dilemmas

This week: should I take my son to my friend's party? Glenys's schizophrenic son of 25 comes home from hospital at weekends, but he can behave extremely oddly. She desperately wants him to come to her best friend's birthday party, because he knew her as a child. Should she ask if he could come?

Talk about walking on eggs! My instinctive answer, which is that Glenys's son should be left at home, makes me feel extremely guilty and non-PC. So the only way of dealing with this problem is first to approach it as if her son were not a schizophrenic.

If my best friend wanted me to go to her birthday party and had not put my son's name on the invitation, I would take that blank space as a clear message saying: "I am asking you and only you and no one else." Therefore I wouldn't dream of asking if I could bring him. Anyway, most normal people in their twenties would rather walk through fire than go a party full of wrinkly old friends of their parents asking them endlessly where they are studying now: "Media studies? Visual anthropology? How absolutely fascinating - but what is it exactly? Then do tell me exactly what do you want to do eventually?"

Or let's say that her son were a normal two-year-old who hadn't been asked to a wedding ceremony in a church. Would she twist her friend's arm by begging that the child could come, and risk her friend's big day being ruined by a screaming tantrum in the back? Children, after all, are just as much people as the rest of us and certainly should not be discriminated against in any way, but there are times when it's just not appropriate to bring them along.

Now let's look at the borderline cases. Were her son a raging alcoholic on a major binge - and many see alcoholism as an illness like any other illness - again would Glenys insist on bringing him and risk him disrupting her friend's party by getting completely pissed in the garden? I think not. There are quite a few people I know who I can never bring myself to ask to dinner simply because their husbands are raging bores who monopolise the conversation. They can't help it. I just can't bear them around. I know that if I were Christ I would welcome everyone - bores, sexual gropers, two-year-olds, alcoholics, schizophrenics, women I felt horribly jealous of because they're so ravishing and so on. As a saint I fail dismally. But I'm not a saint, and sometimes it can take a little while to get to know a schizophrenic and feel comfortable with him. I was completely unnerved by a friend's schizophrenic son pouring gravy onto my plate until it overflowed onto the tablecloth and eventually onto my dress and the floor. Now I know him I could easily prevent him from pouring with a quick "Hey, hold on!" But at first his behaviour was so totally unfamiliar that I had no idea how he might react were I to ask him to stop.

Finally, what are Glenys' motives? Does she want to make a statement about the mentally ill by dragging him along? Is this the right moment? Or does she want to show him off, to tell everyone she has a son, however confused he may be at times? Well, we all want to show our friends our children but most of us limit our desire to photographs in our wallets.

My advice would be for Glenys to leave her son at home with a carer or at the hospital, and go and have a good time on her own. It might be not only kinder to herself and her friend and her guests - who could understandably be frightened by very unfamiliar behaviour - but also to her son who may well not really want to come.

What readers say

Care is what your son really needs

In the past I have worked on a psychiatric ward and know only too well that the families of the mentally ill often find themselves torn between wanting to do what is seen to be correct for their relative, only to know deep down that political correctness and care of the mentally ill are uneasy bedfellows.

There was a time when the mentally ill could seek asylum, sanctuary from the stress of the outside world, which was considered essential for restoring some semblance of "normality" to their lives.

Sadly, Care in the Community put paid to the concept of asylum and consequently many vulnerable and frightened people found themselves without support in times of illness.

Glenys's son is lucky enough to have secured a bed, but his need is not to be included in social events. It is to be cared for in his time of need. I have no doubt that Glenys knows this as well as I do.

Anon

An illness is no bar to social life

Of course Glenys should nag her friend and ask if her schizophrenic son can come to the birthday party. Nowadays people are beginning to understand that mental illness is just that - an illness.

Presumably no one would think twice about asking if a son suffering from cancer could come to the party, so why hesitate about mental illness?

It is only by demonstrating to the outside world that the illness exists, through no fault of those who suffer from the devastating symptoms of schizophrenia, that we can hope to reduce the stigma.

So please Glenys, do take your son to the party if your friend agrees. I'm sure that you and she will not regret it.

Marjorie Wallace

Chief Executive, SANE

It really depends on your son's condition

Our son has been ill for five years (now aged 23) and the only thing we are always advised by the medical profession is to keephim on an even keel - without excitement or change of routine - even to go to the cinema - if he is in hospital or going through a bad period.

If, on the other hand, our son is at home and stable, he does sometimes come to parties with us, but we always tell our host we cannot let them know until the very last minute as it is the nature of the illness that sufferers always change their mind and have huge mood swings - from hour to hour some days. The other thing that should always be avoided (which is very difficult with our son) is alcohol.

The first person they should consult is the ward manager or consultant psychiatrist caring for their son. He may even choose to stay the night in hospital rather than be with a carer, if it is someone he does not know.

I do wish them luck, and hope he is well enough to go, enjoy it, and not come back home feeling different and inadequate compared to all the others there of his age.

Diana Herford

A party is not the right atmosphere

Eight years ago, I gave up work to care for my schizophrenic brother. I have been in a similar situation and have learnt that noisy parties with lots of people (many of them strangers) and possible easy access to alcohol are not a good idea.

My brother has lost touch with his own friends and now sees only relatives and a few of my close friends. It has taken a long time for both him and them to develop trust and understanding.

Perhaps your son could be encouraged to send a card or present for your friend's birthday and she could be encouraged to invite him to visit with you at another time. Both of them will need your patient support if their friendship is to survive.

I think you should make every effort to go to the party alone.

Anon

Next week's problem: Who comes first, parents or partner?

Dear Virginia,

My parents will be 80 this year. I'm the only one of their children likely to organise a celebration, which I know would mean a great deal to them. But they are, and always have been, fundamentalist Christians whose actions are generous but whose social outlook is deeply conservative. They found my divorce very hard to take, and I've never been quite sure just how hard they struggle to accept that my partner of seven years is a woman - I'm their eldest daughter. I can't imagine how I'd be able to introduce my friend to theirs, most of whom have been in the church for ages. My partner would almost certainly volunteer to make herself scarce but I know she'll be hurt and rejected. Should I stop plans for a party now, or should I go ahead and try to pick up the pieces afterwards?

Yours sincerely, Beth

Comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora. Send personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, 'The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax 0171-293-2182) by Tuesday morning. If you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.

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