I’ve written a lot on this blog about having compassion, tolerance, understanding and breaking the stigma for people who suffer from mental illnesses – the full range of them, from mild to serious. The stigma of having a mental illness and the conspiracy of silence around it keeps mental health sufferers from seeking treatment and properly dealing with their mental health issues; which can easily go from mild to serious if left untreated or unattended to.
These past few days I’ve had to put what I believe and preach into action.
A relative of ours had come to town to visit with his friends and family. He had been struggling with drug abuse, homelessness and run-ins with law enforcement as a result of those. He is on the mend and is tying up loose ends with his probation. The person that was due to pick him up at the airport never saw him come out of the gate and we began to wonder if he even made it on the flight at all. He’d lost his phone again and no one was able to contact him to see where he was at.
A week later, we get a call from a local county jail mental health social worker saying that he was arrested at the airport for having a mid-flight meltdown and he broke a window at the airport after he deplaned. He did make his flight but was arrested upon his arrival. It’s unclear why he didn’t call anyone right away but waited a week to have the social worker call us. We find out that he’d recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia by two doctors and his symptoms seem to confirm the diagnosis. When he was a teenager, he showed signs of paranoia, but by then he’d already begun using drugs, his parents assumed that his paranoia was a result of drug use and if just stop using drugs those paranoias would go away. They didn’t believe he had a mental illness.
We learned that he had been evicted from his shared house because of destruction of property and disturbing uncontrollable behavior which frightened the other tenants. His landlady had been kind and understanding towards him but he had destroyed the room he was renting, the common area and now other tenants are threatening to leave, she felt had no choice but to ask him to leave. We also learned that he had lost his job because of the voices he was hearing and he was talking to the voices and having angry outbursts with them. He began to hear voices about a year ago but he said he was able to ‘control it [the voices]’ but recently, he’s no longer able to – hence the downward spiral. He said he’d been off drugs for over a year and was doing well and on the mend. But now he’s got this new diagnosis to contend with and life has been hard for him. He doesn’t like being alone, especially at night. He hears the voices less if another person is in the room talking to him and it’s usually when he’s alone that these outbursts and destruction of property occurs.
The DA office didn’t really care about the criminal charge as long as he paid for the damaged property and his family pooled funds to pay the damages. He was released from jail and his charge was reduced to a misdemeanor. We urged him to get psychiatric treatment and help, he said he was fine and didn’t need any. He stayed with various relatives until it was time for him to leave again. He first stayed with his sister for a few days but she got scared of his outbursts and put him up in a hotel room. He was in a slightly more high end hotel for two nights but because of his outbursts and screaming he was asked to leave. For the third night, he was put up in a roadside motel, not out of callousness but his sister figured they won’t care if he has outbursts. The hotel expense began to add up and she asked us if he could stay with us for a couple of days until his return flight home. We agreed. We figured it was just two days and he’ll be accompanied for most of these two days so it wouldn’t be that big of a problem. And most importantly, he isn’t violent with other people, children or animals – only objects and himself.
We went out of our way to make him comfortable. Stocked the fridge with his favorite foods and snacks and prepared the spare room for him. My children were excited to meet a new member of their large extended family. He arrived, looked pretty much the same as I saw him last time a few years ago at a family wedding. He appeared in good physical health but his face was weathered from being exposed to the elements during his homeless days. His behavior seemed fine with no obvious signs of mental distress.
My not being a blood relative of his, but only a relative by marriage, I had to walk a fine line. I wanted to fully welcome him in our home and be sensitive to him and not treat him like someone who is ‘mentally unstable’. In other words, I tried to treat him as normal as I could while making sure he didn’t smash anything up (as he is prone to do when the voices in his head distress him – he can’t help this). The first day we all got along wonderfully and he was lovely to my children. He spent hours playing with them, they loved him. The second day, my husband and I had to go to a business meeting and we decided to leave him at home with our children along with our usual babysitter. The meeting took longer than expected and by the time we got home, I found our normal babysitter to be a bit worried and a little distressed. I asked her what’s wrong, she pulled me aside to tell me that he was having some ‘issues’, he’d been talking to himself, slamming doors and smashed a dining room chair against a wall. My children were fine, they weren’t scared, except my four year old kept asking him why he was slamming the doors. He apologized to us for smashing the chair. He said he got angry, we asked him at what and why, he said he didn’t know. It was an ‘episode’.
Throughout his whole stay I managed a delicate balance between not making him feel uncomfortable because of his condition and at the same time making sure all was well. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say I was a bundle of nervous energy and anxiety, mostly of my own doing. I wanted to treat him normally, at the same time I want to make sure my home and belongings stay in tact and any outbursts don’t scare my children. I unknowingly began to hover over him, asking him if he needed anything every half an hour and asked if he was alright. I jumped up at any sounds or unusual thuds. Any attempt or pretense of treating him as though he were normal pretty much evaporated. Finally, when my husband, bless him, woke up at 3 AM to drive him to the airport for his early morning flight, we were both relieved.
Like many who suffer from mental illness, he was reluctant to talk much about it, except that he’s “fine and doesn’t need help”. He opened up to his sisters about what’s happened to him and they’ve relayed the news to us. He’s been given a prescription by a psychiatrist but he’s unsure how it would affect him. He has no insurance and is insured through state funded Medi-caid. If he has another mental breakdown again, he might get arrested again and there’s no telling how the arresting officer might handle that aggressiveness (one he can’t help). During one of his episodes, his landlady called the ambulance instead of the cops and he was hospitalized for a day or two. Hospitals and social services are stretched to the limit on helping mental illness patients. The definition of ‘severe’ cases keeps getting stricter to avoid hospitalizing people. The best scenario for him would be to live in some sort of shared accommodation so that he isn’t alone. His siblings are married and all have busy lives of their own, whoever lives with him besides being a companion will need to be some sort of caretaker, who has knowledge of what living with a schizophrenic is like and lots of patience. How he can arrange this in the near term so that his condition doesn’t deteriorate is beyond all of us. We feel worried but helpless at the same time.