by Francesca Zelnick

The Other Half


My childhood home was a twin. We shared a porch and a backyard, divided by railings. We shared rooms divided by walls. I didn’t know my neighbors and they didn’t know me, though we lived under the same roof for almost two decades. I never once set foot inside the other half. I don’t know if their side mirrored ours.

In my teenage years, I made a lot of jokes about living next to a home for the mentally challenged. “Which side is really crazy?” I’d ask playfully, teasing my family about our many individual and collective quirks. I never really believed it was funny, but I needed a way to make dark things feel light.

At night I could hear them scream. Our shared walls were not very thick, I suppose, or maybe their anguish was just that unbridled. Sometimes one of the caregivers would come in and yell at them to be quiet. This always troubled me more than the initial screaming, but as a young child, I didn’t yet know why.

And the truth is, except for the occasional yell of a caregiver, nothing about living next door to a group of mentally challenged men ever bothered or worried me as a child. Not even the screams or the cries. It was just something that was – a fact about my house, like the sound of my bedroom door opening and closing, or the floorboard in the hallway that always creaked. The voices that came through the walls were just another house noise. They were part of my home. They were the other half.

On their side they cried a lot, and screamed a lot, and fought a lot, and I presume, dealt with a lot of pain and sadness. On our side we joked a lot, and laughed a lot, and ran around a lot, and played a lot of music, and held a lot of parties, and tried to keep pain and sadness as far away as possible, and tried to make everything light. Which side was really crazy?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be whole. So much of my life is unbalanced. I live in the extremes. I can be blissfully happy or devastatingly sad, but never both. And how I am feeling at any given moment dictates the way I feel about what surrounds me. It’s never the other way around. Everything gets swallowed up by one feeling. It gets divided into a category. It becomes fractional.

I am never really complete. I am always looking over the railing at the other half of my life – the half that is happy or the half that is sad, whichever I’m not currently standing in. I can see it, but I cannot will myself to get there. Sometimes feelings, like people, are so close and yet so unreachable. Sometimes you can live with them for decades without even knowing their names.

I know that being mentally ill is different than being mentally challenged, but I also recognize that both are deficiencies of the mind. Both mean something is broken or lacking. Both deserve our compassion and our help.

Sometimes they cannot be helped. And I know that. I do. But I also know why, even as a child, I was so troubled by the caregiver’s response to her screaming patient. I know that anger was not the right response. I know that there was more that could have been done. I know that something was missing.

I have struggled – and continue to struggle – with depression. It is a part of me that is broken and incomplete. It has never made me want to hurt someone, ever. But it has made me lonely and angry and irrational at times. It has made my life feel uncontrollable. It has made me understand how easy it is to go mad.

I am lucky in that I have a support system. I have friends and family and health insurance. When the darkness became unbearable, it was difficult to ask for help, but easy to find it, and a common enough problem that there were answers for me. Not everyone is so lucky.

Some people are unreachable, and fractional, and lonely in ways it is difficult for the other half to understand. Some people spend their whole lives trapped in the houses of their own bodies, listening to voices and screams, unable to break through the walls. Some people get swallowed up. Some people can’t make it to the other side.

And some people look at them and call them hopeless. But who among us doesn’t wish to be rescued from the darkness? Who among us doesn’t wish to be the rescuer? It is crazy not to want to try. It is crazy to stop reaching for the light in ourselves and others. It is crazy to call anything hopeless. It is crazy to give up now.

Comments on: "The Other Half" (7)

  1. It’s difficult Francesca…to see with clarity these days. I appreciate your writing because you are so brave to write about the things that happen and that are thought…but that most of us don’t know how to put onto paper in the amazing way that you do. I’ve been the protector, the nurturer, from the moment I had my first child…and it’s hard to watch the craziness that goes on all around me. Yes, it is hard to see with clarity these days…and to know how to help the craziness and to stop the craziness…and to begin the healing.

  2. I think that the middle way is often the path with the greatest contentment, but its hard to find, or if found, hard to follow. I relate to your words. Peace and brightness and joy to you…

  3. Sometimes it’s hard to have constant hope for those who are trapped. Knowing that nothing you do can help them. Sometimes, when love is enough, you wonder if you should just give up….

    (sorry that wasn’t a very positive or inspirational comment. your writing is beautiful as always..)

    • It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t particularly positive, what matters most (to me anyway) is having someone who understands – and you always do. You always do. I’m sorry that you have to understand this with me, but I am so, so grateful to have someone who does. I’m so, so grateful not to have to be alone in it. Love you. Always. xoxoxox

  4. This hits close to home. You described a lot of what I have felt and experienced in my own depressed stretches. Thank you for this.

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