Monday, January 11, 2010

A Beautiful Mind

I guess we should have seen the signs. But we didn't know.

Even though a family member had at one time been diagnosed as schizophrenic, it didn't occur to us to worry.

Every two year old has temper tantrums. Tons of high school kids have drug problems. Lots of people have perfect pitch and vocabularies that surpass their knowledge and learning level.

You can't really worry too much about schizophrenia being a family trait when the affected family member managed to recover from that terrifying diagnosis through the use of self discipline and willpower. This is a fact. He stopped exhibiting symptoms and in relatively short order become not only a contributing  and well member of society, but a pretty incredible dude and artist as well. Add into the mix great teeth and an amazing combination of accountability and sincerity. How did he move out of that diagnosis you ask? He did it by getting really, really specific with his food choices. He went vegan. He started getting blood tests and managing every aspect of his blood chemistry, sugar, potassium, iron, etc etc you name it, he watched it. He meditated. He did yoga. You know what? He did it right and the result was miraculous.

So when my brother was in his late teens and dabbling in psychedelics we all thought, ah well... it's a phase. Sure it's ridiculous that he barely made it out of high school considering his remarkable IQ but. You know, drugs and alcohol, it's almost cliche.  It was about the time Tough Love was introduced, so we dished that up.

I had gone to acting school for two years and already beat-up and disillusioned by that career choice before the age of 20, I decided to move across the country. I arranged to waitress in South Dakota for the summer to raise money for my new life in California. A few days after I arrived there, my world crumbled. After a fun day of rock climbing with some brand new friends I got a note on my dorm door that there was an emergency and I needed to call home. After many calls with trembling hands I finally heard the word. My dad was dead. He had Lupus so it shouldn't have come as a surprise, but he was always insisting that the 'wolf wouldn't get him' and we believed him. So it was an unbearable surprise.

Now I see that it was the perfect storm. An angst-filled young man, drugs and alcohol, a terrible tragedy. The current reality is no surprise to any health professional or anyone who knows anything about mental illness. But we didn't know, we couldn't know. We were torn apart, blown apart by our loss and our grief and inability to know how to be a family. After the services I continued on to California. My mom found her way into grief groups and then an RV and traveled the country for a few years to deal with the loss of her beloved 46 year old husband.

And my little brother spiraled. More drugs. More alcohol. A diagnosis: manic-depressive. Then the jail stints. A car fire...was it an insurance scam? We wondered.

About that time I was making my way into film school, into the jagermeister bottle and up and down big rocks in Joshua Tree. My brother's dramas were far off and incomprehensible to me. I think about my early 20-self sometimes and wonder if she could have done something to help him. To alter his terrible path. And sometimes I let myself off that sharp hook with some of the words already written above. How could I have known? And sometimes the nails into my hands are very painful. I could have...I should have...If only. But I didn't.

The years have unfolded in a movie-of-the-week-after-school-special plot line involving more jailtime, homelessness and a long unsuccessful line of halfway houses. My mom has kept a running document of all of the events of his life so she can give it to the next social worker or the next counselor or hospital. By now if printed it would be about a ream of  paper.  In my late 20's I did a big rescue effort. I flew to Florida and hunkered down for two months to do my big sister duty. First I had him Baker Acted into the hospital so that he could finally get the help and meds he needed to get straightened out. The result wasn't great. Thirty or so days of hospital life and his voice in my head. 'I hate you for doing this, I'll never forgive you'. Awesome.

It's a fucked up disease, that's for sure. As a family member, it's impossible to know how to be. We have alternated between being very involved and very hands off and the results don't seem to change based on our efforts. Some suggest to deal with him like you do with someone addicted to drugs or booze. As in, do not help them unless they are helping themselves...they have to 'want it'. And while he has a dual-diagnosis (addicted and schizophrenic) I think it's much more complex. He's got rude and mean-spirited voices talking to him in his head. He argues with them all the time, sometimes they win. In fact more often than not they win. When the voices start arguing with me, I have to get off the phone at that point 'cause I am bound to lose and strain my own version of sanity in the process.

Not long after the big rescue effort came the 'I can only love him from afar' era. He can be incredibly manipulative when there is money or musical instruments to be had, which to my mind is confusing. How does he have the prescience to be able to manipulate reality to his preferred end? It's strange but true. So to avoid getting caught in that trap, I decided that I wouldn't give him money or material things, only my ear over the phone and my love from 3,000 miles away. Needless to say, my mom has been through the ringer on this one. About eleven years after my Dad passed she married an extraordinary guy. He's seen the both of them through many, many variations on the themes of hands off to very hands on and miraculously has the willingness to answer the midnight calls and go on the jail visits. I think we all consider ourselves lucky that our new family member would be such a giant of a guy to be able to handle such a brutal and constant source of pain and awkward and unruly variables.

For years I had strong opinions of how my Mom 'should be doing it' and for some reason I was convinced I had a line on what correct action was. Interesting how the birth of my son has ripped that smug knowingness from my gut. I realize now I know nothing. I do know that schizophrenia (and addiction) is a family disease and you'd be right if you thought 'Gosh I bet that scares her a little bit'. You betcha. If my son starts to go down these roads in a few years, can I help him? Can I save him from the horrible fate of loneliness, despair and social outcast?

For those of you who have been around LCD, you might remember the PSA that I made about an organization that helps mentally ill get off the street. Remember, the one that should have won that damn Emmy? I'm putting it here again.

Thanks for watching and reading. Oh and voting, if you please (to the left). Tell me what to type about for Movie Monday.

Yours in joy and pain,


  1. I'm drastically sheltered and haven't heard of any of those movies. I went with something that has a title that interests me. Gardner. I'm wanting to plant a vegetable garden this year.

  2. Thank you for the very frank post. We're only as sick as our secrets, as they say. Your honesty inspires me. Everyone has some family darkness somewhere and I really appreciate hearing about your struggle with yours.

  3. Wow, Jane. I am heartbroken by your story. In San Francisco, I lived next door to a schizophrenic, Steven. Steven's family was involved, but in a very limited way.

    Schizophrenia is a really fucked up disease. I am so sorry. I hope in our lifetime that we get our mentally ill more of the treatment that they need. ((HUGS))

  4. Dear 20-year-old Jane: You couldn't. If you could have, you would have. That's humanity 101. As for now? Amazing huzzahs to your mom, your stepdad, and you ... for keepin' it real and hangin' in. As they say. I've been a little closer to the addiction/mental illness world this year than I wanted to be (as in, embedded in it) but I learned so much. Probably the primary lesson is how important our relationships are to survival, and also how damned hard it is to keep them going in the midst of tragedy and trauma. Thanks so much for sharing.

  5. Damn. I'm late on the poll, but if you're still counting, mark me down for Away We Go. Ah well. Maybe next week.

    Admittedly, my closest knowledge of such situations comes from watching Intervention. I'm transfixed by that show because I want to know what I can do as a parent to keep my baby girl from all those messes. Argh. If only I could come up with some formula and use that on her. But alas, it seems like there is no formula. Life can be randomly cruel. I'm so sorry about your brother. I wish I had something helpful to say.

  6. I come from a family with a long history of mental illness and it can be so hard to talk about, but so important. The stigma still attached to it is so strong that many times we try to bury these things, but it's important to get them into the light.

    Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

  7. thanks you guys for your really lovely comments. Not really sure what inspired me to share but glad I did.

  8. I really related to this post for so many reasons: wondering if I should have, could have done more in certain situations, dealing with mental illness in my immediate family and fearing the cycle continuing with my own sweet kids. Thanks for writing down the struggle with such eloquence of words. MWAH!

  9. My sister is mentally ill. I have written about her quite a bit on my blog. The more I have talked about it, the more I realize that it's not as rare as you might think. And hope.