Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Forgotten Ones

Soon after moving in to my house, my neighbor's brother came over. He wanted to let me know about his brother, who I will call John. John was riding on the back of a friend's motorcycle across a railroad trestle over a river when he was a teenager, and the train came. His friend drove the bike off the bridge, and landed in the river. John landed on the buttress of the bridge, breaking almost every bone in his body. He suffered a severe head injury, and his life was forever changed. His brother told me John acted "different" but was not harmful so I didn't need to be afraid of him.

It has been six years now that I have had a neighborly relationship with John. He stops by and asks if I have coffee, or three dollars for cigarettes, or to borrow a ladder. Sometimes he completely ignores me when I say hi to him from my side of the fence. Other times he will talk my ear off, going over and over the same questions, same answers. I have found him to be highly intelligent about many things.

John is also a gifted musician, and will sometimes set up his electric guitar and amp, or his drum kit, in the backyard and give a concert to an imaginary audience. Many nights I have heard him jamming away in his basement, playing along with CDs of bands from the 80's.  He has told me more than once that he wishes he could play music with other people. I wish he could, too.

John has no friends. His family never visits him, with the exception of his brother from up north who might stop by a few times a year, but never stays. His sister lives right around the corner, and I have never seen her there. Her husband had helped John get lumber twice. Other than that, he is alone eight hours a day, seven days a week, save the company of his two stray cats. Kitty and Cat, both white, showed up as two little kittens one summer day. He tells me how lonely he is.

John has dreams. He wants to travel around the country camping, seeing all the beautiful spots. His illness won't let him. It is hard to hear the longing in his voice.

I take John food sometimes, or buy him a big red jar of Maxwell House coffee. In the summer, I might take him fresh produce from the market. I give him honey from my hives, grapes from my vines, and apples from my trees. I watch out for him. And I keep my distance.

Sometimes John gets mad. Especially when he cleans his shed. He yells and hollers and swears, shouting the F word over and over. He throws things. He talks to imaginary people. I watch.

One day a couple months ago, John came over to borrow money for cigarettes. He seemed in a good mood. I loaned him the money, which he always pays back when he gets his disability check, and off he went to the One Stop, a local convenience store. But not long after he left I heard yelling. I peered out my front window to find John standing on the sidewalk in front of my house, cursing and making threatening gestures at the neighbors across the street (who were not there). He had a knife, which he was drawing across his throat as if threatening someone with death. He shouted and stabbed at things around him. There was no one there. No one.

I called the police because I was concerned about John. I had never seen this behavior before.

A neighbor told me that John is dangerous. John held his sister hostage in her own house for hours, screaming at her and threatening her with his fists. That is why they never visit, he never goes there. I became nervous.

Yesterday, I walked in the backyard and found John sitting in the hot sun, talking to himself. I said hi and asked how he was doing. He said not so good, then started ranting about things I didn't understand. He used the F word after every other non-F word. No kidding. The more he talked the angrier he became. Something about the world and computers, and people asking if he took his meds and what business of it was theirs. He was waving a piece of paper around, which may or may not have been the source of his agitation. He looked at me and asked, "What schizophrenic medicines do you take?"

"What?" I said.

"What schizophrenic medicines do you take?" he repeated, more agitated.

"I don't take any", I answered.

"You don't take any?"


"I DON'T WANT TO TALK TO YOU GET THE F%^ OUT OF HERE," he yelled. And he shouted and he shouted. He told me to leave and called me several very derogatory names. He yelled, "F&$@ OFF, GO BACK TO YOUR COMPUTER YOU F*(#& (#&%(#*!".  I could go on, but you get the point. I slowly walked back into my house, looking over my shoulder.

I felt afraid. I could hear him still cursing me for the next half hour as he sat in his yard or worked on his boat. I felt uneasy. He had never verbally attacked me before. I was his only friend, but that did not make me immune to his illness.

I didn't sleep well last night, I listened for sounds.

I know John is ill, but those abusive words still stung. I am even more sad, because this poor man, through no fault of his own, must live out his life literally alone. No one helps him. Society just ignores his existence, we give him some money every month but we don't give him help. No one checks on him, or visits him, or gives him counseling. Maybe someone did once upon a time, but perhaps his illness forced them away. There is no doubt that the extreme social isolation he experiences would drive anyone mad.

I feel afraid of John now. I don't know what he is capable of, or incapable of. It goes against my very nature to stop trying to be a good neighbor to him. But perhaps being a good neighbor means not giving him the opportunity to do something that could take away his freedom, for that seems to be all the poor man has.


  1. Barb, thanks for another tender and truthful story. Your neighbor reminds me of my uncle, who has lived most of his life in institutions. He was diagnosed schizophrenic upon incarceration as a teenager, following an under-the-influence violent episode. He now is in his late 50s. I had been visiting him with my mother for a couple of years during his stay at a psychiatric hospital. But in recent months he's asked only to communicate by letter. Sending you and the neighbor light and love today.

  2. Thank you for sharing, Barb. I have an uncle who lives in isolation--undiagnosed officially with anything (certainly autistic, with co-morbid conditions of who knows what--depression, bi-polar, maybe schizophrenia). There's a strange grief that accompanies a witnessed shift like what you describe in a person who has been doing well...and then suddenly isn't...especially to witness that for the first time. Sending thoughts your way and his--there might not be much that you can do, but even keeping an eye out for him from a distance and contacting authorities who could help in an emergency situation is something.