Category Archives: mental illness and family

He Changed His Shirt: When That’s the Big Relapse News

Schizophrenia Steals Lives

My son, Ben, is back where he began his diagnosed-schizophrenia journey 17 years ago: in West Hills Behavioral Health Institute, though its real name (not West Hills) has been changed. 

He is the worst I have ever seen him: unresponsive, refusing ADLs (Activities of Daily Living, such as showers), wandering all day talking and gesturing to his voices. The best the nurse can say is that he “isn’t causing trouble”, and that “today at least he changed his shirt.”

This , the best news about a young man who, before Covid-19, was working full-time and training new  servers at his restaurant job.

No, his life wasn’t perfect, or even perfectly “normal.” but it was a life. And if he didn’t always make the best decisions, if lately he seemed lost and distracted, if lately he seemed to find new ways to spit his meds back into the sink…well, he was managing.

It was a life.

But now it’s like the past 9 years of stability never happened. So what do I do? 

I clean his room, of course. Since Ben is hospitalized until we can have a hearing to get right to commit and medicate, I have a rare opportunity to snoop, and to clean.

I call junkluggers and pay to have 3 ragged couches and a broken arcade game taken away. I clean out his drawers and closets. I hunt for hints, for information to all the secrets he has been keeping. I find evidence of shopping addiction, more drug use than expected, and all the paperwork that explains his poor financial choices including leasing 2 cars at once. He is deep in debt, all the time saying “Mom, I have it under control.”

No big surprise. But informative. As is the mounting evidence that his marijuana use had gone way, way beyond the occasional joint. I have 2 huge plastic bins full of water pipes, bongs, more.

I sort and toss and organize and scrub, preparing my son’s room for the life he may never get back. I clean with hope. I clean because it’s control. It’s the only control I have. It’s the only thing I can do for my son now.

But it’s the evidence of his hopes and dreams that really get to me. 

From Ben’s essay on Shakespeare’s Henry IV: Parts I and II, written about seven years ago, a year or so after his 8th hospitalization and release – this time, to our home, where until recently he was thriving. Well, thriving for someone with a severe case of schizophrenia.

In the essay, Ben compares himself to Prince Hal (Henry V), portrayed at first, according to Wikipedia, as ” a wayward youth who enjoys the society of petty criminals and wastrels” until he wises up (or grows up, I guess).

Ben says:

Through King Henry’s words…I received a deeper understanding of how both my mother and Henry felt as they saw their sons dwindle. When Hal reforms his ways with the promise of honoring his father….he reminds me of how I decided to change my lifestyle upon gaining some insight into my mother’s perspective.  

Again and again, I see reminders of the big plans he had for himself…until the world (and especially Covid-19, with its isolation and impact on the restaurant business. pulled the rug out from under his already shaky stance. 

Every time, every night, when we got him to take his meds, I thought to myself: well, we just bought him another 24 hours.  But now that’s all gone. I have spent hours on the phone with financial companies, trying to keep his future possible. I defer payments, I cover overdrafts ..and add it to the mounting list of what he “owes” us. 

His room is all ready for him – but he may never come back. Not without a lot of conditions. But I prepare for the best outcome (returned stability), even though I know he might not some back to life this time. Because…motherhood.

And right now, we just have to get him to swallow his medication. 

And change his shirt.

 

Why Conservatorship? Because it can Salvage – or Save – a Life

Conservators are just the safety net – if you should slip or fall.

Hey, I don’t know Britney Spears. I don’t know her family. I can’t say whether she should be “freed” from her conservatorship prison or not (#freeBritney). Not my business, frankly.

But I can tell you how it works for us – and why .

I can tell you how my son, who just a few mere months ago may have appeared perfectly capable of handling his own affairs, was making some big mistakes-and is now desperately in need of his conservator (me)  to salvage the life he’d so enthusiastically worked to build – before Covid-19 stole his job, his purpose, his sanity.

In the last two days I have:

  • Been able to get basic information as to how he is doing in the hospital (not well). Without conservatorship, I’d never have that information – or even know where he is. I couldn’t bring him a couple of T-shirts to change into. I wouldn’t know if my kid is safe.
  • Contacted his bank (where he’d opened a secret account) to deposit money to cover his overdraft – for now.
  • Kept his Medicare and Medicaid premiums paid.
  • Looked into re-applying for social security should he refuse treatment and remain “gravely disabled” – which, right now, he is. Anti-med people? Don’t judge until you see how he is right now. And compare how he was just weeks ago.
  • Called the finance company to see if his vehicle lease can be put on hold or something – to avoid the car being repossessed and his credit rating shot.
  • Discovered that he’d been covering up a bad financial decision, resulting in lease payments of two expensive cars at once. He’d hidden that from us for awhile, and then it had taken us months to get him to return one of the vehicles. While he’d been employed, he’s covered both payments somehow.
  • Paid his credit card minimum (plus a bit) – so this credit rating, too, won’t be shot .
  • Contacted unemployment to explain why he can’t file right now – without revealing his illness details (but can’t get anyone on the phone)

This is what conservators do. We catch them when they fall. We let go as much as we can (believe me, the last thing I want is to have to manage my son’s life AT ALL – he is 38 years old – but this illness just totally sucks and steals much of his logic, even when it’s managed by medication) – but if I don’t step in now, my son will not be able to get back the life he created while taking the meds he doesn’t think he needs. Continue reading Why Conservatorship? Because it can Salvage – or Save – a Life

Helpless and Heartbroken: Covid-19 Claims Another Victim (My Son’s Mental Health)

trying to catch someone before disaster
We finally fell off the tightrope.

Well, my son did. And we were helpless to stop his fall, as we stood there, witness to another mental health victim of Covid-19.

Nine years of being the poster boy for a stable and meaningful life while in treatment for severe schizophrenia, gone in 48 hours. 48 hours. Nine years of careful steps taken toward full-time unemployment, car ownership (of sorts), his own bank account, social activities with friends and family. Nine years of a half-life that we constantly reminded ourselves “was good enough, compared to the alternatives.”

Schizophrenia had stolen Ben’s life, thrown him into deep muddy waters of chaos and limitations, but he had risen to the surface and we were keeping him afloat by supervising his treatment. Every. Single. Day. He did the rest – earning college credits, working as a restaurant server (a good one, Yelp-worthy), helping out friends – because he had the 4 pillars of stability: treatment, love, purpose, structure.

Gone, all gone. My son is back in the same hospital where he was first treated, 17 years ago, and just as symptomatic. He talks to himself all day. He refuses treatment. He won’t talk to us, this child who just one week ago hugged me good morning every day and played on the floor with this little nephew and nieces, who adore him.

His preschool-age nieces and nephew cannot see him like this. They wouldn’t recognize their uncle. Sadly, though. it’s all too familiar to me, as the pain and grief come rushing back.

No, Ben doesn’t have Covid-19 – yet. But the illness caused the economic crisis that cost Ben his job, his purpose, his structure, his livelihood, his sense of self-esteem, his reason to agree to take the meds he thinks he doesn’t need.

Unemployment benefits helped – money to at least pay his bills (leased car, credit card, car insurance) and allow some pleasures (take-out food, a new sweatshirt). He was so brave, like a kid consoling himself and saying it doesn’t matter when not invited to a birthday party.

But then the benefits were reduced – that $600 per week that has kept most of the unemployed alive since covid pulled the rug out. And Ben’s stress escalated – as well as his evident need to control the only thing he still could – refusing to take his medication.

This has happened to many of us, but we can somehow find a way. We dry our tears and turn to logical thought – where can I go? Who can help me? – for at least some answers. But when you have schizophrenia, you don’t have the frontal-lobe logic to pull yourself out of a funk. You don’t ask for help (because you don’t need anyone, or any stupid meds).

My heart hurts. We are in grief. Back to square one, and I am terrified and heartbroken for Ben – and for us.

Getting him out of our home and to the hospital wasn’t pretty. The police and EMTs were amazing. And part of me is glad for this “vacation” from his messy room, the greasy stove after he cooks, the cigarette smell that always accompanies him, the daily standoff to get the meds into him.

Yes, I will clean his room, throw out the old empty bottles, the 2 of the 3 ragged couches, the piles of unwearable clothing. I have some control over that, at least. I will do that between my voiceover work, the virtual play I am casting, radio shifts, and helping my daughter with those 3 babies.

But what then? We have 15 days.

15 days. A gift. A burden. A heartbreaking reminder that meds work, but not to cure. Only to stabilize. And my son – all who are like my son – deserve better.

I have no idea what lays ahead. We will move forward, blindly and with love. But the love will lay there, unreturned, while my son lives in his inner world of chaos, back in the place where he was first treated, and a newly-leased car (his pride and joy) sits in our driveway, a reminder of who he used to be – 48 hours ago.

He Came in with It: Book Review

Miriam Feldman’s wonderful book will be released tomorrow, and I highly recommend it.

Ever since my book was released (when there were very few memoirs around that dealt with schizophrenia in a child) they now seem to be everywhere.  I have read many of them, and Miriam’s memoir stands out as not only relatable (I marked so many passages I almost ran out of ink) but also poetic, artistic, and funny. Miriam is an artist (murals and more) by trade, and her artistry definitely extends to the written word.

Plus she made me laugh out loud – something you wouldn’t think you can do when your heart is broken by a devastating, unrelenting illness thrust upon your  beloved child.  But you can, and we must. 

Miriam Feldman takes us through  the facts,  the loneliness, the strength, the love, and the roller coaster of hope and heartbreak.

You will fall in love with her son Nick, and grieve the loss of what might have been…and hope for what might be. As I do every day with my son Ben.

I felt such a kinship with Miriam that I interviewed her (and Robert Kolker, and Laura Pogliano) as part of my “Power of Kinship” conversations. 

 

Hope you’ll read this book!

Beyond Hidden Valley Road: Is There Now More Hope for Schizophrenia?

What a panel! I got to interview 3 schizophrenia experts at once :

Robert Kolker, #1 NYTimes Best-selling author of Hidden Valley Road – also one of the rare non-fiction Oprah book Club selections

Miriam Feldman, author of He Came in with It, publication date July 21

and Laura Pogliano, SARDAA Chapter President and Board member, mom of late son Zaccaria, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 17.

We cover, among other things:

What, if anything, has changed for families dealing with schizophrenia – and what has to happen next to improve the current situation? We touch on: Early Detection and Treatment Need to fund and advance research and find a CURE Four Pillars of Recovery Stigma – is reducing stigma enough? (no!) Schizophrenia as a brain condition, not a psychological issue the sibling experience Hidden Valley Road and the Galvin family current disabled mental health system need for education, NAMI Family-to-Family …and more.

Schizophrenia: Back in the Spotlight at Last?

Oprah’s latest book selection, a new memoir, and HBO’s series with Mark Ruffalo – is schizophrenia finally going to get the attention it deserves?

Of all the SMIs (Serious Mental Illnesses) in the news lately, schizophrenia always seems to get the short shrift; it’s like the last mental illness in the closet. 

Unless, of course, there’s a horrific incident of violence. Then the questions about sanity begin…and often finger-pointing at schizophrenia. And then, advocates like me have to bring out the statistics to defend our loved ones: 

  • No, schizophrenics are not “more violent”
  • No, schizophrenia does not mean “split personality”
  • No, it’s not the fault of “bad parenting”.

Currently, this brain illness is back in vogue with three exciting spotlights:

Will these open eyes at last?
  1. Oprah’s book club selection is Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker – about a family with 12 children – 6 of whom developed schizophrenia
  2. HBO has begun airing the mini-series based on the wonderful (and devastating) Wally Lamb Novel, I Know This Much Is True.
  3. A new memoir is to be released next month:, He Came In With It, by Mimi Feldman

And still, the myths – and lack of attention to research – continue. As fellow author and advocate Feldman points out in her forthcoming book and a recent guest blog post for Pete Earley, 

A huge question looms:

"Why is bringing those with schizophrenia (and other serious mental illnesses) simply to a state of zombie-like compliance considered a success?"

I have my theories, one of which is this: many don’t see people with schizophrenia as save-able, or – worse –  worth saving. Because the illness often robs them of so much besides reality: their joy, their charm, their ability to empathize.

Still, those of us who love someone with this devastating illness, who knew them before it took hold,  can attest to the fact that they are worth saving. They are locked up inside that shell. We love them, and occasionally we see what could be – if only we could find a CURE, not just a management tool.

Right now, as we all struggle with our own kinds of isolation in this covid-19 surreal life, imagine what it might be like to feel that isolated all the time. In the words of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, ATTENTION MUST BE PAID.

Let’s hope these three works of art will propel us toward the changes we need to see – and help bring our loved ones with schizophrenia the respect, love, and CURE that they deserve.

We’d give anything to see their joy again.

Corona Virus Quarantine -Will it Reverse Mental Illness Recovery?

As I write this, I realize it has been quite some time since I’ve posted.

Why? Because things have been remarkably stable — or maybe we’ve just finessed our ability to adjust to Ben’s illness. It is what it is. There have been a few blips, to be sure, but with fingers crossed every day we buy another 24 hours of relative normalcy by supervising the treatment my son still doesn’t – and may not ever – believe he needs.

Ben’s recovery (used in the same frame as an addict defines recovery…an ongoing process, one day at a time, with constant awareness and vigilance) has been framed by the four pillars that hold his life up. (Hold all of us up, actually): Treatment, Purpose, Structure. Love/Community.

And then Covid-19 hit. Ben’s job (restaurant server, full-time) disappeared – and along with it, 3 of the 4 pillars have toppled or at least been weakened.

Plus – he doesn’t understand why he can’t see his nieces and nephews. To keep some semblance of sanity, Ben goes out to see some friends in their homes. Germs, risk, but where do we draw the line? Now I must remain socially distant from my own son in our home – even when he offers a hug.

The tightrope walk continues.

I’d be lying if I said we weren’t concerned about Ben’s precarious mental health, on top of all the shared concerns that have come with coronavirus and quarantine.

And so we wait, watch, and supervise. Just more than usual.

Schizophrenia and the Family: Exhausted, Broke, Helpless and Blamed

It isn’t easy, loving someone with schizophrenia.

Well, let me rephrase: Loving is easy. Loving is in our soul.

Liking? Sometimes much harder.

Caring for? Protecting? Supporting? Very very hard.

Families Hanging by a Thread

Families who have not abandoned their loved ones with schizophrenia (and many, unsupported and at the ends of their ropes, feel they have no other choice) are left holding so many loose ends it’s easy to feel hopelessly tangled up all the time. And that’s on a good day. On a bad day? We live in fear.

We fear – for our loved one’s life, sometimes for our own lives. And it often feels like there is nowhere to turn.

As for us – well, as of this writing, we’re still one of the lucky families. After eight hospitalizations, after seven years in a group home, after homelessness and arrests, our son Ben is back home with us and stable on medication. Well, for today at least. We take it a day at a time, and each day we get that passes without major crisis feels like a gift – a gift that could get ripped away at any time.

I often speak to groups about the Four Pillars of Recovery Success that have enabled Ben to rebuild his life after his periods of psychiatric care: Treatment, Purpose, Structure and Love. Yep: he has a job right now, and a free place to live (with us), and a social life.  Yay. I know what a miracle that is. But, as I’ve written before, that success is precarious. If one of those pillars should crack, we could be back at Ground Zero in the blink of an eye.

Still one of my most popular posts, here and on HealthyPlace.com , is this one:

Schizophrenia and Parenting: Step In or Let Go?

Though six years have passed since I wrote it, it still gets comments. And in those comments I am reminded of the deep, mournful, and sometimes terrifying challenges families – and parents specifically –  face when schizophrenia moves in. Continue reading Schizophrenia and the Family: Exhausted, Broke, Helpless and Blamed

Tips to Help Connect with Your Family Member with Mental Illness

Tips to Keep in Mind
Tips to Keep in Mind

 

This is excerpted from Chapter 28 of Ben Behind His Voices.  Along with our story, I share guidelines with information to educate, support and help. Happy Imperfect Holidays!

Randye

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