Living With Schizophrenia: My Father’s Perfect Family

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My father said on numerous occasions when I was growing up that he would see other families that had problems like divorce and drug use, and he would thank God that his family was so perfect.

Things would change, though. They always do. And that perfect family would face just as much struggle as any other.

Growing up in the mountains above Boulder, Colo., our life was good. My parents had left their life in Chicago behind for an ideal they saw in a piece of art they found at a flea market, a haphazardly painted picture of a cabin next to a river with the mountains towering in the background. Born in the early ‘80s, my brothers and I shared a bond as best friends in our small neighborhood, isolated from town, where we spent time outside sledding, building forts and making dams in the ditch that ran by our house. The biggest problems we seemed to face were bloody knees and the occasional broken bone from snowboarding and bike accidents.

My dad, a subscriber to “Mother Earth News,” relished our family’s home in the mountains. There were backpacking trips to the national park 30 miles away, where he taught us how to build a fire and to hang our food from tree limbs to keep it out of reach of bears. Other times he would take us on long father-son road trips, where we would drive the long highways with nothing to look at but the passing fields and nothing to pay attention to but the books on tape from Focus on the Family that my father put on the car stereo. Those tapes provided a Christian look at what it meant to be a man, covering issues like lust, sex and puberty, and he’d answer our questions about girls and all manner of things relating to our growing into healthy young men.

Around 2001, as my brother was just graduating from high school, my parents found out he was gay. That’s his story to tell, but it was hard for my dad to accept. My brother went about as far as he could, to Montana, for college.

When I went away to college, I began smoking weed pretty regularly and doing other drugs, and slowly I started to lose my grip on reality. Coincidences turned into connections, connections into paranoia, and paranoia into delusions. Seeing the change, my mom and dad were at a loss. When I mentioned a few times that I thought I was going crazy and told them that I’d like to see a doctor, they would say it was just the pot, just please stop.

Months went by like this, as I grew increasingly paranoid and delusional, until, thinking I was a prophet who was meant to save the world, I left on a “mission” to the United Nations in New York. I spent nights sleeping on the streets and in metro trains, from Boston to Woods Hole, Mass. The experience culminated in a bittersweet homecoming, where I spent the next week in the psych ward of my local hospital – one of the hardest weeks of my life. I was, in the truest sense of the word, broken.

My parents were bereft. Panic is the word they’ve used over and over in my questions about how they were feeling during this time. After hearing my diagnosis — schizophrenia — they went to the bookstore that evening and bought every book on the shelf about it. My dad’s perfect family had devolved into something he couldn’t recognize.

When I got out of the hospital, I moved back in with my parents. My mom tells me the moment I got home, I pulled a chair into the closet to look up into the attic. When my parents asked what I was doing, I said I was checking to see if there was anyone spying on me. My mixed-up brain chemistry was telling me that others were conspiring against me, and judging me. While working on my car with my dad, the thought came into my head that he had cut my brake line in order to cause me to swerve off the road and die.

Soon after I got home, my dad met with a couple at church whose son had been suffering from bipolar disorder. That get-together, he says, scared the wits out of him, because he had no idea how bad mental illness could be. He says it also brought him an epiphany: that people have struggles in their lives that they don’t share willingly, for fear of stigma, ridicule and misconception.

My parents went to a class called Family to Family sponsored by NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and my dad fervently pored over the class material for tips on how to deal with my situation. My mom told me that she and my dad would sit through the class and she’d cry the whole time and then come home and cry the rest of the evening. The class moved my dad, though, because when he finished he underwent the training to teach the class himself, and he did teach it for two 12-week sessions.

As I gradually got better, and my father got more informed, he learned to accept the fact that you can’t control what life throws at you. Ten years have passed since my breakdown, and in that time I’ve gotten off drugs, taken my meds, worked various jobs, gone to therapy and am relatively stable.

My father’s a much calmer man these days, and he beams when he talks about how proud he is of me and my brothers. When I was little, for example, he might yell at me for waiting half an hour before taking the dog for a walk. In our interactions now, though, he might ask me kindly if I want to come into the office for a day and do a little work, but only if I’m feeling up to it.

I still have a demon on my shoulder, my constant friend and enemy that sits with me at every moment of my day, from waking up with coffee on my porch to dinners out. It will make itself known if I overhear laughing or a snippet of conversation and I imagine that others are talking about me. That’s paranoia.

But in the years after I broke, I’ve come to realize that family, although complicated, is the one major constant in my life that I can rely on. Brokenness has a way of cementing bonds among a family. If nothing else, it reinforces the ultimate importance of unconditional love, that no matter how messy life gets, my family will always be there for me, as I am for them.

For that I can only be thankful.