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How I Learned To Live With Passion Through My Grandmother’s Struggle With Schizophrenia

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My grandmother Brenda was born in the mountains of Alabama in 1942. By the age of 19, just months after giving birth to my mother, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Mental illness was not discussed in the 1950s and 60s like it is today. It was a taboo subject in rural areas of the South, which left many people shunned, hidden away and accepting the few treatment options that were often just radical experiments.

My grandmother was one of these hidden individuals. Brenda was institutionalized her entire adult life, bouncing around between mental hospitals and group homes in Alabama and Tennessee, until the day she died in 2012 at 70 years old.

Can you fathom being mentally and physically confined in a way that is completely beyond your control for 51 years?

Photos Courtesy: Rosalie Bardo

Brenda didn't commit a crime. She was full of life and love, but unfortunately taken hostage by her mind. Even typing the words “institutionalized her entire adult life” sends shivers down my spine.

Throughout my childhood, we'd visit her when we could and bring her home for the holidays. Yet, I was never able to form a strong bond with her because she was always highly medicated and seemed to remain sheltered inside of her head.

She’d mumble, laugh and talk to herself. She always carried around baby dolls that she’d feed or put makeup on. Our great-grandmother (Brenda’s mother) would tell us stories about how Brenda loved doing hair and before her diagnosis wanted to become a cosmetologist.

I wish I could’ve met that person, the woman underneath the schizophrenia. Sometimes she'd interact with me by smiling and innocently asking, "Can I have a cigarette?" but I’d awkwardly change the subject because she’d ask for one every few minutes. A part of me knew that deep down she was still there, smothered beneath antipsychotics, but it was still overwhelmingly heartbreaking.

I couldn't help but always wonder what she would've been like without shock therapy and medication.

Witnessing Brenda's lifelong confinement and extreme suffering lit a fire within me at a very young age. Through her struggle, I was able to grasp an understanding of the power of perspective and gratitude. I gained a deep appreciation for the simple pleasures of life and made a commitment to myself to never take a single day for granted. I would genuinely enjoy all of the things she was never able to do.

I can’t imagine rarely being allowed to simply walk outside and look up at the sky. The majority of us are free to do literally whatever we want throughout any given day. We aren't being monitored 24/7; we aren't locked inside of a building. You can make a quick trip to the grocery store, walk around the mall, drive to the beach, sleep all day, go for a hike, paint, sing, create, write or travel. You get the picture.

Now take a moment to really ponder it. There are numerous fulfilling and exciting things that can be done in one day if you utilize your time and focus on gratitude.

Before social networks were a part of our everyday lives I adopted the phrase “live with passion” as my personal mantra. There was really no valid excuse I could use for not fully embracing each day.

I must pursue my dreams, take risks, be brave, question everything and explore exotic places. How could I not when I know firsthand there are so many people in the world without the power or choice to do the same?

We're all guilty of overlooking simple blessings, such as having the freedom of choice, which is why I'm sharing my grandmother's story. Sadly, Brenda was never able to choose the type of life she wanted to live, but each morning you and I are given another opportunity to lead meaningful, passionate lives.

Being aware of your power of choice holds profound significance, and because of Brenda, I choose to live each day with passion and purpose.

It’s empowering to recognize the greatness that exists within you. Of course, some days bring tribulations and are harder than others, but we've all suffered, endured and overcome, which is precisely why I believe there is hope.

I’ve realized that embracing a life of passion isn't solely about taking chances, being adventurous or living outside of what is deemed acceptable by “social norms.”

Living with passion means to be genuinely interested in life on a global scale. It means to care and to courageously invest in others, beyond greed or selfish gain.

Be curious; explore and examine the world and the people in it. Connect with souls everywhere you go and spread love through interaction, if for no other reason than just simply because you can.

Top Photo via We Heart It