Leola – A Wounded Healer
by Don R. Greenwood
Leola and I knew each other from monthly support groups for families of the mentally ill.
We both had endured decades as parents of mentally ill children.
That rainy Northwest morning, we sat across from each other at a table with five stacks of paper, two scotch tape dispensers and staplers neatly placed in front of us. The last Monday of September meant volunteers gathered to assemble the bimonthly newsletter of our affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The NAMI-Clark County Office consisted of one large and one small room. Our worktable was off to the side of the large room, near the only desk in the office.
A number of our usual volunteers had been unable to make it, leaving four of us. Virginia, in her early seventies, the founder and matriarch of the organization, was busy on the phone. Dixie was in charge and rushed around the large room of our office, organizing the assembly and mailing. Most NAMI members have family members who are severely mentally ill. A number have their own mental health issues. The clock on the back wall showed 11:05, we’d been at it for two hours and I felt the hunger pangs. I didn’t enjoy this type of busy work. I am not gifted in anything requiring motor skills. Every few minutes I’d sneak a peek at my wristwatch. Leola and I did our best to fold, staple, and secure with scotch tape the ten page newsletters. The previous month, I’d suggested we not make the newsletters so hard to open, using paper stickers instead. Virginia vetoed my idea, “they were too expensive.” I shook my head remembering her words. This was frugality to the extreme.
Leola sat without speaking, smacking her lips every so often. Dark circles showed through the heavy, bluish makeup beneath her eyes, and her shoulders slumped slightly forward. This dignified woman, in her eighties, was fashionably attired as usual in a silk-like blue dress with a pattern of oriental-like white flowers. She wore a pearl necklace, small matching earrings, and a sparkling stone bracelet. I figured the dark circles came from worry over her daughter Carol. Her coiffured, thickly sprayed gray hair looked like she’d just come from the beauty salon. I smelled a perfume, not too strong, that reminded me of my grandmother Ada’s lilac scent. Leola spoke in the low, hoarse tone of a smoker.
In the background, I could hear Virginia’s version of a cigarette cough, as she spoke on the office phone, “Terri, you’re asking too much of our members. They’re not that many, you know. You’re going to burn them out.”
Terri, our president; bore the heavy burden of a very disturbed teenage son. She was herself bipolar, and during her manic states emailed members in the middle of the night, demanding more participation in her several projects for our affiliate.
Dixie, significantly shorter than five feet tall, leaned over our table to thank us for showing up. In her seventies, she moved around rapidly but quietly. Her ill family member was a forty-something daughter. In my mid-sixties, I was the “youngster” of the group. My son Chuck had been seriously ill with a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder for more than twenty-five years.
Our progress in assembling the newsletters was slower than usual, with only Leola and me folding, scotch taping, and stapling. Although early September, the Northwest rain poured down in a steady rhythm on the metal roof, making me sleepy. The sounds of the stapler, folding pages, and tear of scotch tape beat a hypnotic rhythm. My mind needed this escape from obsessing about my son’s latest psychotic break. I had spent much of the night awake and worried he would again try to take his life.
This time Chuck was so paranoid he wouldn’t leave his room in the transitional living facility. He thought if he did, he would be murdered. His room reeked with the smell of his urine, his clothes were wet, his bed linens soaked. Kevin, his roommate, told me, “Chuck’s a nice guy, but I wish he’d stop peeing all over the place!”
Gulping down my coffee, I asked, “Leola, how’s your daughter Carol?”
Looking up at me with tear-filled eyes, she quietly replied, “She’s still on the psych ward at Memorial. They don’t tell me much. She wouldn’t sign the release.”
All I could say was, “I’m so sorry.”
She was silent awhile, as she scotch taped newsletters, and then looking intently at me said, “Thank you, I know you care. How’s your son?”
“Looks like he’ll be in Elahan Place for some time, he’s quite paranoid.”
Chuck was forty, Leola’s Carol, in her fifties, with the hard to treat diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. I wondered how much longer Chuck would live. How much more could I take this no end in sight mental illness of my oldest son? My body, mind, and spirit felt worn down by the years of Chuck’s suffering and my grieving.
I moved closer to Leola, so I could better hear her. Now I did smell cigarette smoke and wondered if she drank too. My thoughts were interrupted when Dixie came over to collect the assembled newsletters. She looked hard at Leola, and asked, “Honey, you don’t look so good, may I get you another cup of coffee?”
“No thank you, I’ll be all right. It’s just the burden of Carol gets heavy some days. If only she would speak to me.”
I gently put my arm around Leola, tears in my eyes, and lump in my throat. She quietly began to whimper, her makeup beginning to run. Dixie came to her other side and patted her on the back. “That’s alright, honey. Go ahead and have a good cry.”
After a few minutes, Leola stopped crying, dried her eyes with her dainty, white handkerchief, looked up, and smiled faintly. “I feel better. Thank you both. Now let’s finish these newsletters, I’ve got to go grocery shopping.”
I am a retired Episcopal priest, who is the president of the Clark County, Washington affiliate of NAMI. My wife and I live in the Pacific NW to be close to our grandchildren.