Grandma Felesia: When the Mind Hurts

Is it a brain illness, a person disorder or consciousness misunderstood? This morning I heard a doctor say that if you call it brain illness people will not stigmatize mental illness as much.

I thought she had a point. But I started to think about my observation of mental illness up-close and personal, growing up with sibling grand-aunts (we call them all grandmother) who suffered from schizophrenia – how they passed it on to their children and their children’s children. Genius minds. For their descendants closer to us in age they were A-students in school before the illness kicked in. Like Lena, our cousin once removed, I went to see her at the hospital after she had aced her national exam and soon after succumbed to her first attack of schizophrenia.

She looked at me with eyes that belonged to another world and continued to talk to people I couldn’t see. I sat there by the bedside at Voi Hospital, saying nothing. Mental illness is a topic that has fascinated me for a while Once, when I was asked to speak at a church Speakers Series, I chose to give a talk on mental “illness” from a spiritual and cultural perspective. Halfway through a talk that had taken me many waking hours researching and preparing for, I decided I had no idea what I was talking about. I veered off my notes and talked about grandma Felisia. She was Lena’s maternal aunt.

Grandma Felesia would come home from days spent in the wilderness and as usual we’d fix her karai for bathing. We’d give her soap and a towel and she’s return to the warmth of the kitchen with the hearth all freshened up. Soon as she was done having dinner, grandma would get up without a word to anyone and disappear again into the comfort of the open night for days. She used to announce her arrival by calling out a class roster as she came up the hill and she would respond “Present Mwalimu!” to each student’s name she called out. In her better years, she had been a teacher in colonial Kenya.

Once, she had the presence of mind to narrate how she’d gone from one traditional mrighiti (healer) to another seeking relief for the disturbance in her mind. Her treatment had included herbs and the shaking of shekele with their contents scattered on the ground for divination. No relief, nothing changed.

She surrendered the struggle for normalcy and learnt to live with the invisible chaos and formless clutter that took over her mind well into her 70s. When I was told she had died, I was in the US, far far away, and I wept out the darkness she had endured. I had prepared many basins of warm water for her, and she would call me by name. I don’t know why that surprised me. Even in her sickness of mind, she had known who I was.

Was it really all a brain malfunction? Even with better research and drugs, why is modern medicine still so clueless about afflictions of the mind? Could the frontiers of Consciousness studies hold the key?

I found this interesting paper published in the US National Library of Medicine rejecting the “brain disorder” label and saying it’s a “person disorder”. But what is a person without a brain? I don’t know. I just will never understand the stigma that comes with mental illness. Why? What is it about the brain getting sick that triggers such discomfort and taboo?

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