Her name isn't Victoria, but it is old fashioned, like Victoria.
It was after the Sunday church sermon, during coffee hour. People were gathered in the church parlor snacking on cookies and fruit. Nobody was talking to Victoria because Victoria is sometimes hard to talk to. Victoria is a schizophrenic who I suspect does not take medication.
My minister says that sometimes Victoria is clear as a bell. One day she walked into the church and said to the minister that there was poison ivy growing under the hedges that circle the church yard. Victoria offered to get rid of the poison ivy herself. She apparently had some money because she walked to the hardware store that is across the street from the church, got what was needed to protect herself from the weeds, and did the weeding that day. But there have also been times when the minister has been distressingly pressured by Victoria, trying her best to talk a wild woman down from high, excited flights of fancy. Sometimes when prayers are collected from the congregation during service Victoria will speak up. Often her prayer request makes no sense. She makes a long and convoluted statement involving many themes, for instance sheep and the weather and her father, and the minister at the pulpit tries to say something short in translation. Usually Victoria is quiet, but she is not shy.
Victoria has long gray hair streaked with silver. She wears glasses and has rosy cheeks. The rosy cheeks aren’t from make-up, sunburn or blushing, they are red from little broken blood vessels under her skin. I have only ever seen her in dresses, and she likes to wear layers of dresses, short over long. My husband and I see her when we are in our car and when we are walking around town. Victoria likes to walk everywhere. Once we passed her by and she was angrily pulling at the branches of a large bush and talking to herself. Another time we saw her in a coffee store and she was calmly reading the daily newspaper out loud, for all the patrons to hear. There are rumors in the church that Victoria is secretly very intelligent, and was highly educated before she became sick. “She was a genius” one woman said to me.
The Sunday I decided to talk to Victoria she was wearing a green blazer over a yellow flowered dress that fell below her knees. Peeking beneath the flowered dress was a dress with a hemline that swept the floor. The long dress was bright, bold pink.
“What a lovely color of pink” I said to Victoria. “Is that dress Indian?”
“I don’t know, but the top has rhinestones on it” said Victoria, and she pulled up the flowered dress so that I could see the top of the pink dress underneath, and indeed, there were little clear rhinestones dotting the bodice. I realized that it was a prom gown.
“I got it at the drop in center” said Victoria, mentioning the town’s center for distributing charity donations of food and clothing.
“It was smart of you to dress in layers today” I said to her, “it was cold this morning and I needed a coat.”
Victoria then told me a story of reaching for the pink dress in her closet, and how she almost reached as well for a winter coat, but that the winter coat is no good to wear because she discovered that it buttons on the left, and that means it is a man’s coat. She said she has four winter coats to choose from, and she is often fooled as to whether or not the coat was designed for a man or a woman.
“When I was young” I said to Victoria, “I often wore a man’s coat.” Her eyes grew wide and on her face was an expression of amazement.
“But you have to understand” I explained, “I was punk and I had even shaved all the hair off of my head. I didn’t follow the rules of society.”
Victoria said, “I’ve thought about shaving the hair off of my head because that would mean my hair might grow back thicker and stronger.”
I made a sour face and shook my head in discouragement. I did not wish to become the example that might persuade her to become bald.
She continued. “But I have discovered what to do to condition my hair and make it strong. One day I was eating tuna casserole. The tuna had in it mayonnaise and little pieces of pasta. I had eaten all I wanted and there was still some left in the bottom of this little square plastic container. So what I did was I took a squirt bottle, and I put all of the tuna casserole into the squirt bottle. I mixed in some water and let it stand for a while. Then I squirted the mixture into the roots of my hair. It acted like a conditioner, I think the pasta and mayonnaise is good for your hair. My hair got volume. I had not washed my hair for about ten days. And then a logging truck went by and ‘whoosh’ all the volume disappeared.”
I thought I understood the end comment about the logging truck. Knowing Victoria, and often seeing her walk by the side of the road, obviously she was referring to the wind a big truck made as it passed her by. It may have been going so fast, and so near, that it probably blew about and disordered her hair. But the picture of voluntarily putting food in your hair, old tuna casserole no less dismayed me. At first it seemed gross. But then I remembered a story my mother once told me about my grandmother. Using food for cosmetic reasons is really an old and esteemed practice.
“Do you know that my grandmother used to rub butter into her face to make her skin soft?”
Victoria pondered this example of a beauty treatment. And then she said, “I got a crème that is in a stick from the drop in center. You are supposed to use it under your eyes to get rid of wrinkles but I use it all over my face.”
Victoria might be mentally ill but she has the ordinary vanity and worries about aging that all women have. She doesn’t realize that by wearing layers of mis-matching clothing she looks the part of a madwoman, but I think that she is really trying, to the best of her ability, to be a lady. On some days she even pins her hair up in a loose bun. With her love of wearing long dresses, and her tall frame made lean from hours of walking, she often has the silhouette of someone from a past era, when women in skirts and dresses was the rule of the day.
“I buy Lubriderm, that is the brand name for a good moisturizer. I get it at the pharmacy.”
Victoria seemed understand. And she seemed to think she had something too like what I had.
“I have a bottle from Rite Aid. Do you know the Rite Aid shield? It is red and blue. First a line of blue, and then a line of red. I put that on my face too besides the crème stick.”
No doubt the pharmacy Rite Aid put out a generic brand of moisturizer. It was interesting that Victoria described, using concrete details, the tiny parts of consumer packaging that most of us would overlook. What most would consider unimportant made an impression on Victoria. I had the fleeting impression of someone who might notice the parts before the whole, or at least, whose powers of observation were keen.
But try as I might, I couldn’t get the example of using food in your hair as a conditioner out of my mind. I wanted to give Victoria a dose of conventionality. So I began describing how I shower. That I use shampoo on my hair first, and then I use conditioner, that they make conditioner that is specifically intended for your hair. I explained that it is this artificial conditioner, not natural food, which I use on my hair.
One of the ways to talk to a person who does not follow conventional forms of conversation, in the case that their thinking is disordered from the presence of a mental illness, is to be as honest, real and simple as possible. Talking to someone whose mind is influenced by psychotic thought sometimes feels a little bit like talking to a child because the psychotic person sees the world as a place of endless possibilities, a world where everything is new and important. When an adult talks to a child usually the conversation is candid and revealing because the adult wishes to be clear and instructive. Happily, children draw us out of ourselves. So does, I believe, people who are mentally ill. It seems obvious to me that if you are talking to a person with a psychotic based illness that is active at that moment you best put away sophisticated pretenses and postures. Talking to somebody who is sick isn’t about talking down to them, it is about talking with naked humility and rigorous truth about what is essential in life. Personally I find this refreshing, although it often means being quick on your toes, because the schizophrenic sometimes will take the conversation into unseen twists and turns. But the challenge to you, if you are giving care and love to a schizophrenic, is to really give a little piece of yourself to them. Because it is almost certain that the schizophrenic is giving you honest and important little pieces of themselves. I almost never get a sense that an unmedicated schizophrenic is lying to me. They may be elusive and secretive, and they may be talking delusions, but they usually believe in what they are saying. In people who the illness is dominant, as long as they aren’t manic or under the influence of street drugs, I don’t get hot air and I don’t get fluff. In talking to Victoria what I consistently felt was that I was getting all the important facts and details – as she saw them.
Since I had described how I bathe, Victoria wished to tell me how she bathed. She told me that the pluming in her home has not worked for several years now, and that if she wants a shower she has to go to a nearby hotel and use their facilities. Otherwise, what she does is heat water over a stove and scoop water out of a pan. A little of the effort that it took for her to bathe, having primitive circumstances was communicated to me. And then I took a chance and told her something that I would not normally admit to someone without an illness.
“I took a shower last night because I knew that there would be no time in the morning before church. I was tired, and I did not really want to take the shower. It is always hard for me to go from being dry to being wet. For some reason, I don’t like showers. But it was church, and you know, you really want to be at your best for church.”
Victoria gave me a look of sympathy, and as she began to nod slowly, something else, something deeper was agreed upon as well. We had a moment where we saw that we both shared an important value. Victoria, like me, felt the sacredness of church. She understood perfectly that you go the extra distance, and try harder, for the sake of church. My sacrifice was taking a shower when I really preferred not to. I don’t know what her sacrifice was. Perhaps it was the precious money that she put in the collection plate. Or maybe she made the effort to set an alarm clock in order to get to church on time. It could be that she agonized a little over what to wear, in order to look her best. It could have been that simply coming to coffee hour, and milling about with strangers who do not talk to you involved courage. But church for her, like for me, required us to be at our best, and for us, being at our best involved a struggle. We both had reverence for the religious service on Sunday morning that shaped our behavior. We both did battle with our will, having internal forces that would push us in one direction, but bravely pushing back in the other direction. We were two women who that morning had been triumphant in doing our duty for the church. Simply being present, and involved like all the other ordinary people, had taken us to the furthest reaches of our ability.
Victoria told me her name, not knowing that I already knew it, and put her hand out for me to shake. I shook her hand and then told her my name. I think that she will remember me next time I see her in church.
The conversation with Victoria went smoothly because I was not afraid to hear things that were strange, outside normal experience, and I managed to stay as grounded and honest as possible. Victoria could be bizarre but I tried to stay true to how I experience reality, which is, mostly because I take medication, painful but not too bizarre.