Gone Coastal

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Tough questions

This week we had one of those surreal experiences that you see on prime time drama shows. Swat teams in armoured cars, road blocks, and snipers on roofs.
Except it wasn't on TV. It was our block that was closed off with cop cars, the roof of the shed that backs on to our yard that served as a platform for the man in black with the big gun. And it was our next door neighbour - whom we've alternately seen arrange hedges and flowers in his garden, go on random tirades against neighbours and family, and raise a baby crow as a pet - who eventually gave himself up and was taken away.

Drama aside, it's left me with a lot of questions. The sort of questions that don't have tidy answers. The sort we often don't want to think about for that reason. But this is not a character wrapped up in a screenplay reality, with a story line that neatly starts and ends within a few days or weeks. I have had a part to play, and a much more personal perspective.
I'll admit I've felt some relief, or at least reprieve, with the crow guy gone for awhile, at not having to wonder what state he's in today, or check for his presence outside before letting the dogs out in the yard. I'm also apprehensive about what's coming. We don't know where he was taken or for how long, and will not likely be informed when he's released. There's a good chance he's going to be pretty angry when he comes back, and he has a pattern of being highly suspicious of those around him after an outburst or when authorities have been called.
But beyond that, I'm concerned for him. I want to know if he's getting help from competent people wherever he's at. Is there anyone within the system who's been able to gain his trust before? Is there anyone who has contact with his grown sons, one of whom was over and did his best to calm down and reign in his dad during this most recent episode. Do they have support and resources to help their father? As his neighbour, how do I strike a balance between offering a hand of friendship, and ensuring the safety and security of my family, especially my children.

I've done a lot of reading on mental health and various mental disorders over the last year while trying to understand my own experiences. I've talked to a number of friends who've struggled with different symptoms and disorders. I happened to just finish reading a book, The Soloist, that chronicles part of the life of a promising musician who was afflicted with schizophrenia.
To my knowledge - it was mentioned in passing by our former landlord - it is schizophrenia that has long plagued our neighbour.
I'm no psychologist, but in what I've picked up there's a consistent dividing line between psychoses and other mental health issues, where psychoses have some element of disconnect with reality. In my research this past year, I've found commonalities between my experiences and many of the different categories of illness I've looked at. I've recognized that I've been lucky that many of the symptoms I've experienced have been fairly limited, often just enough to trouble me with a taste of what it must be like to deal with similar symptoms in a full blown form. I also count myself fortunate to have stayed on the connected side of that dividing line to psychosis.

I was very glad that I happened to be out at a speech therapy session with Trinity for most of this incident, and just happened to pick that week to take a detour to visit a friend after the session, so that when I arrived on our block, Trin was asleep in the car and I only had to wonder for five or ten minutes before they cleared up the operation and I could go home and check in with the Bear, Eli and the nanny.
This was not the case with the last major incident with the crow guy. I was pretty much full term with Eli when a minor indiscretion of a friend's young puppy set him off. We were heading for coffee, when the puppy slipped past me out of her car and ran on the other side of our fence, on the crow guy's property, to playfully chase our dogs on our side of the fence. By the time we had retrieved the puppy, who had run a couple of laps front to back down his property, he was standing in the street in front of us, with a roofing hatchet in hand, screaming and threatening us.
Even then, we wrestled with whether to press charges because we were concerned first and foremost that he get the help he clearly needed. That obviously added some tension to our neighbourly relationship, and many awkward moments of avoided eye contact. A couple of times when opportunities arose, I tried to extend an olive branch of sorts. Sadly, it seemed to trigger his paranoia. Over the last few months, though, it was my very charming son who seemed to bridge the chasm and soften up the crow guy. A few well timed waves and smiles as the crow guy drove by or sat on his porch, and I no longer felt the need to usher the kids past that first property on walks for fear they'd pull a flower or step over a boundary and set him off. The crow guy even came out to give the kids some leftover bubbles one of his grandkids had left in his trailer.

It bothers me immensely that a troubled man has to get to a point of bearing weapons on a street dotted with young families before action is taken, and that it then has to come in the form of forcible removal from his home at gunpoint. This is not a case where there were no previous indications. There are a number of people who have lived on this block for decades, and known this man and his occasional outbursts, but have generally gotten along with him. But over the last few years he has gotten steadily worse.
I don't know what should have happened. I don't know how to strike that balance between the rights of the individual to have some say in their own health and lifestyle, the safety and the security of the public at large, and the health and safety of the person whose very mental illness may make it difficult for him to recognize his need for help and accept what is offered. But I feel for our crow guy and his family. I feel the need to at least voice the questions, that perhaps a few more people would pause before pronouncing judgment on 'the crazy down the street.' I hope that I will find ways to let him know, gently, that we understand at least a little, and we hope to meet up again with that personable guy in the garden.