Stories, passions

Peter and Mary

This is the story of Peter and Mary, not the biblical characters or folksingers … but rather two of today’s Salvadorans who have had the misfortune to cross paths with a mental disorder.

Back then, life seemed fairly “normal” for 20-year-old Pedro (Peter) Barrera, despite the war that had ravaged his El Salvador homeland throughout much of his life.  El Salvador was in a state of political and social peril during the 1970s, culminating in a civil war from 1980 and 1992.

A restless young man, Peter took on political beliefs that led him to react to the injustices in his country.  “My education was difficult because of the country’s social upheavals,” says Peter who, despite a fascination for mathematics, opted to pursue a baccalaureate in Electrical Engineering.  He succeeded in making the honor roll his first year, but lost this merit when police found him hanging posters in the capital city, San Salvador, blatantly advocating the release of political prisoners.

“It was a December 28, 1977 when the police apprehended us and we were imprisoned,” says Peter. “The poverty and marginalization all around us caused turmoil involving almost all students at the time.”  But neither prison nor torture destroyed this young man’s conviction or his political ideals. Peter had hoped to attend the University of El Salvador.  However, the army had closed it down and Peter was forced to turn to other horizons. Being the youngest son of six children with an alcoholic father, Peter sought after the American dream.  After being deported back from the border, he left for Costa Rica in 1982.

Peter lived in a friend’s house for a time.  Confined to a small room, sadness overtook him and his behavior began to change.  He stopped talking with people, lost his connections, and allowed everything to remain bottled up in his mind.  Insanity watched silently, eager to enter his mind.

Far from his family, Peter’s depression was fueled by his immense grief over a brother who had recently died.   Furthermore, there was a lack of work and leisure activities, and the inherent strength to cope with loneliness.

“Suddenly I began to have strange thoughts in my head.”  Despite the intervention of a Red Cross program for immigrants, Peter couldn’t imagine himself prisoner of a mental disorder called schizophrenia.  Unaware, his mind fluctuated between reality and fiction, causing inappropriate behavior in the eyes of others.  Left alone because of his strange behavior, plagued by thoughts of persecution and death, he spent days watching shadows and, thinking them impure, retaining his bowel movements.

“Suddenly I began to have strange thoughts in my head.”  Despite the intervention of a Red Cross program for immigrants, Peter couldn’t imagine himself prisoner of a mental disorder called schizophrenia.  Unaware, his mind fluctuated between reality and fiction, causing inappropriate behavior in the eyes of others.  Left alone because of his strange behavior, plagued by thoughts of persecution and death, he spent days watching shadows and, thinking them impure, retaining his bowel movements.

Diagnosed with a schizophrenic disorder, a psychiatrist prescribed medication for Peter that enabled him to function in society.  He became active in the church where, praying the Rosary in the parish of San Jacinto, he met his wife, Mary, in 1989. Although Mary says she had no clear understanding of why her husband thought and acted as he did, it wasn’t until 1991 that his illness was confirmed.

“He was acting weird, he was jealous … even with my in-laws, and slept all day,” she remembers. “I felt fear and strange misgivings because of his behavior and verbal abuse, profanity and insults.  But I never mentioned them to my family for fear of their rejection.”

Overwhelming jealousy and a deteriorating relationship with his wife led to a breakdown that culminated during Peter’s second institutional confinement in 1992.  Eventually, he went from being confined in the psychiatric hospital to getting released and attending self-help sessions during the day until 2002.  The organization Training and Research Association for Mental Health (ACISAM) invited the couple to take part in a self-help forum, which Mary attended regularly and with great interest every Saturday.

ACISAM is a Non-Government Organization working in El Salvador since 1986.  Among its programs are “Family-to-Family” self-help psycho-educational workshops for family caregivers, and an art therapy group aimed towards people with mental illness. These workshops provide a place where patients learn a variety of artistic techniques and treatments to facilitate their recovery and social integration.  Instructors say that the workshops have greatly benefitted Peter, contributing to significant and enduring changes.  Peter has become very stable, less moody, and more self-reliant, admitting that he feels more comfortable in his environment.

“I sense a great change in me,” Peter explained, “because now I can relate better. I don’t feel so compelled to do things and I’m more self-sufficient. I feel safe.  I’m not drifting or afraid that, at any time, I’m going to regress.” Recently Peter attended a conference in Brazil, sponsored by the World Health Organization, as the mental health consumer delegate from El Salvador. He has also joined the leadership team of the program in El Salvador in which he participates.

“I sense a great change in me,” Peter explained, “because now I can relate better. I don’t feel so compelled to do things and I’m more self-sufficient. I feel safe.  I’m not drifting or afraid that, at any time, I’m going to regress.” Recently Peter attended a conference in Brazil, sponsored by the World Health Organization, as the mental health consumer delegate from El Salvador. He has also joined the leadership team of the program in El Salvador in which he participates.

In countries like El Salvador, two major diseases – schizophrenia and depression – affect at least 140,000 people.  And while science currently seeks solutions, the civil system tries to cope with the high rate of mental illnesses through medical measures that ensure the welfare of people like Peter.  With the support of organizations such as ACISAM and its education, support and empowerment programs, patients and family caregivers are involved in community based services that yield solutions and guide the mentally ill toward sustainable self-improvement, especially in their social reintegration, stabilization for work, and struggle against stigma and for their human rights.

“The partnership provides me a window where you can better see the situation, where you can express yourself, where you can interact with people who have similar problems,” explains Peter. 30 years ago, madness slipped through his door, but he now sees an opportunity to chase it away through the window, inviting sanity to return.