks, but never forgot them.

Instead, I wondered whether I could also be condemned to Crouch prison and a psychiatric ward, all because I took aim at a neighbour’s window. And, once admitted, whether my wellbeing would be relegated to the back of my loved ones’ minds, whether my rehabilitation would play second fiddle to the need to protect our family’s shame.

Whether I am next.

More recently, I reflect on the different realities we experience as journalists, and my ability to navigate between them with seamless adaptation. I wonder whether I’ve not had schizophrenia all along, saved from slipping into psychosis by journalism’s requirement of changing personalities.

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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