Strange Tales

Strange Tales

mental illness


Mental illness is discussed, but we often must recognize it and take appropriate action. And sometimes, we do recognise it, but there is little that we can do. In this strange but true story, names have been changed to protect the identities of the people involved.


There were two siblings,  Ameera (6 years old),  and Zain (4 and a half year old). Their parents were both educated. The family’s financial woes led to their mother Alia feeling distressed. And because Zain had special needs (comorbid autism and ADHD) she was overwhelmed and depressed. Zain required efforts above and beyond Alia and her husband’s abilities and resources. Alia told everyone that Ameera was a brilliant child, like a child prodigy, with abilities far beyond her age group. But with meagre resources, Alia and her husband needed help to afford to send Ameera to school.


Zain had several challenges: he was completely nonverbal and had several behaviour issues that needed to be addressed, and he was also spoiled. Ameera, on the other hand, was apprehensive and often had the “deer caught in the headlights” look. The girl was also easily scared. Alia’s husband worked at a private organization. His salary could only cover rent and basic necessities. Alia too held a Master’s Degree. And because the children required care, especially Zain, she couldn’t look for a job to support the family’s needs. On the outside, no one could say what was really going on with this family.


As luck would have it, a school enrolled both children. Alia clearly favoured Zain. It was evident through her conversations and actions. For example, the vast difference in the children’s lunch: Zain’s snack had variety, something a child could enjoy. Ameera had the same thing every day. Her teacher’s complained that Ameera’s lunch often smelled as if it had gone bad. Even during meeting with teachers, Alia would only discuss Zain, but Ameera was brushed aside.


Gradually, it became apparent that Ameera, though a creative and imaginative child, wasn’t the prodigy Alia had claimed she was. Moreover, Alia began telling everyone that Zain could read some Quranic verses and had done so on multiple occasions. But to everyone who met Zain, he showed no signs of any speech.


Within weeks of the children starting school, Alia confided in her friend about her depression and other health issues. She poured her heart out and discussed her problems at length, with the children, chronic health issues and their financial conditions. Alia was clearly in distress. It was a call for help Alia’s friend felt terrible and recommended a therapist who addressed mental illness and other challenges. Alia accepted the details without comment.


Days later, Alia received a distressed call from Ameera school. The child had bruises on her face when she arrived and when the teacher had asked, Ameera told her a tale so fantastic it could have been a fairy tale. Alia admitted that she hit Ameera with a clothes hanger. At the principal’s protest, Alia didn’t understand their cause for concern. Ameera had deserved the beating, she assured the principal. Ameera had cut her hair with a scissor; she hadn’t helped her with the chores when guests arrived; she wanted to play. Alia said that Ameera had chosen to play with another child instead of her brother. She was appalled because Zain needed his older sister to care for him. She deserved it. The principal and Ameera’s teacher insisted that Alia shouldn’t hurt her daughter anymore. Alia’s face – always devoid of emotion – tightened a little: an indication she was displeased.


Alia called her friend and told her the story with pride. Even her friend was appalled and reminded Alia about the therapist. Alia brushed it aside. Some of Alia’s acquaintances often commented on the forlorn and haunted look on Ameera’s face. Alia would only make up excuses about their financial strife and because they couldn’t buy things for her, Ameera was often sad.


Then a few days later, Ameera’s school called again. It had been merely minutes after Ameera had been dropped at school. Ameera had cried as she walked to her class because her hand had received a severe burn that morning. The child was in excruciating pain. Alia tried to tell her teacher that she was only acting and wanted attention. The teacher insisted that Alia collect the child from school and take her to a doctor. Alia was proud of herself. No one had suspected her. She had burned her daughter’s hand with an iron just that morning because Ameera had dared to switch her lunch box with her brother’s.


Alia’s mental illness kept growing as it was left untreated. Soon, she started telling her friend about Zain’s monumental progress. She said that Zain would tell her about his day before going to sleep, like activities in school, at home and other details. Alia’s friend felt a chill. Zain, who was seated right next to her still could not speak a single word. She pointed it out to Alia, who felt annoyed by this observation. Alia told her that Zain only talked to her when no one else was around.


The silence afterwards was telling. Alia’s friend felt disturbed. She already understood that Alia had some mental illness, but this was too much. The severity of her condition hit her like bricks. Maybe no one had seen it before, or perhaps it had developed over time. Alia’s friend felt afraid and sad for her friend and her children. Suddenly, many things began making sense.  Alia had told her friend that Ameera was a prodigy when she wasn’t in reality. This was something that Alia’s condition had made up, like the story of Zain conversing with her. Maybe, Alia’s difficulties (their financial situation and son with special needs) had ruined her mental illness and pushed her into severe challenges. Or perhaps it was genetic and unknown to anyone. Or maybe it ran in her family. Alia’s friend recalled that Ameera was exactly like her mother, had no facial expressions, could make up unusual excuses and stories, and she talked to thin air (or so it seemed).


Alia’s friend didn’t know what to do next, because she had already provided an avenue for help, which Alia hadn’t even acknowledged. Time and time again, the friend tried to help out Alia, and intervened on several occasions she was abusive towards Ameera. But then, Alia cut her off entirely. A month or so later, Alia and her family moved away.


Alia’s friend doesn’t know what became of this family afterwards. But she still thinks about the children occasionally, especially Ameera.


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