Talking Eases His Life in Hell

by longformphilly


Steve Lopez | The Philadelphia Inquirer | November 1990

They call and want to talk. They don’t expect answers, or suggestions, or even compassion. They just want to talk, and that was the case with the man who couldn’t tell his whole story over the telephone.

He wanted to meet. Possibly because his face tells half the story.

“You see,” he said, his eyes drawing you into his void, “my children and I love my wife. “

His hair is the color of ashes, his face drawn in surrender. He worked most of his life so his family could have food on the table and a few modern comforts. That’s all.

His wife’s illness was gradual at first, so much so that he and the kids found ways to dismiss it. But then it got to where the person at the supermarket was talking about her. The meter reader was a spy. She said unbelievably cruel things to their young kids, reducing them to tears. She yelled and screamed and cursed, because the whole world was out to get her, and she insisted her own family was in on the conspiracy. And through 10 years of ghosts and demons, she has turned their Philadelphia home into a living hell.


What makes it more horrifying is this: Some days, without rhyme or reason, she’s the old Mom. Everything is fine and life is wonderful. And she has no idea, not a clue, that just yesterday, maybe just a few hours ago, she was a witch.

“When she’s in a good mood, she’s a beautiful person. When she’s in bad moods, she becomes an awful person. A person you could hate very easily. We have friends who don’t want to be involved anymore. . . . Until you live it, it’s hard to explain. “

They’ve been to doctors, therapists, social workers. “She’s paranoid, she’s schizophrenic, she’s everything,” her husband says. “Anytime she starts taking medication, three or four days later she begins to feel better. And then she says the doctor’s trying to poison her and she won’t take the medicine.

“We had one woman (therapist) we were going to and she was helping the kids because it was someone for them to talk to. The children need someone other than me to pour their hearts out to. But they realize now, even the youngest, that there’s nothing anybody can do unless my wife wants to do it herself. “


Sometimes the pressure on him is too much, the loneliness too great.

“I had stomach problems, and last year had a complete breakdown. My wife thinks I’m faking. The kids have their good days and bad. When she has her good moods, they try to enjoy that as much as they can. She’ll take them out and be extremely extravagant, buy them things. Other days she’ll be extremely mean to them, call our girl a whore, use language . . . a drunken sailor wouldn’t use.

“We do love her, but we’ve come to an agreement, me and the kids, that when the youngest one is of an age to take care of himself, maybe we’ll all disappear. A lot of times when they see me all worked up, they’ll say, ‘Come on, Daddy. Calm down. You’ve gotta stay in good health to be here for us. . .’ The kids are wise beyond their age because of what they’ve gone through. . .

“It closes in on us to the point where we break apart. We all just creep into a corner and hide, because if she sees us trying to get together and enjoy ourselves, she thinks we’re up to something. It creates problems for the kids in school. . . . They might go to school crying because she calls them names. “


The man thinks mental institutions were de-emphasized with good intentions in mind, but now it’s virtually impossible to get a commitment for someone who needs help, unless they harm someone. And the community programs that were promised when institutions closed haven’t materialized. In his desperation, this man has attended meetings where relatives of the mentally ill share information and war stories.

“When I told my story, one woman says, ‘The one thing you can do is get a small knife, stab yourself in the shoulder, right here in one of the meaty parts, call the police, and tell them she did it and maybe you’ll get six to eight months of relief. Maybe. “

“The tragedy,” says one of the man’s counselors, “is that this is not an unusual case. It seems everyone’s hands are tied until someone commits a crime. These cases are legion. “

On his wife’s good days, the man holds back a little, reminding himself it won’t last. On her bad days, he has thought about killing himself, but he can’t do that to the kids.

Mostly he just tries to hang on while pondering the mysteries of the mind and the randomness of human misery. There’s no escaping the loneliness. But sometimes it helps, if only a little, to talk to someone.

Writer bio: Steve Lopez was a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1986 to 1997. Lopez, generally considered one of the best writers in city newspaper history, joined the Los Angeles Times as a columnist in 2001. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2011.