Life with a Schizophrenic Brother

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mental illnessHe grew up in a loving home. Adorable. Popular. Smart. Loving and affectionate. One of his God-given talents was athleticism. Fast, talented, and passionate. He was so witty. Smart, emotionally, and academically. Immaculate in his attire and always up on the current trends. Destined for greatness. We were close and his positive vibes were contagious. Even though we did not grow up in the same home, you would never know. Always in sync and having a blast. We never parted without a giant hug…ever. My brother had my heart. He always will.  

As he transitioned to his teenage years, some red flags appeared. He started smoking pot, falling behind in school, motivation decreased, and his personality could only be described as “odd.” The easy-going brother I knew became agitated easily and would talk about the voice that would not stop talking to him. He lost touch with reality. He would literally smoke a pack of cigarettes in one sitting. That would quiet the voice that would not stop talking to him. Days and nights were flipped. Spending money on elaborate things. Creating artwork that either reflected Jesus or Lucifer. Personal hygiene was no longer a priority. He showed little interest in the pleasures of daily life. His body movements changed. His thoughts became unrealistic and delusional.  

Years later, the diagnosis became real. Schizophrenia. His world and my world would never be the same. A diagnosis so profound and complicated. My little brother forever changed.  This is just the start of the story.  

Then came the downward spiral.

Where did he go? He turned eighteen and he has never been the same. Living on the streets, dabbling in heavy drugs, jail stays, petty crimes, and doing whatever he could to survive. The streets in a big city became his home. His once comfy bedroom became a bench with a blanket if he was lucky. He isolated himself from his family. We could not keep track of his whereabouts, which kept us up many nights worrying. Was he alive? Is he safe? Did he get a meal today? The family would just wait for him to reach out. His petty crimes ultimately turned into an attempted murder charge. That evening is still etched in my mind, crystal clear. Your mind hangs on to those traumatic moments. It was late and my cell phone rang. “Your brother attacked an elderly couple holding hands heading to the grand opening of a theater. The woman is in critical condition and her husband was also injured doing his best to protect her. Your brother was tasered four times by police and was still out of his mind and body. Immediately, I began searching his name and saw his mugshot on the news. Seeing your brother in such a horrific state mentally and physically was gut-wrenching. I felt numb. 

There have been blessings in the mess

The woman my brother attacked was a retired teacher.  She recovered and showed up at his criminal trial. My brother was evaluated and determined to be “not guilty by reason of insanity.”  That took my breath away. Instead of watching this on Dateline, this was my reality. I remember zooming in on his hands and thinking, how could those hands do this?  Not my brother. The sweet boy that was so full of love and life. So gentle and kind. An attempted murder charge resulted in two options from the judge. Option one was to send him to prison and option two was placement in a facility with other mentally ill patients.  The woman he hurt stood up and asked the judge to give grace. She referenced the fact that he was so young and needed help that a prison sentence would not fulfill. There are angels here on earth. She forgave him for almost taking her life and injuring her husband.  She saw the potential in him. Amazing grace.  

Breaking the stigma

All the love in the world could not change the diagnosis. Looking back, his crime could not have been prevented. Years of therapy and prayer allowed me to let go of that guilt. The entire family came together to bring him home to us and get the supports he needed. He pushed us away at every attempt. Rather than make judgments about mental illness, wrap your arms around families navigating these troubled waters. Mental illness is not easy and does not go away. Countless hours were spent trying to persuade him to get help and take medication. You see, medication has many side effects. Weight gain, the potential impact on other organs, low energy, and lack of motivation. My brother only hears one voice.  Medication makes that voice sound more like a whisper, yet the voice is always present.  Can you imagine? Mental illness can happen to anyone. I never thought it would impact my family. We advocate for families walking this journey. They need us to listen and share our story. Mental illness is daunting, yet being proactive can help manage all of the pieces. So, I share my story and stand by those who are experiencing mental illness or going through the journey with a loved one. We need one another. We all have a story. Be vulnerable.  Your challenges may serve as a guide to others.   

My brother today

Seventeen years have passed since my brother committed his crime. He takes daily medication and has a job. He is living independently and has connected with a local church.  Socially, he struggles and becomes overwhelmed easily. He is reconnected with his family and takes ownership of his mental illness. That is huge. He is living life and loving others well. I see glimpses of the little brother I once knew more now than ever. His smile, the same laugh, and his gentle spirit are present. Through it all, I never left his side. Even though we are miles apart, I know when he needs support and truth. We all do right? Forever my little brother he will be…

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