The "Crazy" Lady

by Ned Wicker

When I was a child, growing up in a small Midwestern town, I was fascinated by the colorful people in our neighborhood and to this day I recall vividly their wonderful personalities and eccentricities.

There was the old “crazy woman” who lived at the end of my block. The house was on the corner and seemed like every square foot of the quarter-acre lot had a bush on it. No rhyme or reason, just randomly planted bushes and trees. She had plenty of money to live on, so she had no worries. She and her “caretaker” would walk down the block every day to a major street and walk about a mile and a half to the bus stop. They’d go shopping.

Always wore a coat

Even on hot, summer days she’d wear this overcoat. He would carry the two shopping bags. One day my father was coming home from work and he saw them. He stopped the car and offered them a ride. They accepted. All the way home she cursed him for not picking her up the day before. My father pulled into their driveway and they got out without saying a word.

Another day I was walking home on the street past her house just three doors down from our house, and she went into a rage. Cursing a blue streak, she followed me home and screamed at the top her lungs about how horrible a person I was—I think I might have been nine at the time-- how our family was Godless, and she identified in order and in detail all of the problems of the world.

When she was finished she walked home. She was known for her yelling and cursing, but she didn’t really “hurt” anybody, just swore at them. As a nine year-old it was a little overwhelming. As a teenager, I thought she was hilarious. As an adult, I felt compassion for her. I moved away from that little town when I was 18 and never knew what became of her, but it seems a shame that no one really helped her.

I share with you because the law in this country really does protect the rights of an individual. It was her right to be the crazy lady down the street. She had a roof, food and money for living expenses. But was she OK?

The law says it’s none of my business. What if she were a drug addict? Who knows what was going on in that house, but her wild public ranks were legendary. What if she were an alcoholic, cutting her life short by the excessive drinking? It presents an interesting question.

Conservatives would might say that she has a right to live her life by her own rules and leave her alone. Liberals might say that she is hurting herself and we should do something to help her, especially in light of her public behavior. Let’s say that she was an alcoholic. She has the right to refuse treatment.

I recall an alcoholic patient in the hospital for another medical condition. The doctor told him that his immediate issue would go away in a day or so, but if he did not stop drinking, he would die within a year. They tried to get him into treatment, but he chose to drink and died four months later. Here’s the real question, given that people have individual rights, what can be done to save them from themselves? The lady down the street had a right to privacy, but obviously something was wrong in her life.

How can a family help?

Here’s another question. Let’s say that the lady down the street was a relative, like my mother’s aunt or something. We never did know who her family was, but what if she were our blood relative? What could my mother have done, if anything at all, to help her aunt? The old woman’s bizarre behavior did not necessarily constitute mental illness, but just assume for a moment that there was reason for concern and the family wanted to help.

If she were an alcoholic, those in AA would certainly consider that a mental affliction. After all, the second step says, “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” If our own “insane” behavior causes us to do things that are potentially harmful, or even deadly, then the law should have some stipulation for that. If I were about to jump off a bridge to my death, a police officer would try to stop me, or maybe a motorist would make an attempt. It’s the thing to do.

Yet millions of people have mental illness and are allowed to refuse treatment, even though their behavior is extreme or even potentially harmful. Addicts fall into that category, but if they don’t want treatment, or if they don’t have money for treatment, they go without.

Am I my brother's keeper?

Am I my brother’s keeper? Yes, I believe so. I know it is a difficult decision, but would I want to intervene against another’s wishes for the purpose of saving them from themselves? Am I willing to even try? I hope so.

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