An Accurate Movie about One Family’s Experience with Mental Illness

“Mental health isn’t all of me, but it’s a massive part of my journey and a massive part of my whole being.” — Adwoa Aboah

I watched the movie, Canvas, last night, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that so accurately depicted the complexities of schizophrenia from so many different perspectives. Having grown up with a mother who had schizophrenia during a time when there were few resources or options to help her, I know first hand what it was like. I am glad to see a portrayal that was spot on for a change.

The movie was set in Miami, Florida and is about a woman named Mary who has schizophrenia, and the impact her illness has on her husband, John, their son, Chris, and most of all her own life.

The movie did an excellent job of portraying what it was like for John to move from having hope during the initial acute phase of his wife’s diagnosis with schizophrenia into a period of numbness, anger, and grief as he realized her illness was chronic and was not responding well to the options that were available at the time. John felt as though he had lost the person he married but it was obvious he still loved her very much. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with my dad over the years about how it felt to have your dreams and hopes ripped away by this illness. But I had never fully grasped the depth and intensity of the sadness he must have felt loving someone so much and “losing” the person who had been most precious to him. The woman he knew when he married her was different now and that was a tremendous loss. This movie honed in on the reactions, emotions, and coping mechanisms that John used to deal with Mary’s illness while trying to take care of his family. John faced mounting medical bills because of poor health insurance coverage of mental illness and job loss because it was hard to keep up with all of his responsibilities. This is a familiar story for families that have gone through this type of situation, and ours was no exception.

Although John was doing the best he could as a father, Chris’ needs often went unnoticed due to the magnitude of the situation. From a child’s perspective, the sadness, embarrassment, bewilderment, and fear are a daily fact of life. This movie realistically portrayed the experiences I had growing up.  I was angry at my dad for not paying more attention to me. I was sad to watch my mom being taken to the state hospital by the sheriff, embarrassed that the neighbors and my friends were talking about her, and I was ashamed of her bizarre behaviors. I was bewildered and didn’t understand why it was happening to our family and angry that my prayers weren’t being answered. Most of all, I had a hard time shaking my underlying fears. I feared my mom’s strange behaviors and her paranoia towards me, and I feared that I would some day end up like her.

The way neighbors, friends, and relatives responded to Mary’s illness in the movie resonated with me as well. People’s reactions to our situation ranged from abandonment, blaming, shaming, and shunning, to huge acts of compassion from the most unexpected people. We often felt isolated and alone and were especially appreciative of the people who stepped in to help, making us meals, babysitting my sisters, and keeping my mom company when she was having a tough day.

I have often wondered how it felt for my mom to be taken away against her will and placed for months at a time in a state hospital. It was painful to watch that aspect of her life being portrayed so intensely in this movie. I can only imagine now what it felt like for her to ripped out of the security of her home by the sheriff while resting peacefully on the couch, taken away from her husband and children, stripped of all privileges, and kept in such a scary place where she was treated more like a criminal than a patient. Especially since these acts actually confirmed her delusions that everyone was conspiring against her. The scenes in the movie of Mary sitting at the payphone in the hallway talking to her husband with despair in her voice were particularly poignant and reminded me of the phone calls we used to get from mom. And I, like Chris, often wanted to avoid talking to her, because I didn’t know what to say. I recall to this day how after my mom was released from the hospital the first time, she always carried a roll of quarters in her purse in case she had to go back and needed to call us.

Yesterday I awakened with the thought that I am tired of thinking about mental illness. I want to move on and live a normal life. I want to stop trying to be an advocate and let someone else take over. I want to put it all behind me and never look back. But the truth is, it feels like it takes more effort to clamp this part of myself down than it does to let it out. For so many years growing up, I was at war with myself, holding it all in, keeping it all locked inside, trying desperately to appear “normal” and to become “normal”. I struggled with severe anxiety and an eating disorder from my mid-teens through my late twenties.  It took years to recover, and much longer to deal with the emotional scars that were prone to re-surface during times of stress. After I became a nurse, I realized how many others are facing the same challenges or much worse, and my desire to do something more to help was reawakened.

And then other family members began to have their own struggles with depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and eating disorders reminding me there is still work to be done. I sometimes feel overwhelmed by it all now, but I know that I must persist in whatever way I can, allowing myself to take breaks when it becomes too much. I am reassured by the progress that has been made, and the way the next generation has so openly tackled the issues, using social media to shatter stigma and advocate for something better. I know that when I am ready to pass the baton, there will be others ready and willing to keep going.

For today, I will appreciate the strides that have been made and I will be grateful for all the grace and beauty in my life.

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