#Schizophrenia Revealed: Accepting Uncle Leopold

Uncle Leopold

Uncle Leo was the sort of fellow who didn’t care if Dad collected rattlesnakes for spare cash and curiosity. Dad, for his part, was unfazed by Leo’s tendency to hoard rocks and weave captivating, if odd conspiracy theories.  So, in in the late 1950’s the two graduate students roomed together.

Dad usually vanished over weekends, spelunking, exploring, or just being manly. He’d leave his destination with Leo, “to help the authorities find the body,” lest he didn’t make a timely return. Near Christmas, 1961, as Dad left for a weekend trip, Uncle Leo ignored his parting jests. Engrossed in cleaning his gun, Leo absently scuffed his feet at the kitchen table.

Dad blew in Sunday to find Leo still cleaning his gun–the floor beneath him scuffed to the concrete.

Dad packed up his unresponsive roommate for the three-day trip back to Ohio. Uncle Leo never spoke, never ate, only stared.

My future grandfather and ten inches of snow met Dad at the train station. Leo shivered as Dad handed him over to Grandpa, who said little but squeezed Dad’s hand tight. Uncle Leo went straight to the Athens State Mental Hospital—birthplace of the lobotomy.

Mental asylum

They treated his schizophrenia with two seasons of the “miracle drug” Thorazine before Uncle Leo bolted. He preferred flying saucers and CIA persecution to the blunted, stunted world of Thorazine.

Meanwhile, Mom and Dad met, married and moved an hour south.

Throughout the 70s, Uncle Leo visited with Mom and me.  Unannounced, he materialized in army fatigues, concealing weapons and clenching notebooks. Mom required Uncle Leo to unload his guns during visits. One time, he refused with prickly, whispered intensity.

Silence choked the kitchen. My feisty, outspoken mother did not insist. Instead, she hustled me out the back door to visit a neighbor. Dad came home soon after and had a quiet, brief talk with Uncle Leo. When I was summoned home, a weeping Uncle Leo apologized to me for making our home “a scary place.”

I felt sorry for Uncle Leo–a quiet talk with my Dad was much scarier to me than my uncle and a boatload of guns. His sadness and remorse gnawed on my brain at nighttime. I pictured his blotchy sunburned face, streaked clean by channels of tears.  Why was he so sad? What did Dad say? Was I somehow to blame?

My Uncle Leo

Years passed before I could grasp the fear which seized my mother, or appreciate how my father resolved the situation. Dad did not threaten Uncle Leo; he assured him he was safe. Our house was CIA-proof and Uncle Leo was not allowed to bring his fear into a house with his adoring niece in it.

And I did adore Uncle Leo. His arrival meant strange surprises: bottles of minerals with supernatural properties or odd homemade dolls with intricate embroidered faces.  Then, he told stories.  Amazing, bizarre and a little incomprehensible, his tales of adventure and persecution entranced me. His narratives left me so deliciously agog that my mother issued a disclaimer with every visit: Uncle Leo’s stories were just as fictional as Grandmam’s ghost stories.

In my mind, however, his sincerity outweighed Grandmam’s theatrics. I could imagine orange glowing ufos burning hieroglyphic notes in the desert sand to Uncle Leo, who had to scramble to find them before The Company agents did.

Two years after the gun incident, Uncle Leo quit visiting.

Home

Uncle Leo shot himself dead when I was fourteen. His story unfolded in yellow legal pads, crowded with capital letters.  The Company’s campaign of malicious activities culminated with his poisoning: they had infected him with cancer. His last despondent words were printed neatly in black felt ink: “Cleansers not working. Will not suffer.”

Poignantly, the medical examiner reported that the vast quantities of “cleansers,” (i.e. bone meal/vitamins) he ingested to purify himself contributed to the sickness he mistook for cancer.

If only we knew.

Clean-up was dreadful. Spooked by the quantity of weaponry, strange wires and eerie notes, local law enforcement minimized their efforts. Mom and Dad walked into a house floored  inches thick with newspapers. Military ammunition boxes lined the main hallways. Snatched from his highway job, sticks of dynamite cluttered his shower floor.  Hazardous chemicals and poisons shared shelves with bottles of aspirin and laxatives.

To add to the unnerving chaos, Uncle Leo had booby-trapped several rooms. My folks encountered a rusty shotgun half-heartedly rigged to a doorknob.  The kitchen housed a heavily chained refrigerator festooned with locks and seemingly wired with explosives.  Fortunately, the wires dead-ended in a closet. Mom and Dad, nevertheless, used a mattress to protect themselves as they pried it open. Inside, a large steel firebox secured a single head of cabbage.  Mom wept over the sadness of it for days.

A raw and painful reminder of his mental decline, the months it took to clear Uncle Leo’s property crawled by. Shocked by Leo’s disturbing living conditions, Mom blamed herself for not visiting him or questioning why his visits ceased. Dad sympathized and carried his own burden of guilt.  I reacted by destroying things when my parents weren’t home.  I hammered old electronic stuff in to bits and buried them in our backyard.

Broken Years later, Mom and I unearthed a demolition project. Mom laughed and said, “Ah, one of your Uncle Leo relics.”  I must have gasped, because she touched my shoulder, and added, “Everyone works through grief differently.”

I still think of him.  Uncle Leopold altered the course of my life.  I was not content to be an engineer or mathematician. I needed to know why some people were different and what to do about it. Some answers live in text, but most come from relationships with schizophrenic people.

My current views of neurodiversity and autism acceptance sprang from these connections. You can’t cure a person with schizophrenia, but you can give them control over symptoms that distress them. You can accept them as beautiful and whole people. Isn’t this what any person, regardless of circumstance wants?

Accept

31 responses

  1. Lori, thank you for sharing such a emotionally penetrating story of your life. You shine light on many aspects of a world many people do not understand or even attempt to. You did an amazing job of writing this with positivity and hope.

    I am so sorry for your loss of your Uncle and the pains that all of your family must have felt. (Still do feel.) I am saddened, but also encouraged by your words. Acceptance is an active form of love that takes a lot of changing within ourselves. I am a work in progress, but your post gave me insights and broadened my perspective to challenge myself in how well I express and give acceptance.

    Many hugs and much love to you!

    Angel

    • Thank you Angel. I had a difficult time writing this and also answering comments in a timely fashion. A bit of introspection goes a long way. This quote is very meaningful to me:

      “Acceptance is an active form of love that takes a lot of changing within ourselves. I am a work in progress, but your post gave me insights and broadened my perspective to challenge myself in how well I express and give acceptance.”

      I will take this with me. Beautifully said.

    • Thank you so much, Renee. I apologies for taking so long to respond, but at times I become overwrought trying to respond to others in a sensible way. I am so happy you enjoyed my piece. Thank you.

  2. I am relieved to learn that you grew up in a CIA-proof house.
    ;-) Jokes aside, what a touching & beautifully written story and amazing images. I think this is my favourite post of all times (and that says a lot). Thank you so much for creating and sharing this beautiful and sad adventure into knowing your uncle Leopold.

  3. I feel like sharing it on facebook as well, having specific literature-loving persons in mind who would love to read this, but that could lead my off-line network to my anonymous blog via the comments … Always a dilemma.

  4. All the images are amazing, but I am particularly fascinated by the one with the old mand and the bird cage with an UFO inside and the girl standing amongst glasses with supernatural minerals holding a homemade doll with an intricate embroidered face:-) And I love the demolition site too… Actually I’m extremely fond of all of them.

    • Thank you very much, Hannah. I am grateful for your words. I never realized how much Uncle Leo meant to me until I started writing. I am glad to share with you.

  5. Oh I love this post because I know, at least part of this post. One of my dearest friends has schizophrenia. He was diagnosed in 1972 at the age of 23. He is my hero and an inspiration. We talk weekly and rather than speak of himself he always asks about Ted and Meg and how they are doing. He is like adopted family. Unlike your uncle, my friend has taken medicine since his diagnosis and says this keeps the voices “jarbled.” He speaks at universities and high schools around our city, trying to promote awareness about mental illness. I go as support for him and as I sit and listen to him speak about his illness to a room full of people he does not know, a mist forms in my eyes (just as it is now) when I see a man that many underestimate, but I see as so strong. What he has overcome and I told him just this week that one of the things I admire so much about him is that he doesn’t consider himself a victim. There is no self-pity. He takes what has come his way in stride and for that he inspires me. He also told me in this week’s phone call that he was always disappointed that he could never have a job, but was told something by a professor in a class he just spoke to that he does in fact have a job, he is doing so much to spread awareness, to help others, and that in fact is a very important job. He said to me, “I never thought about it that way,” and he was so happy to think he could made a difference. Lori this was a wonderful post on a subject so dear to me. One day I hope to do justice to my friend just have you have done for your uncle by writing a post as wonderful as this.

    • Thank you very much, Brenda. I appreciate your visits and words .A comment regarding neurodiversity on your Facebook page started this post rolling. I am proud to be part of a movement that accepts neurodiversity.

  6. Wonderful and sad at the same time. Your last paragraph is bang on. Yes, acceptance and love is what we all crave and need. Most forms of neurodiversity may be different forms of the same underlying atypical brain structure. Autism seems to me not that much different from schizophrenia. I have touches of paranoia and have moments of being in only loose touch with reality. Perhaps schizophrenia is just a more extreme manifestation of these traits. In any case, I don’t think it’s helpful to think of autism, schizophrenia, dyslexia, bipolar, and other forms of neurodiversity as being “mental illness” — they are simply different ways of being in the world, and need the acceptance and understanding that you call for. Thank you for sharing. Very touching.

  7. Pingback: Everyone is Whole and Beautiful! | Raising a Child with Asperger's Syndrome

  8. Absolutely beautiful and touching. Thank you for sharing this. And the last paragraph, so true. It makes me sad to realize how our societies seem to be moving in the opposite direction sometimes. I hope these kind of stories and all of us on the social media can help change this.

    • Thank you very much for the kind words. I truly appreciate knowing others feel the same way. Social media can be a powerful tool, to share our stories and change people’s perceptions. I am glad you enjoyed my article. :)

  9. What a well written and inspiring story. Anyone who doesn’t truly understand schizophrenia and those who suffer from it definitely need to take a look at this. As always, thanks so much for sharing.

    • Dagan,

      Thank you so much for the encouraging words. This post meant a great deal to me, I’ve been thinking about schizophrenia most of my life. It feels good to share a story. I appreciate you taking your time to comment.

  10. Pingback: Autistic History: My Grandfather’s Story « A Quiet Week In The House

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