the woman

Author: angiem, 01 06th, 2010

On the outskirts of my Tanti Marie’s village there was a proper little cemetery where the village met the wild forests, with marble cross tombstones alongside wooden ones enclosed by a wrought iron fence. Very beautiful, but quite scary to a little girl of seven. The village madwoman spent all her days and nights in there, sleeping on what she thought was her lover’s tomb. He had gone to the war and left her pregnant and when word got to her that he was dead she tried to drown the baby in the courtyard well and drank a glass of poison to kill herself. Her family took the baby away and gave it to a wealthy couple in the city, no doubt lining their pockets with lots of gold pieces and crisp banknotes. Her, they turned out of the house, spitting and cursing after her departing figure. At least they spared her the institution.

As children we were afraid of her and her eerie wailing, and stayed well away. It was a good thing the village was long and narrow. The grown-ups accustomed to grief and having known her since her childhood, yet also highly superstitious, made the sign of the cross whenever they saw her but did not neglect to bring her bread and a woolen shawl when the nights got chilly.

I don’t know where she slept the winter months, when the entire village was under a blanket of snow. Her family home, abandoned since the death of her mother, she had set unsuccessful fire to. My Tanti Marie claimed that the madwoman was actually a witch who turned herself into the black cat that was forever scratching at villagers’ doors to be let in on those long winter nights. Before dusk darkened the sky and lengthened the shadows, the village women would set a bowl of milk and a chunk of black bread out. If they were consumed, I do not remember.

But, I have been thinking about her lately. About how little was known back then and in that country about mental illness. About how the mentally ill were institutionalized and even killed because of the fear they instilled in others. About those whispers I remember amongst the village women of her promiscuity, when all along she most likely had been raped. And about how fear finds a way to feed on fear until it leaves one gasping in its wake.

And I am ashamed and embarrassed at my own reaction even nowadays. Flinching when I see a mentally unstable homeless man or woman. So starkly uncomfortable with those I see mumbling to themselves. Once on a crowded train there was a man shaking a fried chicken leg and yelling profanities, and I fled in terror, preferring to wait another fifteen minutes in the cold station than risk his attention.  Why?  I’m well aware my fears aren’t realistic.  I’ve studied mental health.  I’ve worked in mental health.  I know that these people are probably far more afraid of me than I am of them.

And yet… Although I may not be literally making the sign of the cross, I still am praying up a storm.

Did I say that I am ashamed and embarrassed?  Mired down by superstitious fear?  When I really ought to know better?  Yes, I did.  But I am working on it.  Because it is fear that hides the beauty within and keeps me from living.  And I really want to live.


40 Responses to “the woman”

  1. Susu Paris Chic Says:

    Putting your fears out in the open is already an act of courage. We all have the right to have our personalities. I find people who are fearsome often also being more sensitive in a positive sense. They “hear with their heart”. You seem to me that kind of a person.

    If fearfulness bothers us, we can and should try to work on it. Just like you said you were doing. Taking small steps, not rushing it. You can do something little that makes you feel uncomfortable. And then congratulate yourself on it. Then when you are ready, try another new thing.

    You are growing every day in wisdom and character. How can I know… by reading the subjects that your heart urges you to write about here, in the wonderful space of discussion that you have created.

    Be encouraged - and on the top, God is on your side ( in addition to your cyber gal pals like me, ha haa…) who could then be against you, dear Angie?

  2. Jeanne Says:

    Angie, that was an amazing story, it was was impactful and definitely worth further consideration. Thanks for sharing. Jeanne :)

  3. French Fancy Says:

    One knows what one *ought* to do and then there is the reality of facing something not very pleasant and being unable to do very much at all.

    I’ve done quite a lot of voluntary work with the mentally ill and it doesn’t really hold a fear for me - although these days - in the UK - there is this ‘care in the community’ thinking (which is another way of saying that people who should really be locked up for the protection of others are free to prowl around). People have been stabbed by unstable people and it does make one now think twice before helping someone who seems a bit odd.

  4. Elizabeth Says:

    This is such an interesting post –beautifully written.
    Yes, I do think we have a better understanding of people with mental problems nowadays. Even so, I think they suffer horribly.
    Maybe you should write a book of stories with such a theme?
    Best wishes

  5. Mary Moon Says:

    I think most everyone feels this way. We do fear those who have gone farther into mental illness than we ever want to. I think there are a lot of reasons but the important thing is to yes- try to remember that what we are fearing is a condition, not so much a person who has it.

  6. Karen@SurvivingMotherhood Says:

    Angie, that sounds like a story from a book, not real life!
    I have never encountered someone like that (Maybe that’s why it doesn’t sound like real life to me?) but I imagine I would be afraid, too. Maybe most afraid of not knowing what to do or say to them.
    But, indeed, they are God’s creation and He loves them. So, too, should we.

    May the peace of Christ rest upon you today.

  7. Renee Khan Says:

    Angie you have had the most amazing childhood. I love to hear your stories and even though your children will take them for granted, one day they will know that they were kernels of gold.

    I too am like that with very old people or crazy people. I think it is because I feel like we should have a conversation and when they are crazy or don’t get it, I’m like outta there.

    Horrible, I know.

    Love Renee xoxo

  8. Corinne Says:

    Beautifully crafted words… I think there’s a part of many of us who just fear the unknown, the unpredictable moments, and situations like you described can lead to them.
    Loved your honesty :)

  9. Janna Qualman Says:

    Wow, Angie. You’ve got history and sadness and beauty, all in this post. Loved it!

    And you’re right. We’ve got to do more praying, less judging and being afraid.

  10. audrey Says:

    Dear Angie, when you say you really want to live, you are so alive!! so aware of your thoughts and emotions, fears and joys, and you are not sleep walking through life.

    we all have our fears, right? we try and learn and do the best we can as we grow.

    the little bit that i know about the kind of work you do, i would have my fears, but you are not. you are courageous and caring, thankfully!

    keep going my Dear, your care and thoughtfulness is inspiring.

  11. pamela Says:

    In situations such as this, I think sometimes our fear stems from the realization of the sheer fragility of the human brain. To be absent from one’s own life is a disturbing thing to imagine and to encounter it face to face can be frightening, especially for a child. It takes knowledge, maturity, and compassion to overcome these fears. It is heartbreaking to consider the plight of so many of our fellow travelers. Lovely post, Angie.

  12. Susan R. Mills Says:

    Interesting story. I have irrational fears like that too. I guess the first step in removing that fear is recognizing, which I believe you have done here.

  13. Lydia, Clueless Crafter Says:

    Every place has to have the legend of the mad woman who haunts the streets, doesn’t it. I remember all the stories I was told from my childhood and I learn new tales each year about the town ill.

    Yes, it’s the town ill, and each of us is the town and the ill is ours. We are afraid of ourselves, of delving into what we feel is the dark part of our souls, psyches, society, culture. We prefer to avoid heavy emotional lifting, which we are sure will lead to emotional instability on our end.

    I live in a city with a lot of sick people who are actively visible. Strangely, I feel more comfortable around them than I do my more healthy companions. Partly because I know I am stable; partly because I feel that what I see is what I get.

    I have noticed, though, that when I am not comfortable in my own skin, I am VERY afraid of these people and do run the other way.

    What a thought, Angie. Thanks.

  14. deb @ talk at the table Says:

    I’m back to read this again. You just pulled me in with the story, it’s poignancy, and then, how I imagine you are feeling.
    And these comments that are here now, they are so insightful and wonderfully crafted. You inspire that .
    I am trying to get out of my comfort zone. And trying to have a stronger voice. Being around people who suffer from mental issues of any regard is jarring in the sense that I fear for the safety of my children, home or even myself I suppose because I am a mother and wife. But on the other levels I feel so much compassion and don’t know what to do with it. Great great story from a great woman.

  15. angiem Says:

    Thank you Susa! Fear bothers me as a mother. I feel that as long as fear is part of my personality I can not have the strength I need to raise my children. I take small steps to overcome it, because you are right, I do believe that I grow daily.

    Thank you Jeanne. It is indeed.

    Julie, I guess the unpredictability of what could happen is what scares me the most. Maybe mental illness without drug abuse wouldn’t be so bad. But nowadays one can’t tell the difference.

    I agree Elizabeth that they do suffer horribly. And most often it is at the hands of ignorance.

    Ms. Moon you said it. I need to keep in mind that it is the condition and not the person.

    Thank you Karen. The US is a wonderful country in caring for its mentally ill residents. The ones that do slip through, end up under bridges and inside garbage dumpsters.

  16. Bebe Says:

    There is a man in his 70’s I think, who I see wandering around my neighborhood. I don’t think he’s homeless but he does look mentally ill. He looks through people’s garbage. I wonder if he could be hungry. But I’m too afraid to ask him or give him food.

  17. angiem Says:

    Oh dear Renee, don’t feel bad. Very old people do not faze me. In fact I find them endearing.

    Corinne, you got it! It’s the unpredictability and what can it lead to.

    Jana, thank you! Less judging would seem ideal, wouldn’t it?

    Audrey, thanks. Dealing with death is far easier than dealing with erratic behaviors.

    Pamela, you are right. I am constantly reminded of that fragility. In my own family’s history outside issues have broken down the minds of truly lovely people.

    Thank you Susan.

    No, thank you, Lydia. As always you gave me pause to think. We are each the town and the ill is ours.

    Thanks Deb! You got it completely. I believe that as a mother and wife, I may have more cause for fear, yet it also holds me back from truly giving my family the best parts of me.

    Bebe, I would be afraid too. Maybe you could leave him a packet of food from time to time?

  18. Kirie Says:

    This is a beautiful and provoking piece. I can relate to the cringe I feel when I encounter someone who seems more or less out of control of themselves. It sometimes takes me more than a nudge to muster my compassion and tamp down my fear, my discomfort.

    I think it’s probably a bunch of things that make me feel that twinge of fear–perhaps my own fear of losing self-control, perhaps it’s a vestige of an old herd-like instinct that senses danger in anti-social behavior. That old reptilian brain does fire off feelings that resemble superstition, at least in me, I think.

    Regardless of where the fear originates, I think you are amazing for facing your fears and pushing yourself to live more honestly, to find beauty behind what frightens you, and to share it all with us. Brava, you!


  19. Vanessa Says:

    I understand your fear and hesitance. My uncle had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and later with dissociative personality (he had at least one other personality that would rear up under duress). Mostly, as a child, I remember him, 6′ 4″ lifting me on his shoulders or flying me around the room. He was warm and gentle and kind to me. At about that same time the illness was taking hold of his life. I didn’t see the frightening side of him but after his death this last year, cleaning out the house he lived in, that was at one time the house my mother bought with my grandmother, reading the correspondence between family members, reading police reports, reading his journals…I understand how the illness squelched his life, took the joy from it and killed his ability to have close relationships with friends and family. I love and miss the man…I HATE the illness. I found over the years after my mother passed that treating him with respect and kindness brought the best results…even when I had to discuss phone calls I’d received from the police. Rather than trying to tell him his reaction to people was wrong…we found other, less intimidating, ways he could react to people that didn’t counteract what his brain was telling him.
    I know now he is freed of his earthly ailments and able to love as the real man he was…and that gives me peace.

  20. Holly L Says:

    Sadly, that is a great story. It could be a movie. You have the BEST stories. I will admit, I am embarrassed at how I react to some people I run across…although when I am with my children, I have two trains of thought…teach them to treat everyone equally but also be cautious…the cautious comes from being the daughter of a policeman!

  21. willow Says:

    Thought provoking post. This is something we all need to hear.

  22. Laura [What I Like] Says:

    As always this is such a lovely, thought provoking story. And I daresay you are not the only one who reacts with fear in those situations…I most certainly have and then felt ridiculous after the fact.

  23. Ruth Says:

    So courageous of you to confess your fear! I admire your courage. Very well written! It makes me wonder about her living in the cold, too! Maybe if the gossip was less about her madness than about the truth, you would have felt less fear? The setting around you may have added to the feeling of fear, with the townsfolk superstitions. I find myself fearful of things when those around me feel fear– it makes me doubt!

  24. Dawn Says:

    Good post. I am ashamed to admit that I am the same way around people who are completely out of control. Why do we do that? What exactly are we afraid of? Do we just not know what to say?

    My brother is bipolar and I’ve learned that it’s like being two completely different people. He even talks in a different voice, uses different words, when he’s manic. I can see how that would be considered scary before they understood what it was. I guess it all comes down to fearing the unknown.

  25. laura Says:

    It is a sad story the way we have treated the mentally ill in the past. Your tale sound like it straight from the brother’s Grimm! I guess we must keep talking about it…that seems to be the best road to making up for the past–education.

    It is hard because we still are uncomfortable with the chronically mentally ill. I always tell my boys that kindness is never the wrong choice.

  26. Lori Says:

    Hi, Angie. I just wanted to drop by and say hi. I saw your name in the comments of another blog (Ranch Girl Ramblings) and I thought it sounded Romanian. I’m also Romanian so I guess, hey, I have to say hi. I have been reading some of your blog and I love it. We might have more in common than some Romanian connection. I cannot believe you posted that fudge recipe! I have been looking for that for ages.

  27. Jill Kemerer Says:

    You are not alone. There is fear in me of unstable people, but you are right, we must be compassionate. What an interesting childhood you had! Thanks for sharing it.

  28. Stephanie Faris Says:

    I think many of us behave that way out of fear. On the news this morning, we were told of a bouncer at a downtown Nashville bar who was stabbed by a homeless guy he tried to make scoot on. It does happen…but it’s rare. Most of the time what we fear is the unknown. Maybe what we’re really fearing is that someday we’ll be in that situation ourselves.

  29. Mary-Laure Says:

    You’d be surprised how little is known NOWADAYS about mental illness…

  30. Bridgette Says:

    Angie, you have every right to be fearful, some of these people are very unstable.
    I come from a long line of relatives that have suffered also, myself with anxiety.
    Trust you instincts, trust yourself. It’s a brave new world.

  31. angiem Says:

    Thank you Kirie. It is something that I work on daily. I do live within the city and sometimes I fight the urge to cross the street when I see a dubious character approach.

    Vanessa, you have such an amazing story! Thanks for sharing it with me. I can’t wait until you have a blog I can visit!

    I hear you Holly!!!!!

    Thank you, Willow.

    Thank you, Laura. It’s a horrible way to walk down the street though, isn’t it?

    Those village people still believe the same today. We visited in 2006 and they are as superstitious as ever.

  32. angiem Says:

    Ruth that statement regarding the village people was for you.

    Dawn, thank you for sharing that although your brother is bipolar you still don’t know how best to react with people out of control.

    Laura, kindness is always the right choice, of course, but as a mother I fear for my kids safety. How do I get past that fear?

    Thanks for stopping by, Lori!

    Thank you, Jill. It’s nice to know that I am not alone.

    Stephanie, that is so frightening! I know those situations are rare, but they freak me out.

    Mary-Laure, that is such a tragedy.

    Bridgette, I think you said the most important thing: Trust Your Instincts! I will. Thank you!!

  33. rochambeau Says:

    Hi Angie,
    Thank you for this GREAT post, again!
    I do understand !! Mental illness is a part of life, yet one that has been shoved under the carpet until 20 yrs. ago. Everywhere, this affliction is present, if one has the eyes to see.

    Every single one of my friends has been touched or affected by mental illness.

    You words express this in a personal way. Thank you and God bless you.


  34. Kary Gonyer Says:

    Angie…..hello friend..glad to see you stopped by Farmhouse today…and YES ! I am saving you a shortcake with strawberries and cream fresh from my garden just for you….makes a pretty nice breakfast…more very soon…


  35. Ava Says:

    This is a profound post Angie. Just what I would expect from my fave blogger. Mental illnesses scare me. The brain is so fragile.

  36. Make Do Style Says:

    I love the story that precedes your own thoughts.

    My only view as with anything is be careful what you wish for. I am someone who lives life to the full, almost no holds bar, fearless even (though I would add within a moral code) and yet sometimes I wish for a more sedate lifestyle. I struggle to be suburban or domestic although I run an orderly home and love my house but it is a base to do as I please.

    I essentially do what I want and explore and dip my toes into lots of ventures. This exposes me to people who dislike my spirit and I have to put up with their censor.
    So even when you pursue your dreams it is not without hardship and doubt.

    I suppose I think if I had to look back at my life what do I want to see and actually there’s a lot to look back at now! Some quite cringe worthy.

    You do have to be brave and develop a thick skin.

    PS ref wedding and dress. I don’t know what the sea colour is like in Hawaii nor the exact colour of the dress in the hand but from the image I would say it is quite turquoise - so anything in the colour range green and blue is similar to sea colour but they are different densities in terms of matter, one is material and solid the other is water and moves. You are a very nice sister!

  37. krista Says:

    the worst part about it is the fear is actually valid. the mentally ill are not intentionally harmful. yet they operate without the same set of right and wrongs we take for granted. this missing link is what creates the fear.
    your empathy and heart feel the shame.
    it’s a slippery slope, this loving humans with awareness.

  38. Jennifer Says:

    Beautifully written. For me, the fear is about what feels like a thin or invisible line between me and them — what does it take to go over the edge? Not so much, I am afraid. A little brain chemistry gone wrong or abuse that imprints for life. And then I think of my father with his life-altering depression and the way we all muddle through.

  39. Tumblewords Says:

    There are many who feel the same way - fear is an unexplainable emotion for most. You’ve written this so well!

  40. Lydia Says:

    Congratulations on having this excellent piece recognized!

    How strange that I just left a comment after your Magpie in which I mentioned that I love graveyards, and then to read the beginning of your award-winning piece here! Now. Truth be told. If I had ever witnessed a woman wailing on a tombstone and had been told she became a begging black cat at winter…..well, I would not be so fond of graveyards. You painted quite a tale and posed universal questions concerning angst and guilt regarding mental illness. I always wish I could get inside the head of a wretched someone hunched and cackling in a wet doorway. I want to get in there to see what needs to be repaired….would it take years of meds and therapy or could a hug and a hand-up be the key?

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