My son is a college student in his early twenties. He is bright, articulate, warm and compassionate. He reads the paper daily, watches the news every evening and subscribes to nearly all of the leading news magazines. He knows who the world leaders are, and he can tell you their stands on most issues.
He can sit by the hour and discuss, among other things, the nuclear arms race, the budget deficit and its effects, overpopulation and the effect man is having on his environment.
He talks on the phone for an hour or more trying to help a friend work through a problem.
He stays up until 4 a.m. talking to someone he barely knows because that person needs someone to listen and my son knows how that person feels.
He is thoughtful and considerate. He is the one who says, "Thanks for making dinner, Mom." He never forgets a birthday or an anniversary.
Unless he is ill.
You see, my bright, warm, articulate and compassionate son also is delusional, frequently filled with pain and guilt and lost to the world of reality.
My son is schizophrenic.
Schizophrenia is not being two different people. It's not being a "split personality." Eve and Sybil are not schizophrenic.
Schizophrenia is a thought disorder. Schizophrenia is pain I did not see in my mother when she died of cancer, pain so severe my son has attempted suicide more than once to be free of it.
Schizophrenia is feeling like your "brain is on fire." It's pain that spreads throughout your body and lasts for days and days. It's pain that can be seen in my son's eyes, in the way he sits and moans or cries in the rocking chair, hands clenched, face contorted.
It can be seen in his constantly moving mouth, in his shuffling, bent-over walk, in his clenching and unclenching hands. It can be heard in his voice when he says, "Mom, I hurt. When will it stop this time?" It can be heard in my voice when I tell him, "I don't know, honey. Hang in there. We've lived through it before. We can do it again." It can be seen and heard at 3 in the afternoon or at 3 in the morning.
Nights are bad for anyone who's sick. They can be terrible for a schizophrenic. Many schizophrenics have sleep disturbances that keep them up until 3 or 4 a.m. Then they want to sleep late the next day.
I don't know if it's true for others, but my son has been able to tell us why he often is unable to sleep. There are a number of reasons.
He hallucinates. He sees demons in his room. He hears voices telling him he's going to die soon and that he's damned to hell. Then they go into detail about the tortures they've planned for him. At night, when it's quiet and dark, there is nothing to distract him from this. For my son, human contact helps him cope with these things, but at night everyone's in bed and he's alone with it.
If he isn't hallucinating, his hearing is different when he's ill. One of the first things we notice when he's deteriorating is his heightened sense of hearing. He cannot filter out anything. He hears each and every sound around him with equal intensity. He hears the sounds from the street, in the yard and in the house, and they are all much louder than normal.
If he isn't hallucinating and his hearing is normal, there are times when his thoughts race through his head and he cannot turn his mind off. It's as though he's watching and hearing a film that has been speeded up and he has no "off" switch for it.
My son watches the news on TV and reads voraciously when he's able to. When he's ill, he can't read. Words dance on the page, or he is unable to comprehend what he's reading. I've seen him read the same page half a dozen times trying desperately to remember and understand. Then he throws the book down in frustration. He says he can't remember what he reads for more than three or four lines. By the time he reaches the middle of the page, he has lost the connection between the people or facts there and those at the top of the page.
Sometimes when he has tests we try to help by reading and summarizing with him, but that's frustrating for him, too, because he's an adult and he doesn't really want us to have to help him.
He's delusional. A delusion is, according to the dictionary, a "false fixed belief held in spite of evidence to the contrary."
He has been thrown into the Twilight Zone by agents of Rod Serling. He was ruled there by a Council of Elders. This was in a parallel universe and all of his family, his doctor, the people he saw every day were duplicates of the real people he had been taken from.
He has been in war, deep in a jungle, with a village burning on his left. One minute he was walking across a lawn and the next minute he was in a foreign land, being chased and strafed by helicopters trying to kill him. He has been tortured by enemy soldiers and has run blindly through the city of Winter Park, Fla., trying to escape.
Again, human contact seems to help him cope with this, but it is not possible to talk him out of it. It would be as easy to move the Sahara Desert, grain by grain, as it would be to talk him out of his delusions.
They are always there now. They are not always on the surface. Most of the time he isn't in combat or the Twilight Zone, but he never knows when he will be. He says he is afraid sometimes to walk through a door because he doesn't always know what world he'll walk into.
My warm, caring, considerate son who knows I love him also is afraid I'm trying to poison him. Twice in the past few weeks I've had to taste his food first so he could eat it without worry. A year and a half ago I was an agent sent to kill him and he sat and cried for more than an hour, pleading with me not to kill him. All I could do was reassure him over and over again that I wouldn't.
My son hallucinates. He sat in a high school classroom and watched an eight-foot demon saw off both his legs. The fact that he got up later and walked away made the act no less real to him. He has seen Christ lean down off the cross and vomit all over him. He has seen a demon sitting on the shoulder of the priest teaching him theology. He has seen ghosts, monsters and a Nazi general riding with him in the car. He has felt insects crawling all over his skin. He has heard voices call his name, mumble, hum, threaten him and command him.
Schizophrenia is called a mental illness, but it involves every part of my son. There is a particular kind of pain experienced in watching my son's bright, intelligence-filled eyes cloud over; in watching his vision shift from the outer world of reality to his inner world of pain and confusion, anxiety and despair, hallucinations and delusions.
And you can watch it happen. It is a searing, tearing kind of pain to watch my tall, broad-shouldered son begin to slouch and shuffle. His whole physical appearance changes.
There is a terrible feeling of helplessness, of near despair, when he says, "Mom, I can't read again," or "Mom, I hear everything at once again," because you know what's coming and you know there's nothing you can do to stop it.
What causes me the most pain, though, next to the pain I see in him, is the terrible loss of potential. My son is bright. Imagine bringing home A's, B's and C's when you are hearing voices while the professor is lecturing, or if you couldn't read half of the time. What could he accomplish, what would he be like without this handicap?
We're told that one third of schizophrenics will recover without much help, one third will lead useful, productive lives with medication and help, and one third cannot be helped much no matter what is done. My son gets good medical care from a doctor in whom my husband and I have a great deal of faith. There is just not enough known about schizophrenia yet. It may be similar to cancer in that there may be more than one schizophrenia with more than one cause. We just won't know without more research.
Sadly, there's still a great deal of stigma attached to this illness, and that's the main reason it has been so misunderstood for so long. Victims of the illness usually can't speak for themselves, and they are unwilling to let their families speak for them because they don't want anyone to know.
Please don't be afraid of my son or the others like him. He already has been hurt by people he thought of as friends who couldn't understand when he became "different." He does not pick up social cues very well. He does not "read" body language or between the lines when you talk to him.
There are times when abstract ideas and making connections are beyond him so he becomes difficult to be around, but please don't be afraid of him. There are violent schizophrenics, but there are violent diabetics, violent drinkers and violent smokers as well. Schizophrenics do more violence to themselves than to others.
The schizophrenic is not the only one who experiences pain, of course. There is the pain of the mother and father and brothers and sisters: the guilt, the total exhaustion, the isolation, the grief.
The grief is never-ending because the pain is never-ending, but you learn to live around it and through it and in spite of it. Fortunately, there are support groups available. A nearby mental health center can give you information about one. We can't change the problem, but maybe we can help you deal with it.