Let me paint a picture for you. First, imagine a relatively poor country where the differences between the haves and have-nots are exacerbated between city and country.
Now go back 40 years, where the world still had diseases like polio and smallpox. Third, imagine if you lived with a mental health issue at that time, how little we knew about mental health then, how rudimentary the treatments were, and the social stigma associated with these conditions. And lastly, imagine a country where the citizens are generally distrustful of the state and the services it provides, including healthcare.
This was precisely the situation facing my biological parents when they discovered their firstborn son, Vasilios, had an intellectual disability as a young child. This was the 1960s in Greece, and Vasilios was called ‘mentally retarded’ by doctors, and at times ‘simple’.
I didn’t find out I was adopted until I was 25 in 1999, and then didn’t meet my brothers until I was 28. My biological father died in between; I missed meeting him altogether. I knew Vasilios – who prefers to be called ‘Billy’ – lived with an intellectual disability when I first met him in 2002. I approached the reunion in rural Greece with trepidation. The older generation had died away, and the sole responsibility for Billy’s care now fell to our middle brother, Georgios. As the absent brother, I felt guilty and neglectful.
Overweight and over 40 years old, Billy now stayed out all night, chain smoking his way through the town’s many bars and tavernas, yet still needed help at home with showering and getting dressed.
We were sitting in a bar in Florina. Georgios ordered a whiskey. I drank water. Billy hoovered three bowls of complimentary peanuts and left to go find a friend.
I asked Georgios about our brother’s condition, his medical records. Georgios said there were none. What was ‘wrong’ with Billy remained a mystery. Some family members said he fell off his highchair as a baby, landed on the stone floor headfirst. Others said he had an illness. Billy wasn’t on any medication. Georgios was his medicine.
“It doesn’t matter what happened,” Georgios said. “For me, Billy is now the alpha and the omega. I know what he wants before he knows. I know what to say to make him feel better. I’m like a psychotherapist. When I speak with Billy for hours, let him get it out his system, it’s like therapy. He is my greatest love and most painful thorn.”
Georgios explained that it had been easier in the past. Billy was less demanding, and our biological parents were alive. Georgios went on short trips – Athens, Crete, Italy – but not anymore. He never married. Back then, it was hard to marry. Any woman accepting Georgios would have to accept Billy as well. She’d be marrying two men.
“God rest her soul, but my aunt said it,” Georgios told me. “That Billy should’ve been institutionalised so he might one day learn a skill or trade. For his own good, but also for the sake of the family.”
It sounded so wrong to hear my brother say that. Modern Australia still has a long way to go with providing adequate mental health support, particularly to those in rural centres, but things sounded exceptionally tough in Greece back then.
The problem was that our biological father Savvas was distrustful of the state and official institutions. It was “a Greek thing”, and the reason why so many people refused to pay their taxes. Lining the pockets of politicians was seen as condoning criminal behaviour. It was a two-way street though, with the state equally suspicious of its citizens.
There were sanatoriums for Billy, but they were in the city, and the stuff of nightmares. Electroshock therapy and heavily sedating medications. Dad thought that was cruel. And in such a family-centric society as Greece, he would’ve been judged, especially in a small town.
Mama always told me children like Billy were a blessing from God. And, you know, in as much as Billy tethers me to this town, to this life, I couldn’t cope without him.
A boisterous young group appeared, asking where Billy was. And then the bar owner, who insisted Billy could eat and drink any time for free. Billy helped out where he could, pretending to work as “security”, and keeping the late-night bar and café owners company.
“Billy,” Georgios laughed, “my entire life, more popular than me!”
It was then that it dawned on me. It wasn’t just my family who raised Billy. The whole town had. Here, my family’s rural location proved an advantage. Florina was small, so everyone knew everyone. Had my family lived in a big city, things would’ve been different. Perhaps Dad knew this would happen. He trusted in his close-knit community.
Georgios was reflective:
“This is all that Billy will ever know of the world. He’s not missing out on anything so thinks we’re not either. And, in many ways, we’re not. Life’s good. We have fresh food, good friends, and free time. It’s just the opportunities I miss.”
I took a step back and considered my brothers. Whatever had happened to Billy was challenging, but Georgios suffered internally, and unnecessarily. Of course, it was all done with the best intentions, with love. Misguided, smothering village love that came from village heart and village mind. Billy was a human worthy of love and support; if only Greece’s system was better back then. In the end, the lack of boundaries for Billy had reinforced Georgios’s boundaries with the strongest tie of all – blood.
At that moment, amid the thumping techno music, I found myself developing the utmost admiration for our middle brother. It was like a warm sensation washing over my skin.
Georgios finished his whiskey, winked at me and said:
“Mama always told me children like Billy were a blessing from God. And, you know, in as much as Billy tethers me to this town, to this life, I couldn’t cope without him. When my worries wear me down, I come home and Billy’s there, just as I left him. His steadying presence strengthens me.”
It was then that it dawned on me. It wasn’t just my family who raised Billy. The whole town had.
Unable to find his friend, Billy returned to the bar. I walked straight up to him and, without a word, hugged him harder than I ever had. He hugged me back with far too much force and love. But that’s what made him so special, and everyone knew it.
How much has changed? A 2014 report showed children with a disability locked up in wooden cages in a state-run home in southern Greece. I was deeply shocked to see such practices still occurred.
I couldn’t bear to imagine my kind, loving brother in such a place, and was ultimately thankful for Georgios and my family. Billy had grown up loved and cherished, and in his world was valued and happy.