With no kids of my own, the child of my mentally ill neighbour crept into my heart.
As soon as my neighbour’s mental illness became public knowledge, parents in our five-storey block of flats banned their children from playing with the woman’s son. The woman had become unstable and they were concerned about safety.
Long before the onset of the woman’s mental illness, her son, Mike, 4, developed a habit of knocking at my door on most mornings, wanting to come in and play. I did not want to be my neighbour’s babysitter so I would open the door and whisk the boy upstairs, back to his mom, feeling guilty as I saw tears flow from his large intelligent eyes.
‘I’m not your father and I don’t want to be a father figure - I’m too busy with my own life, thanks,’ I’d think to myself.
There were no playmates of Mike’s age in my home, which meant I’d have to supervise him every time he’d be around – a huge inconvenience as I work from home.
However, after a few more weeks of the child’s persistence I gave in. I arranged with his mother for one of Mike’s teenage half brothers to visit with the child. That way I wouldn’t be babysitting.
At times, Mike would bring his plastic ball and we’d play soccer. On some days, he’d request to watch cartoons on TV and we’d start fighting for the remote control. When the child was in a good mood I’d read to him. My family members created a place for him in our home and jokingly called him my ‘son.’
When Mike’s mom became mentally ill, I could not bring myself to shut him out of my life. I couldn’t desert him at this time of need. To avoid the woman constantly coming to my door I shortened the boy’s visits.
My family was concerned about the woman’s increasingly violent behaviour - throwing items downstairs from the third floor, including a mattress and breakables. She chased her mother from their home, calling her a witch and a vampire. Generally, the woman caused a lot of commotion in a once respectable and quiet neighbourhood.
The police would be called and they would find the woman in calm state and would not believe that she was sick and because no crime had been committed, they would leave without doing anything.
The risk of the woman inflicting bodily harm on her children became real and that gave me nightmares.
During these episodes, Mike would huddle by my door, wearing the same clothes he’d worn the day before. I’d let him in, fighting the tears welling in my eyes. I felt helpless because the other normal adults in his life were doing little to make his situation better.
I was also concerned with the effect all this was having on Mike. A neighbour had complained that Mike, while standing on the third floor stairs, had urinated on the neighbour’s car, which was parked on the ground floor. Mike had also been overheard accusing his granny of being a witch.
‘Mama speaks too much,’ Mike would say when I let him in. ‘I’m going to call the police.’
‘Are you hungry?’ I would ask. His face was unwashed.
He’d nod his head and together we’d go to the fridge and look for something to eat. Later I’d help him to wash his face.
Mike’s grandmother had initially turned down the help offered by other residents to seek medical attention for her daughter, but as the sick woman got more violent another neighbour and myself decided to intervene. I did it for my young friend. The man, a social worker, was able to calm the woman down and convince her she needed medical care. After the woman got her medication, she stabilized and is now functioning normally.
Mike looks happier, like any normal four year old. His visits to my home have diminished. Because I’d started feeling like a busybody, I’ve started disappearing from Mike’s life. I’ve a feeling I’m not needed anymore.How should neighbours handle a difficult family situation? Are we obliged to step in?