Al mijn vrienden zijn gek
By Sera Anstadt
Translated by Sarah Lawson
First Published: 1983
This Edition: 2007
Key Themes: Dutch author, autism, schizophrenia, hallucinations, hearing voices, hospitalisation, best-seller
Sera Anstadt’s touching story of her son’s schizophrenia and autism was published in Holland in 1980 and soon went through numerous reprinting and became a minor classic.
Raf (short for Rafael) was a sensitive, intense child who grew into a seriously disturbed adolescent. It is the mid 60s, and his mother feels that the social workers and medical professionals are blaming her for his condition. The theories of R.D. Laing are widely accepted and she is made to feel guilty for her son’s illness and only learns the diagnosis by accident when she is chatting with her GP at a party.
Raf’s schizophrenia becomes progressively worse; he hallucinates and hears voices. In The Netherlands he cannot be hospitalised unless he gives his permission, but he is making life unbearable for his mother. He wanders around the country but usually comes home in a confused state and is unsure where he has been. Foreign travel is predictably disastrous. Over the years he enters various mental institutions, where the policies vary from extreme laissez-faire to trial-and-error experiments in medication. To schizophrenia is added autism. He tends to feel better at each hospitalisation only to slip back to a worse state after the novelty wears off. Sometimes when he is feeling better he goes back to live with his mother for a time. At length he finds a clinic where he seems to be reasonably happy and the management is not wedded to any rigid theory. He achieves a certain equilibrium, and the story ends when he makes a brief visit back to his family and remarks that… “all my friends are crazy”.
This is a brave and honest book which provides the reader with a well-balanced account of what it means to love someone deeply and to support him on his journey through an imaginary world that dictates his reality.
About the Author
Serafina ‘Sera’ Anstadt was born in Lvov, Ukraine in 1923, when the city was still in Poland. She and her parents and older brother Milo emigrated from Poland to The Netherlands in 1930, where she has lived ever since. As Jews, they had to go into hiding after the Nazi invasion of The Netherlands. This is Sera’s first book, originally written in 1980, over the past 25 years she has written a further eight books – both fiction and non-fiction. She has also worked as an actress.
Raf is now 30 years old, a withdrawn, seriously disturbed young man who sometimes thinks about the past with a melancholy smile. Until he was 15 he was cheerful and easy-going, although he could also be troublesome and now and then even strikingly hot tempered. He was good looking: tall with curly black hair, big dark eyes, and broad shoulders. If he was told something he could listen with great concentration, as though he wanted to feel just what the other felt.
He went in for sports, especially tennis and athletics, and was bright and popular. Many of his friends played an instrument, and he wanted to study musicology. In his room, which was next to mine and which, until the onset of his illness, he had arranged himself, a bed stood against one of the walls; opposite there was a big desk and next to it a record player and a music stand. Among all his other pursuits, Raf played guitar and liked having his friends in after school to play music. Sabina, my daughter, who was almost two years older, lived on the top floor.
When Raf was three years old I got divorced. In the beginning that was a great shock for him and Sabina, as it probably is for most children who stop seeing their father every day. Raf, especially, often looked at me with big surprised eyes but was too small to understand an explanation and seldom asked directly about Hans, his father. The relationship between Hans, me, and the children became relatively good again quite soon after the divorce. Hans remarried soon afterwards and while the children were still small they stayed with him regularly.
In the beginning Raf often cried quietly in his bed after such a visit at the weekend. I remember once going to tuck him in and seeing his tears. “Raf, why are you crying?”
“I’m not crying,” he replied.
“But I can see that you’re sad.”
He turned away from me. “No,” he said and shook his head violently.
I got the impression that he was trying to be brave. I couldn’t get him to talk about his sadness, and even then I already had the feeling that he wanted to spare me his troubles.
Sabina was better at controlling her emotions and could talk about them more easily. She protected Raf. The children got along well and were almost always together. Sabina often said later that she had pleasant memories of her childhood. A good harmony prevailed among us. Raf and Sabina eventually came to understand that our life at home without a father was different from that in a complete family. I even had the impression that they were less troublesome because of that. They didn’t want to make it too hard for me. Eventually they even liked it that we were a three-some. Sometimes when they came home from a weekend at their father’s they would say, “It’s great that at home we have only one parent. At papa’s you always have to ask two people.”
But they did enjoy the contact with Hans, who gave them lots of attention. They even went along with his family on holiday, and when they were older Hans sometimes took them abroad.
In those days we still had a large circle of friends, including some divorced parents with whom we celebrated Christmas and New Year’s. That way the children didn’t have the feeling that they were in an odd situation. Yet, sometimes Raf behaved strangely when he was quite young, although you could regard his strange behaviour at that time as a childish expression of something an adult has forgotten.
I remember that once after a rainstorm some kindergarten children cut worms in pieces with sticks on the street. Raf, who must have been about five, joined in. That night he dreamed about it. I was woken by terrified screaming from his room and got up frightened. Raf came to me crying. But even with his eyes open he couldn’t rid himself of the dream.
“Wake up. You’re with Mama,” I said. But suddenly he ran away from me as though he were being chased and rushed through all the rooms of the house.
“Worms! Worms!” he screamed.
I picked him up and put him in my bed but he kept screaming. All the time he clutched my blanket with both hands and yelled, “Here too! There are worms here, too!” In every fold of the blanket he saw a worm. He kept jumping up, hiding his head in his hands and screaming the same thing.
“Now it’s all over,” I said after a while. “Now stop it.” But it was as though he either didn’t hear or see me or else he was asleep with his eyes wide open. Finally, once I shook him good and hard he became really awake, threw his arms around me and fell asleep again.
Around the same time he also had fits of rage if he couldn’t get his own way. If we had to go home but he wanted to stay in the playground, he could have such a tantrum that I literally had to drag him along. At home he carried on with it. He kicked doors and walls, screamed and yelled. Then I took him in my arms and said to him, “Why are you acting so stupid? All the children go home when they have to eat.” He snuggled against me then, still sobbing a bit. “Now try to be a big boy tomorrow and not cry when it’s time to go home,” I said.
After tantrums like that he would fall asleep exhausted. When he went to school and learned to read and write, which he did with great diligence, the tantrums stopped. But he remained an oversensitive child. When I read to him in the evening he reacted with fear at sad or scary stories and put his fingers in his ears.
Sabina worried about him. “Raf, here we go again,” she used to say. “I’ll let you know when you can listen again.”
Raf took music lessons at a very young age: first flute, then guitar. He practised faithfully every day, preferably close to me and while I was drinking tea. It wasn’t until he could be sure that I wouldn’t go away that he began to play. I could see in his eyes that he was asking for compliments. It was soon clear that he needed me more than Sabina did.
He had a painfully excessive need to do everything as well as possible. He chose all his own clothes and if I tried to give him advice about it he would get angry. In that period it also struck me that he combed his hair for an excessively long time. Sometimes he combed it for an hour and was late for school. He got furious if I said anything about it and could not be dissuaded from his compulsive combing. He continually stroked his hair to check if it was still in place. In the end he would get anxious if anything came in contact with his hair. He would wear only sweaters and shirts that fastened with buttons. After a year this compulsion gradually lessened and finally disappeared. But his hair has always remained important to Raf. At the barber’s he violently resisted having his haircut, but because this happens a lot with little boys, I didn’t pay much attention to it. Later I noticed that he distrusted people who made remarks about his hair. He has always continued to do that. He was one of the first to wear long hair and now it still comes down to his shoulders.
Although Raf and Sabina always played together, Raf still often took her toys. As the elder, Sabina was always the first to get a scooter, a bike, roller skates, or other important toys, and then it became apparent how jealous Raf could be. I promised him that he would get a bike the next year, but he couldn’t bear to wait. On every possible occasion he grabbed Sabina’s bike.
“I want to ride,” he said and sped off.
When he was about nine he began to monopolize the shower so much in the morning that nobody else had a chance to use it. If we asked him to come out, he wouldn’t answer and would lock the door. He emerged only when the supply of hot water in the boiler was used up. When I told him that the next day he couldn’t be first in the shower, he answered that that was all right with him. He was somewhat ashamed, as though he himself was offended by his own behaviour. Eventually I succeeded in arranging fixed times for each of us. Raf couldn’t resist doing something that he really wanted to do, and his compulsive fads kept coming out in other ways.
When I taught him French knitting he made dozens of yards of rope. He began very early while he was still in bed, and when I went to wake him I saw him feverishly knitting away. When that compulsive activity had disappeared a few months later, a new activity came along that he had to do over and over and that took precedence over everything else. He went fishing for hours day after day. When the season would begin he would become very nervous. The evening before he would lay out the rod, hooks, bait, and sandwiches and ask me, “Mum, will you wake me at five o’clock? You won’t forget?” He was so enthusiastic that I had to promise.
He left at six in the morning, climbed into the shrubbery on the embankment behind our house and stayed there all day. He spoke to no one and only peered at his float; he would forget the time and I usually had to call him so he would come and eat. He kept this up for some years.
Once I asked him, “But Raf, how do you stand it – just sitting there all day long looking at that line to see if it moves?”
He thought for a moment, searching for an answer; he had a dreamy look in his eyes: “Oh, it’s so quiet then, you can make up all sorts of stories. Sometimes it’s as though they’re quite real.”
In the beginning of his time at the gymnasium a new interest came along. He began to read the books of Karl May one after the other and started acting like the heroes in them. He walked straight as a ramrod, looked at everyone with a penetrating gaze and did everything in a provocatively slow tempo.
At that time the difference between Raf, who was 13, and 15-year-old Sabina began to play a role. They gradually acquired differing interests and sought each other’s company less and less.
Sabina became difficult and neglected her schoolwork. She went regularly to young people’s cafés that were then springing up. But she couldn’t handle all those new impressions. When I warned her that her schoolwork would suffer if she kept this up, she got angry.
When she finally failed a year, we decided that she should go to live with her father in The Hague for a while. Not only she, but also Raf and I found that a difficult decision. In the beginning we found the house empty without her and it was hard to get used to her absence.
One evening I noticed that Raf looked tense and sad. He bowed his head as though trying to collect his thoughts. Then he began to talk thoughtfully: “You know, Mum, I’ve had such a heavy feeling recently. It’s like there’s something here.” He pointed to his chest. “I often can’t help thinking that I haven’t been nice enough to you and then I feel guilty. Every day I’m dissatisfied with myself. It’s one thing after another. At night I wake up and can’t get back to sleep because I can’t help thinking of things I’ve done wrong. When I get up in the morning I don’t feel rested and at school I’m awfully sleepy.”
Because I felt that he wanted to say more, I tried not to fill up the silence that ensued. After a while Raf continued, “There’s something else.” Again he paused. “It’s hard to talk about it,” he said slowly. “But I have to say it because it’s worrying me.”
There was another pause. I tried to encourage him. “Go ahead and say it,” I said.
“My erections scare me,” he went on. “My penis is too big and I’m afraid I’ll never be able to go to bed with a girl. I can’t help thinking about it a lot and it’s causing things to get worse and worse at school.”
“But Raf,” I said, “You’re imaging those things. Just read something about it and then you’ll see that you’re worrying unnecessarily. And as for your behaviour toward me, I think you’re usually very nice to me. I remember that when you were about five, you said to me, ‘It’s a pity that I have such a dear little mummy. I’d really like to be a big, naughty boy but that’s impossible.’ So even then you were sweet to me.”
I realized that I had neglected Raf for a while because Sabina had taken up so much of my time. He hadn’t wanted to make it hard for me, but now that she was away I noticed how many problems he was struggling with that he had never talked about.
After this personal chat he shut himself completely off from me again. He passed to the third year class and then his depressive moods began to be more pronounced.
There were always friends around him who tried to cheer him up. They brought along their instruments and made music together. That helped, and when his illness became more clearly recognizable they still kept coming, until Raf wouldn’t let them in any more.