Faith or Mental Illness?

I want to apologize to Mary for having acted as if she made complete sense to me. But how else was I supposed to hear her story if I didn’t believe it, at least right then? The fact remains, though, I am uneasy with Mary. She says things that, to me, could not possibly be true. And she says them as if they were true, with utmost confidence. This is actually familiar. It sounds a lot like faith.

Among Mary’s claims are that she is in law enforcement, that investigators are looking into evidence of a potential bombing plot that she uncovered next to a trash can outside the T station, that she is an advisor to President Obama. She recently suffered a stroke, caused by “abuse from the Department of Transportation.” Her watch is purposefully set 30 minutes ahead.

One of Mary’s most-wished-for goals in life is to publish a pamphlet she wrote a long time ago on mental illness and “psychiatric rights to informed consent.” She cares about the government following regulations, and about the rights of patients. She also makes afghans for babies who are in the hospital, and carries bright yarn with her. The T-shirt she wears reads “Grow Strong Faith, Harvest Hope, Show True Love.”

Mary went to Harvard, after a solid upbringing in an Orthodox Jewish home. In the early part of her career, she sustained a head injury while working as a nurse in the Plymouth County Hospital; she opened a bottle of chemicals, caught a strong whiff and fainted. She fell to the floor, sustaining a “crack in the skull,” loss of memory, and blindness. Someone else says she isn’t blind. It is hard to tell. Her gray-blue eyes focus on me as if she sees – a trick she says she’s learned.

I ask Mary to describe the essence of who she is. In response, she reflects on what people wrote about her in high school and college: “the one person who cares about people and doesn’t care much about a paycheck.”

What would happen to me if I suffered a head injury like Mary’s? I can imagine who might take care of me. But what if the money ran out? What would prevent me, or allow me – depending on how you see it – to be here, with my cane and gray wisps pulled back in a bun, with a walker covered in plastic bags and three backpacks stuffed full, telling stories that don’t make sense to the average listener?

Cambridge, MA
une, 2013

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