Category Archives: mental illness treatment and recovery

The Precarious Jenga Tower of Life with Mental Illness

Jenga_distortedMy son’s life is a never-ending game of Jenga, carefully constructed by us all and always in danger of toppling – as pieces are removed by too many players jugging too many variables and way too little foresight and funding.

This month has been challenging. Five years after Ben Behind His Voices was released, we are living inside a constructed existence composed almost entirely of Jenga blocks. Ben has climbed his way to full-time employment as a restaurant server, and has even earned kudos on Yelp.

Recently one of his friends, a young man struggling with mental illness issues and also transgender transition, was reported missing (he has since been found, thank goodness) and his family was frantic. She drove to our home to ask for Ben’s help, any info he might share. In the course of our conversation, she revealed that her son had been prescribed medications for his anxiety and depression but had recently refused to take them – and soon after that disappeared. She told Ben that he was an “absolute inspiration” to her son because he takes his meds –  and has held a job he loves for over two years.

What she hadn’t realized is this:

Sure, Ben takes his meds – but he still doesn’t think he needs them. He is “compliant” because it’s a house rule we enforce – by staying up til the wee hours of the morning (Ben helps close the restaurant 5 days a week) to supervise. Could he refuse? Sure. But we would then refuse to allow him to live with us.

I pray we never have to force this issue. We’ve done it before – it is risky and painful to all – and so Ben knows we mean what we say. But the whole “compliance” situation is a jenga block that always sticks out, just waiting to be pulled from the stack. It’s right here on the foundation level. If that one goes, the whole thing topples over.

But even with that foundation intact, each day there are other pieces that hold his life precariously together. This week, four were pulled out — and we hold our breath, as do so many families in similar circumstances, that the structure can still stand. Continue reading The Precarious Jenga Tower of Life with Mental Illness

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Treatment Pays Off in Schizophrenia, Even if “Unwanted”

One young man with schizophrenia makes the news this week because he attacked his parents with a rock. The Mom says “I am afraid of my own son now.” According to the article, their son was refusing the treatment and medication available to him from the Kentucky assertive community treatment program. The treatment was voluntary. The young man said “no thanks.” And nearly killed his parents.

My son, Ben, also diagnosed with schizophrenia (and a very severe case, I am told), gently lifts his baby niece out of her swing, sings a silly baby song to her and gets a huge smile from her in return. Then he showers, shaves, irons his shirt, and heads off to work.  He has been a server at the same restaurant – full-time – for over two years.

In Ireland, a man is finally committed to a mental health facility – after killing his parents with an axe. This treatment comes, obviously, way too late.

My son’s phone constantly rings with texts from friends, who are trying to arrange a “game night” at home for
tomorrow evening. Now he has friends again – but it took years to rebuild relationships, after years lost to hospitalizations and periods of relapse. We hope he never again needs that level of help. If Ben continues with treatment, we may get our wish. But there is no guarantee when it comes to mental health. This we know, all too well.

Five years ago, right after my book Ben Behind his Voices was published, Ben went off his medication and went back into the hospital for the eighth time. It took seven weeks to engage his willingness to “go back on meds”, after which he moved back in with us – with strict rules to “follow psychiatrist instructions.” Why? There was no other way we’d allow him to live with us.

some of the latest info on schizophrenia treatment
some of the latest info on schizophrenia treatment

The truth is: treatment makes all the difference. That’s why we, Ben’s family, “require” it in order for him to live with us. And, yes, we supervise it – staying up until 1 or 2 AM five nights a week to do so. Because, without this, we might have to be frightened of our own son too. Instead, our biggest problems resemble those of parents raising a growing teen – messy bedroom, sloppy compliance with curfews, uneducated financial decisions – even though Ben is 34 years old.  Not always fun, but we’ll take this level of challenge. It’s annoying at worst. With one in four families dealing with mental illness in a loved one, I know many who would give anything to have “problems” like ours instead of the stigma, guilt, helplessness, grief and fear they experience every day. Continue reading Treatment Pays Off in Schizophrenia, Even if “Unwanted”

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The “Interfering Family” and Mental Illness: Some Helicopters Save Lives

 

I never wanted to be a helicopter parent.  When my kids were younger, I often responded to their problems with a “mean teacher”, “unfair boss” or “fickle friend” with a well-rehearsed “wow, that must be tough. How are you going HelicopParentsto handle it?”  This was not easy, mid you; parents want to fix things. But I did my best, and the “hands off” approach usually yielded the best results in terms of self-sufficiency.

But when your child has a mental illness, all bets are off – especially in times of crisis.  Although most of the laws in this country deny our family the right to “interfere” in my son’s life, we do it anyway. At least, whenever we can – if we feel we must.

Ben is 33 years old, and was diagnosed with severe paranoid schizophrenia at age 19, after years of chaos and uncertainty. We tried letting him “experience his own consequences” for years before that, with results that were ineffective at best, disastrous at worst.

If you live in our town, you might know Ben now as the best server in a local restaurant, where he has worked for nearly two years.  He’s also the one presenting his latest poetry in community college Creative Writing class.  You might see him at Starbucks, just hanging out with his morning coffee, or doing karaoke or bowling with friends.  But, not that long ago, he’d have been the one wandering the streets, or the halls of the psychiatric unit at our local hospital – unreachable, glassy-eyed, talking to his voices.

How did he get from hospitalized to hired?  I give Ben a good deal of the credit. Continue reading The “Interfering Family” and Mental Illness: Some Helicopters Save Lives

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Thank You, John Oliver. And I apologize.

Wow. John Oliver just summed up the problems with our mental health system in 11 minutes and 54 seconds – with plenty of room for punchlines as well. I know – seems like something that isn’t humorous. But this segment provides more respect for mental health issues than so many others I’ve seen. Well-placed humor can do that.

Watch it here:

His opening statement, like all the facts in this comedy-in-truth piece, is correct:

“It seems there is nothing like a mass shooting to suddenly spark political interest in mental health.”

Guilty as charged. My last post was, yes, sparked by yet another act of violence that I suspected would eventually point back to an unaddressed mental health problem in the shooter (and lack of support for his family). After receiving 2 comments which were too extreme to approve, I almost deleted the post today. It seems to have sparked stigma and judgment instead of the empathy and constructive outrage I had hoped to inspire.  But I will let it remain in this thread, because while I myself may have jumped the gun on “judging” this shooter with expectations that attention should have been paid to his mental health way before a crisis, I also know that such judgment harms people like my son, who lives in fear that people will find out he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. (for the record, his name and identifiable facts have been changed in the book and in my posts, with his permission to tell the story that way) Continue reading Thank You, John Oliver. And I apologize.

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Sons with Schizophrenia: A Tale of Three Mothers

Love matters...but it's not enough
Love matters…but it’s not enough

Three mothers with so much in common, we could form a club. Each raised one son and one daughter, through adolescence into young adulthood. Each loves her children with all her heart. And, sadly, each of our brilliant, happy, sweet sons began to change in their mid-teens, and were eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. We have each written about our experiences, shared our stories so they might help others.

But our stories have taken three very different turns. Today, one of these mothers mourns the death of her son, who passed away in “individual housing” earlier this year. Another of us sits stoically in a courtroom as her son is being tried for shooting moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado. And I, the lucky one, get to hug my son as he heads off to work, in his car, filled with gas that he paid for himself. For today, yes, I am the lucky one.

My heart goes out to the other mothers, even though I have never met them. I only know them through their writings, but I feel their struggles, their pain, their guilt, their love. Anyone who lives with mental illness in their family knows that we live life with crossed fingers, and we fight with all our might to make the right decisions.

And it is far from easy. Continue reading Sons with Schizophrenia: A Tale of Three Mothers

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The Stupidity of Medicare: Saving Pennies, Risking Lives in Mental Health Care

It took ten years for us to find a medication regime that not only works to help manage the symptoms of my son Ben’s schizophrenia, but that he is willing to take consistently. Ten years.  Three of those have taken place after where our book, Ben Behind His Voices, leaves off – in what one reader calls “open-ended hope.”  At that time, Spring of 2011, Ben was in a group home, stable for long enough to begin to piece his life back together, but still finding any possible opportunity to “cheek” his meds. He hated taking them, didn’t think he needed them, was discouraged by the side effects.

Rebuilding Your Life with Mental Illness: Delicate
Rebuilding Your Life with Mental Illness: Delicate

Finally, though, a few months after the book was published, Ben had a relapse (see Revolving Door post) and it took a lot of teamwork to get him back on the meds that work – teamwork that included Ben himself, and that’s why it was effective.

What helped Ben to agree? There is a different form of one of his meds that was much easier for Ben to swallow, literally, and that he swears has no side effects. This is a liquid suspension that has to be created by the pharmacist. Does it have fewer side effects? Who knows? But Ben believes that it does, and that’s what matters. He felt like – and was/is – a part of the decision that affects his life every day. The empowerment is definitely a contributing factor in Ben’s adherence to his medication regime.

And now, the main medication that Ben takes is no longer covered by Medicare. At least not in the formulation that Ben is willing to take, in the formulation that he can tolerate. In order to save money, they will not cover the extra ingredients needed to create the liquid version. Pills do not work. He cannot take them, physically or emotionally. Without this specific form of his meds, Ben could lose every single thing he has fought for so long to achieve. His job. His social life. His car. Continue reading The Stupidity of Medicare: Saving Pennies, Risking Lives in Mental Health Care

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Encouraging Treatment: Loving Parent? or Cruel Dictator?

(repurposed from my final blogpost on “Mental Illness in the Family” on HealthyPlace.com)

Two things happened last month that stirred me to revisit an often-examined question:

Am I too involved in my son’s life? Have I “stolen his manhood and his rights” by insisting on treatment?

One reminder came in the form of a reader’s book review on Amazon.com forBen Behind His Voices, calling it a “Testament to Abuse of Power and Parental Authority,” the only one-star review in a sea of 5-star praise and gratitude. Clearly, a man with an agenda, so I didn’t take it too personally, but this is not the first time I’ve been called an over-involved parent. On the other hand, I’ve also been criticized by others  for not “stopping” Ben from dropping out of high school, for “allowing” my son a period of homelessness in Idaho and “letting him fail” when he gained and then lost five different jobs after he returned.

And then there is — the question of “forcing” Ben to take medications to help restore balance to his brain. The second reminder came from a voice student of mine, who shared how well his son with schizophrenia was doing without meds, having “learned to recognize the voices and deal with them” instead. Of course, that’s wonderful. Some people, I understand, can do that — but often it takes all of their energy just to keep those voices at bay. And then there are those, like Be, who cannot, in a million years, manage the full-time job of keeping his inner thoughts (or voices, or whatever they are) quiet enough so that he can attend to the outside world. Elyn Saks clearly outlines her unsuccessful attempts to get off meds in her memoir The Center Cannot Hold; in our family, we have seen, all too frighteningly, what Ben’s life becomes when he doesn’t take his medication — wildly wandering, constantly mumbling, lost in his own world, relentlessly pacing, capable of lashing out. He is lost to us then and, I believe, to himself. Continue reading Encouraging Treatment: Loving Parent? or Cruel Dictator?

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How Families Slip to the End of the Rope: Mental Health System Cracks

As we approach the third Anniversary of the publication of Ben Behind His Voices, the big question remains. How would Ben be doing without family support? Have there been any improvements in the system that failed my son, and our family, so many times in the past?

Want an update? If you missed it in an earlier post, here is the progress since the last page of the book (where Ben is still living in a group home, back in college classes, and doing some volunteer work). Many of the details are outlined in earlier posts (check category “How is Ben Doing Now?”), but here is the current picture, about which I am so grateful:

  • Ben continues to take college courses, 6 credits at a time.
  • He lives at home with us, and pays rent. (this after a disastrous housing change from the group home)
  • He has a JOB! He is a waiter in a chain restaurant, and absolutely loves it.  He is often in the top three for tip-earning, and has often been asked to stay and supervise the closing process. Yes, amazing.
  • Although he had a roommate here for awhile, that ended badly (with the roommate’s addiction and connected behaviors) – but Ben has managed to salvage the start of an actual social life now. One step at a time.

 

Help Us before we Get Here!
Help Us before we Get Here!

Still. All of this progress can go away in record time – and often has, in the past – if something interferes with the meds he takes.

Families like ours walk a tightrope, struggling to balance all the elements of progress when someone we love has a “neural difference.” And we cannot do it alone.  So it really pisses me off when our competence creates laissez-faire among the people supposed to be our support.

1. Last Friday, I noticed we were almost out of Medication A (Ben takes 3 things). So I called the pharmacy to order more.

2.They could not place the order because they had not received paperwork from the case management team. So I called his case manager, and also sent an e-mail. No answer.

3. Had to wait until Monday for further action. (No one works on weekends). Didn’t think it would be an issue. Continue reading How Families Slip to the End of the Rope: Mental Health System Cracks

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Mental Health Awareness Month, for Caregivers too

Will write more about this later , as I am in Buffalo, NY, getting ready to provide keynote to help NAMI Buffalo/Erie county celebrate its 30th year…but wanted to share one of the interviews about the results of a new survey showing that caregivers of those with schizophrenia do better with more support, more resources, and less stigma. Thanks!

WSFA.com: News Weather and Sports for Montgomery, AL.

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Schizophrenia and the Family: In a Nutshell?

It occurs to me that some new readers of this blog may not really know the backstory that brought us here.

The stage on rehearsal day
The stage on rehearsal day

I’ve just returned from Warsaw, where I was honored to have the chance to speak to a global audience

With Pete Earley
With Pete Earley

about our family experience with schizophrenia and recovery in my son Ben – and to have shared the stage (well, one at a time…) with the wonderful Pete Earley, author of Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness.

Pete told his story, and I told mine. The challenge was that, while I usually speak for at least a half hour, I had 17 minutes to sum up the last 15 years of chaos, discovery, and hope.  Not easy! But it did encourage participants to pick up the book for the whole story.

So, for newbies to this site, here is a “nutshell” version of our path so far. I wrote this to send to NAMI, for possible media interest.

So – the “movie trailer” version of where we’ve been:

Fortunately, my son Ben (diagnosed with schizophrenia)  is currently doing well – but it has been a long road, and we almost lost him several times – so far. Every time that services are cut, or his needs misinterpreted, we run that risk again. Like many families, we have taken on much of his care ourselves – to make sure things continue to go as smoothly as possible.

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