Reprinted from "Stigma" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2(6), pp. 28, 30
Two years ago, when my son Wayne* was 16, he was a handsome, well-rounded young man, destined for a healthy and productive adulthood. He had great talent in his literary and communication abilities. He was a valued employee at a part-time job he had pursued - and obtained - all on his own. Wayne was a cheerful, outgoing presence in our household, spent time with his friends (and a girlfriend or two) and had an eye toward an acting career. My son seemed to have everything going for him.
It's hard to reconcile that image with the gaunt 18-year-old who now sits, day in and day out, in a darkened living room, motionless, with downcast vacant eyes, no longer capable of, or interested in, any sort of sustained conversation. This is mental illness. This is psychosis.
He is preoccupied with vivid, puzzling and conflicting images and ideas. Thoughts start out clear in his mind, but before they're fully processed, they collide with one another, shattering. Just sitting quietly considering these jumbled thoughts can easily consume most of his time.
The rest of the time, his interests become unhealthy obsessions such as with the underground rap band Insane Clown Posse. It's the same with his spirituality; he carries a Bible everywhere he goes and rejects or accepts ideas based on his interpretation of God's word. Not in a wholesome manner, but like a zealot. Psychosis colours his life.
Psychosis takes many months to develop to the point of the sufferer having any clear, recognizable symptoms. To a parent it can look like adolescent rebellion or the result of teenage drug use. The illness is hard for him to recognize. After all, it's a disease of the brain and the brain is the organ that must recognize the illness.
But the behaviours are hard to ignore. I tell him that it's not appropriate to lie down and do "exercises" in the middle of a crosswalk on 10th Avenue. I tell him that normal people don't bend and kiss the pavement every 30 seconds. I stop him from kneeling in his pajamas in the mud of our driveway. Wayne understandably resents my constant reminders that he is 'crazy.' But no person in this world cares more for Wayne's well-being than I. My voice is the one that has rattled in his head, begging him to accept treatment, pointing out symptoms that he cannot - will not - see, in a desperate attempt to help him get well.
Untreated, psychosis continues to progress - with frightening potential consequences. Not all people with psychosis become violent, but many, even the most placid and caring of individuals, do. Depression, too, visits periodically. Many people with long-term psychosis eventually commit suicide.
Last year, my son's illness reached a level of severity that allowed him to entertain and then act upon a frightening idea. With a kitchen knife, Wayne attempted to cut off his testicles. Fortunately, the pain and the blood - or some semblance of sanity - caused him to abort the operation before the act was completed, and to seek help.
The wound was closed and healing within a few weeks, but Wayne failed to go for required follow-up care despite concerns about complications. He's chosen to reject this medical treatment-along with the mental health assessments and drug therapy.
On Attitudes - The Community
When I think back to last summer and how the changes in Wayne's demeanor were reflected in the faces of our adult friends and neighbours, above all else, I recall their concern and kind words.
Wayne spent his days during a heat wave running awkwardly up and down the side of the highway. He could never make up his mind where he was going; he just needed to be on the road. He was 25 or 30 pounds under weight and his clothes were rumpled and smelly; he wore layers of them. His face was unshaven and his eyes like dirty gray rocks from the driveway.
But people - many, complete strangers - just kept pulling up and dropping him off at our home. They'd find him wandering or standing gazing into their neighbours' yards, or maybe sitting motionless for hours in the long grass near the highway, and they'd offer him rides in their cars. "I'm so amazed at the scope of human kindness," I told my husband. "He looks odd and scary. You wouldn't think they'd pick him up." I was surprised to discover how many other families have been touched by mental illness.
"Everyone I talked to just wanted to help in some way," my husband reminded me recently. When he said that, it made my stomach do a little flip-flop. One sickening comment will always colour the summer of 2004 for me.
My sister Joanne and her husband brought their beautiful baby girl, Mikaela, to visit. Wayne was entranced; he just watched her. Every time Joanne put Mikaela down to bed in their travel trailer, Wayne would sneak in to watch her sleep. A couple of times he picked the baby up. Joanne kept asking him not to, but whenever she turned her back, there he'd be.
She and I watched from the kitchen window one afternoon as his lanky shape stepped up to the trailer door. We watched through the window as Wayne stood there looking down at the crib. I imagined Mikaela's soft blonde curls, fat cheeks, her baby smell. Who wouldn't want to watch her sleep?
"It's just that she needs to sleep and he keeps waking her up," said Joanne. "If she doesn't sleep now..."
"No," I said softly, "It's not just that, is it? We don't know what he'll do, do we? What made him hurt himself that day? If that could seem okay to him, what else might?"
Sickened, I went with my sister to coax Wayne away from the baby.
The comment I uttered in my kitchen that day - myself! - was the most hurtful thing anyone has said since psychosis came to visit.
About the author
Karen lives in Port Alberni