Sometimes Ben’s behavior is so wonderfully ordinary that I almost let myself imagine that none of this ever happened: the hospitalizations, the calls to the police, the fear and chaos. I can forget, for a while, that Ben has a serious mental illness.
It’s Yom Kippur. I can see Ben in the congregation at services this year, from my place in the choir. He is clean-shaven, dressed up, sitting next to his sister and her fiancé. My growing family. I feel so joyful to have them all here, together. They’re all participating, even listening to the Rabbi’s sermon on apologies. Still, I keep checking on them – well, on Ben – every few minutes. Sometimes I catch his eye, and he smiles and waves to me. Then there are the moments he doesn’t know I’m looking: I catch him grimacing, mumbling a bit under his breath. The self-talk. He usually can keep it under control now, but it comes out in overwhelming situations.
Yep. He still has schizophrenia. I know it, of course, but sometimes I like to imagine it was all a nightmare that is now over.
In a way, though, some of that nightmare is over. Thanks to some excellent life teachers, I have changed how I react to this situation, and that changes the situation itself. I have given up on being “right”.
Part of that change in my attitude was greatly influenced by the book I am Not Sick, I Don’t Need Help,, by Xavier Amador, Ph.D. If you’re still stuck in the frustration of trying to convince your relative that he/she has a mental illness, I highly recommend you read it. It may save your relationship.
Two weeks after Yom Kippur, I get to spend two days with Dr. Amador and hear first-hand about his experience when his brother developed schizophrenia – and how, years later, they were able to be brothers again. The pain is all too familiar; thanks to info like this, though, my family has been able to have Ben back in our lives. Like Dr. Amador with his brother, I began to regain (and still retain) my relationship with my son when I let go of being right, or being somehow able to say the magic words that would “convince” Ben that he had a mental illness.
These two day are about paying it forward; we are learning how to apply the LEAP (Listen, Empathize, Agree, Partner) process in helping someone with mental illness, and about training others to apply it. We’re a hand-picked group: two from NAMI Family-to-Family, some providers, and mainly police officers. I’ve never had the chance to hear crisis stories from the law enforcement perspective, and am so in awe of these detectives, hostage negotiators, trainers, and crisis intervention specialists.
In the crisis years with Ben, I had to call the police several times. Once, Ben called them to report that I had been threatening violence toward him (a long story, but unfortunately not an unusual one). Fun times indeed. Lucky for me, the police in my town had been trained in handling a crisis with humanity, respect and perspective. It could have been so much worse. To them, and to the cops who took this training with me, I say a huge thank you. Families in crisis are so raw, vulnerable, confused, sad and often angry. Your patience and empathy helped us through.
With more understanding and action like this, we can work to reduce the stigma and chaos of mental illness.
PS – some exciting news coming soon about Ben Behind His Voices: One Family’s Journey through Schizophrenia to Hope. Stay tuned!
And you can write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to receive the news via e-mail.