why? because Ben is still in there, struggling to connect through the chaos of senses gone haywire, or sometimes dulled by the meds that keep him out of the hospital, in his brain.
Introduction – 2010
My son Ben knows the lyrics to every song I’ve never really noticed on the radio. He’s the one who teaches to me to appreciate the poetry in songs by Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Eminem. He’s my favorite companion for performances of Shakespeare in the Park, because just at the point when I’m starting to think why don’t they just speak English already?, he invariably whispers something like, “Wasn’t Shakespeare a genius, Mom? Listen to the music in the way he wrote those lines.” Shame on me.
Ben loves nature, children, fantasy video games, helping others, the Indianapolis Colts, Thanksgiving with the family, and vegetarian Thai food. He made the Dean’s List at college last semester. He kills at Scrabble. He has offered to counsel my best friend’s nephew, who is still lost in the world of drug addiction.
Ben is 27 years old. And – oh, yes – he has paranoid schizophrenia.
Ben is not “supposed to” care about others – that’s one of the symptoms of schizophrenia. But he does. He is full of love, and we’re grateful for his presence. Our family has learned to live in the moment; there are, thankfully, many moments to treasure these days. But it wasn’t always like this, and we know, all too well, that tomorrow could bring more change. Still, we have found hope and love that we once thought might be lost forever.
When Ben was hospitalized five times in 2003 – the height of his crisis period – for symptoms of this illness, no one in my life really knew how to react. No one showed up with casseroles at our door– especially not by the third or fourth hospitalization. People don’t really know what to do, how to support the patient and the family. Unlike a physical illness like a broken leg, there’s no timetable for recovery from something like schizophrenia. There’s no sure moment of getting better. There is no cure; there is only management. As is also true with cancer, there’s always a chance for recurrence after remission. But unlike most cancers, the patient’s very soul seems to be affected by mental illness. The organ it affects is the brain, and that’s the window to our personality, perhaps to our soul. People are frightened of mental illness; they’re uncomfortable visiting someone on the psych floor. The family feels isolated, stigmatized, and often very alone. But there is hope. Ben is in recovery. He is not “cured”, but he can be kept in careful balance. He is part of our family. He is worth knowing. He deserves to be understood and accepted, just like anyone with a more visible disabilty.
Every morning and evening, Ben takes medication to keep his brain in balance. He doesn’t agree that these meds do anything to help him, even though if he stops taking them he winds up back in the hospital within days. All he knows is that they make him feel mentally cloudy and physically exhausted. Ben tells me that he feels like a blanket has been thrown over his mind when he’s on his medication; he loves the initial feeling of clarity and energy that comes if he stops taking it. I know that this euphoria lasts only a day or so, but by the time Ben’s brain has raced past that first phase, he’s too symptomatic to realize that anything’s wrong. He generally just thinks that “people are treating him differently” for some reason. Sure we are. When Ben shifts focus to his inner world, and we try like hell to bring him back to us.
Without the medication that restores the chemical balance in Ben’s brain, he has to fight to remain connected to what’s happening around him instead of within him – and the strain of that effort is heartbreakingly apparent. Ben wants, with all his heart, to prove that he doesn’t need the medication that we know has brought him back to us – at least halfway back.