Before my husband died, our daughter, Veronica, was diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia. We brought her to countless specialists and nearly all of them came to the same conclusion. The condition is rare, but certainly not unheard of. We were devastated. The doctors suggested that we not start her on medication right away. They were concerned the chemicals might interfere with the development of her brain. At five years old, when proper brain development is critical, they didn’t want to chance it. Only if the hallucinations became severe would they prescribe antipsychotics.
Paul said it might help if we could identify the hallucinations over the course of the next year so we might know what to expect before she started school. This was pretty hard for me to agree with. I’d wanted her to start kindergarten right away. She’d demonstrated she was smart enough and more than capable, but eventually I caved. I just didn’t want to admit that Veronica needed special attention. We needed to separate her hallucinations from the normal, everyday make-believe that every kid her age does.
We started to pick up on a few outliers. One was a big dog who played with her while she was supposed to be sleeping. The other was a fish who followed her around and talked to her about cartoons. Most disconcerting to both of us, though, was the dark man with no eyes, nose, or ears who said how much fun it would be if she ran out and played in the street. More than once, Paul told me he’d chased after Veronica after she opened the screen door and ran toward the busy road.
After the third time, Paul got up at dawn, called in sick, and spent the day putting up a fence. It was summertime, and as much as I wanted to keep Veronica indoors, I knew sunshine and fresh air were too important for her to miss out on. Still, whenever Veronica played outside, she would make a beeline for the fence and start crying whenever she couldn’t go beyond it. I remember sitting with her on the grass next to the fence as she sobbed and talked to the fish about how the dark man was mad at her and had told the dog to be mean when they played. Then she screamed for a long time. When I finally got her to tell me what was wrong, all she said was that the fish got hit by a car and died. I did my best to console her, but it was useless.
Paul and I had a long talk that night. We decided her condition might be bad enough to require the medication we’d desperately tried to avoid giving her. After a trip to the doctor, who listened intently to all the observations we’d made, he agreed her condition was potentially severe and prescribed the drugs. We were told to observe her very, very carefully. The medication could cause the hallucinations to get worse before they got better.
Three days into Veronica’s medication experiment, her hallucinations became violent. I’d never seen our daughter so frightened. Over the course of two terrifying days, she’d describe to us how the fish turned into a monster after he died and made her water taste rotten; how the dog would hurt her whenever she was alone; how the dark man without the nose, ears, or eyes scratched her tummy so hard she’d start bleeding. Then she lifted her shirt. There were fresh scratches all over her belly. I looked at her fingernails, and sure enough, I could see tiny scraps of skin and blood underneath. Paul and I were at a loss.
The stress of Veronica’s episodes strained the relationship between me and my husband. I could tell his depression had reemerged. Still, I cared more about my innocent daughter than my adult spouse. The doctors asked that we begin to taper off Veronica’s medication to see if things got any better. I couldn’t see any difference. Veronica was always scared and kept scratching herself when we weren’t around, usually when she was asleep.
Paul and I began trading off nights where we slept in Veronica’s room to keep an eye on her. Still, I’d find blood on her sheets and clothes and under her nails whenever I’d check. Each of her hallucinations had become violent. The fish would bite her, the dog would lie on top of her so she couldn’t breathe, and the dark man would scratch her. I seriously wondered if Veronica needed to be institutionalized.
Paul shot himself in the head on a Sunday morning while Veronica and I were in the kitchen eating breakfast. I won’t bother detailing the shock, the feeling of betrayal, and the sheer sensation of helplessness that followed. I was left alone to care for a dreadfully ill daughter.
A couple weeks after his funeral, I was cleaning the house with Veronica by my side, proudly displaying the new mittens her aunt had purchased for her in hopes that she might stop scratching. So far, they’d worked pretty well. For whatever reason, Veronica was in one of her rare good moods as we went through the house. I was boxing up small stuff that had belonged to Paul. It hurt too much to see it every day.
Veronica chattered idly about sleeping a lot better lately with no bad dreams and the dog not getting on top of her anymore and the fish being kind and funny again. I told her how nice that was and we brought the box I was carrying out back to Paul’s shed. I thought about asking her if the dark man with the scary face was still asking her to hurt herself. Before I could speak, I saw her furiously scratching her belly. I sighed. Thank goodness for the mittens.
After trying about 15 of the 30-or-so keys Paul had kept on his keyring, I finally chose the right one for the shed. I opened the door and Veronica ran inside to explore. She turned left, I turned right, looking for a place to put the box. Veronica giggled and exclaimed, “now I’m on top of you!” I turned toward her to see who she was talking to. Crumpled up in the corner, underneath Veronica, was a dog suit.