Natela Bakhtadze, a woman who had a young, smart son and a nice career with no major worries about living suddenly and willingly, gave up her dreams and life goals to dedicate her entire life to her son, who was diagnosed with hallucinatory paranoia at the age of 16.
“I thought I was an emancipated woman, with an excellent boy and nothing to worry about, when one day everything drastically changed,” she says, adding that neighbors and relatives, friends, abandoned her and now even criticize her for ‘not worrying enough.’
“How would they know? It is like the first day, when we learned about the diagnosis. Every day is like a first day. They wouldn’t know. Nobody came to us anymore,” she remarks.
Everything was a challenge to her back then. Knowledge – not knowing what to do, how to deal with things, how to treat Tornike, who is 36 now.
“At first we thought that it was the teenage years striking in him and that he would feel better in age, but it escalated and turned into an illness.”
The first mistake was looking for untraditional ways of treatment to avoid going at the psychiatric clinic known as Asatiani Clinic, which was like a horror in the old days, before it was shut down.
Home treatments worsened the situation and they had to go to Asatiani.
Natela couldn’t abandon her son with the nurses and horrible conditions, which is why she lived with her son there. Three times a year for three months they had to be there.
“Maybe if I had chosen correct ways from the beginning, we would have another result today,”
she remarks adding that Tornike resisted drinking medicine in the beginning. He became too aggressive and at first, he jumped from the third floor trying to commit suicide.
“You know why I did this?” Tornike told me, when I visited them at their apartment, “I wanted to attract the attention of people, nothing else.”
But Natela remembers further attempts, like drinking a big pack of psychotropic medicine or injections, for which he spent days in resuscitation.
Then, Natela began visiting church very often and talking to her priest. She and her son were both involved in religious life more actively, which ended suicide attempts and some questions were answered for Tornike.
Jumping from the third floor leaded to changing apartments from the third floor to the first floor. Now they live in a suburb of Tbilisi in an old, but large apartment.
Tornike smokes a lot. Perhaps three boxes a day. Natela hates the smell and keeps the windows open, if the weather is good. Cats started sneaking into the house and Tornike couldn’t let them go without feeding them. As a result there are two adult cats, Khatuna and Makvala, with nine kittens living in the apartment with mother and son. Tornike cannot let them go and Natela got used to them as well, always worrying if they need anything.
Days spent at Asatiani Clinic were dark and gloomy, but it had one bright side. One of the doctors initiated meetings with the parents who have children with mental illness.
It was a relief, Natela remembers. It is completely different when a doctor tries to explain something and when experienced parents share their knowledge, their senses and feelings.
Things changed drastically. They held art-therapy sessions with the parents and patients, where most of them revealed their talents. For Tornike it was writing poems. Some became popular, like Gela Jincharadze, who often has exhibitions of his paintings. Tornike had issued several collections of his poems, but not anymore.
“Painting is different. I love Gela’s works. As for poems, people don’t read them anymore. Only if they say – hey look, he has mental problems, let me see what he has written – that’s it.” - Natela remarked.
Asatiani Clinic was closed after 2010. Patients were sent to different clinics, which were refurbished, but it became much more expensive and they were not allowed to stay more than one month.
Something had to be done. Parents united and founded an association and became more active. “Maybe it was good for us to be more closed and separated, but not for our children. We needed to do something for our children and we were so sorry to see them be so talented and so ill at the same time,”- Natela remembers.
“Then one of our trainer doctors explained: imagine an orchestra, where every musician is a virtuoso, but they do not have a conductor – this is what happens to them, when there is perception, there is a memory, there is behavior, everything is separated without a conductor and it is called a split, schizophrenia is translated as a split.”
Both mother and son try to dig deeper, attempting to find the reason why it had happened.
“You know what, mom,” he tells Natela, “the devil prevailed in me. I cannot fight him back, that’s the reason.”
Sometimes accusations concern his mother, blaming that she was too restrictive or sometimes he thinks his predecessors committed too many sins and now he is punished.
When the parents united their activity, it turned into a coalition of mental health – movement for changes. The first goal was to demand the creation of services apart from the clinic, something like mobile group. After holding meetings with different organizations and funds they achieved results and a mobile group was created. It comes at home, provides with necessary medicine, if it is an urgent situation it also takes care to take a patient to the clinic.
Natela says it simplified her life a little bit. The group has solved conflicts with neighbors, which have lasted for years and sometimes even have required the engagement of the police.
“Neighbors need a peaceful and happy life. When a tiny problem appears outside they cannot get on with it. The mobile group solved it for me and I was relieved.”
The group was supported by a private foundation for three years and as Natela explained, they interested the Tbilisi City Council in this problem which agreed to finance and continue the project of mobile services.
“Very often there are patients, who do not have relatives, parents, or doctors to visit them and ask for their fate. Then something may happen and the media will report that some crime was committed by a person with a mental illness, but the patient didn’t have medicine or someone to take care of it and our coalition actively fights for this problem. Now mobile group visits them and this is our merit.”
I came to visit Natela to take some pictures and get to know Tornike. When I came he was talking on the phone. His mother explains that Tornike doesn’t have friends or someone to talk to. He is afraid to go outside as he has too many fears and so he remains home. He calls at the service of the Patriarchate where he can have conversation on different issues and he speaks for hours.
The house is bright, filled with vintage furniture and books. Natela introduced her cats and newborn kittens later inviting me to tea, where Tornike joined us.
The problem is, Natela explains, that he talks all the time and he requires you to listen to him.
Indeed, for several hours which I spent there, we discussed wide range of issues, like astrology, as it comes out he is fond of horse and sheep signs; religion, some reports how his priest teaches him to behave; history – Natela proudly says how Tornike remembers details from Georgian history with battles and other interesting facts.
I noticed a picture of Stalin and a poem dedicated to him. When I asked it came out that the grandfather of Tornike fought in the war and had great influence over his grandson after telling stories about the Soviet Union and times from the past.
“But, mom, I am getting a little confused lately, I cannot protect Stalin anymore, because people say that he killed many innocent people. Were they truly innocent, I am so puzzled.”
Then we switch to a modern politics. He likes Barack Obama and cannot characterize Putin. “I haven’t read much about him. Strange man.”
Natela is almost the only company for Tornike. She listens to him all the time, discussing various topics together, but sometimes the topics are the same, like horses and sheep from astrology or the history of Georgia.
“I cannot help myself,” Natela tells me, “some doctors and clergy advise not to listen to him as it may disturb him too much, but I don’t think so. I think it concerns people, who have deliriums and there is no sense in them talking, but Tornike speaks very interestingly. I sometimes even want to record his talks. Of course when his talks do not transform into delirium as well, I don’t like that.”
Tornike tells me that he loves his mother too much, but he likes to control her. When I ask why, he responds that he wants her to think like him, to be more involved in his world.
“This is violence, my dear,” Natela told him warmly and smiled. He gifted me one of his poem collections.
“Sometimes I think he will sit down and write a poem and I will get some rest, but no. He does it in one second,” Natela says.
And truly, when I asked him to sign the collection for him, he improvised an entire poem about klme on the last page of the book. Even though he was against taking pictures in the past, he kindly agreed to take photo with his mom and later with Khatuna, his beloved cat.
I promised to send photos, while Tornike assists me outside and we wait for the bus together. He asked me to come back sometime because he loves guests and he loves company.
“We cannot live forever and so when we will leave this world we really want there to be some kind of service, which would shelter our children,” Natela says. We both visited a family-type of living in Tbilisi, supported by Movement for Changes, where there are boys and girls living with social needs. Those kinds of homes are new and they are only appearing.
The dream of Natela and her fellow parents is to have the same sort of house for people with mental illness. This is a next goal for their movement to achieve and they actively campaign for it.
The aim is also raising compassion among people, as society doesn’t perceive mental patients properly. Sometimes they are afraid, or even angry at them, as that one case, when Tornike had conflicts with their neighbors and they came up yelling and scolding him.
Now Natela, who graduated from the faculty of bio-cybernetic and worked at the research institute, became a civil activist to achieve a better future for her son, whom she sacrificed everything she had.
“Me and my son are alone. It has to end,” she says.