Trying to reintegrate with the outside world

Many of us feel driven by circumstances toward the fine line dividing sanity and insanity. Some, like Vlassis, Dimitris and Georgia, crossed that line and were admitted into the Dafni Psychiatric Hospital for treatment. For years, they have been trying to resume their lives in the outside world. Maria is wearing a red woolen dress, with red knee-socks and shiny shoes that don’t quite suit her 40 years. She cuts a fairy-tale figure with tired-looking eyes. «They are her old clothes,» explained the young woman who looks after her: «She refuses to wear new clothes.» She is not wanted at home and the only home she has are her old clothes, those she brought with her when she first came to Dafni. She now lives in the Metamorphosis hostel and when Athina, sitting next to her says, «Maria is my best friend,» tears well up in her eyes at the thought that someone is happy that she still exists in the world. Loneliness is part and parcel of her illness. Another inmate, Markos, only 1.50 meters tall, wears a gray jacket and waistcoat, his hair is combed back with brilliantine; he could be a figure from an old Greek movie. His sad vacant eyes are turned downward, afraid to look elsewhere. He says he has no friends; he does not want to go out and wants nothing else from life. Markos has spent 35 years in the mental hospital. At the age of 20, he killed his mother and since then has been consumed by remorse. A matter of balance According to Dimitris, who is a mathematician, «it’s all to do with equations, a mistake can throw everything off balance, as in our lives.» His mistake was a fit of rage many years ago and now he is trying to remedy his past actions. But you have to want to get well. Eleni now lives in a subsidized apartment and if she finds work will be able to live independently like any healthy person. She came to the hostel many years ago, her hand riddled with bites. When asked about the bites, she said they were from her 5-year-old daughter. «She would bite me and tell me, ‘Go, I don’t want you at home.’» Eleni’s daughter had witnessed scenes of her mother trying to jump from the balcony and threatening to stab herself if her daughter didn’t stop crying. Eleni’s friend Georgia does not appear to belong in a psychiatric hospital but she has made several attempts on her life. She is now determined to find a job, but for people who have suffered such an illness, a simple task like finding a job may seem so difficult that they give up. Alexandros was a film fanatic and wanted to open a video club before he fell ill. Now he cannot watch a movie. Vangelis, sitting next to him, looks upset, but in fact he is upset for no reason and cannot think at all. This sadness is what you feel when you have lost someone you love but is a hundred times more intense. It is this great sadness that drives many to try to commit suicide and then end up hospitalized in Dafni. «The worst is regression,» said the nurse Irini. In her 30s, she expects little from her work in terms of remuneration and promotion; her only reward is to see the patients getting well. «Whenever they regress, it is as if your own life goes backward.» Any improvement is a reason to celebrate: When Vlassis was released after 16 years, he asked for a brush and shaving cream to shave. Petros, who went with him, asked for a jacket. «When the patients start to demand things, then they are on the mend,» said Vicky Karachaliou, who is in charge at the hospital. Now Vlassis falls asleep singing lyrics on the couch. He has written most of them himself but many times he gets confused and sings well-known songs. He doesn’t mind; he just wants to make you laugh. Vlassis was perfectly healthy until he did his military service in Cyprus at the age of 18. He was imprisoned and still talks of the cell and torture he experienced. He came to the hospital of his own accord and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Giorgos spent 25 years in and out of psychiatric hospitals. He would always return when he feared his own self. He is capable of recovering, as he is aware that he is ill. He still hears voices but knows that they are not real. How does he separate reality from illusion? «Nothing is illusory: The voices are there, they exist. If I pay attention to them, then I must stop living in this world and I don’t want to be alone anymore.»