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What It's Like to Have a Family Member With Schizophrenia

My Brother Has Schizophrenia, and Here's What I Want Other People to Know

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In high school, my brother Dan* was the big man on campus. Kids idolized him; teachers loved him. He was an athlete, super handsome, and smart. He graduated with honors and had tons of friends. I'm a few years older than Dan, but even my friends would call dibs on who would get to marry him.

He didn't have signs of depression or any type of mental illness when he was a teenager. It wasn't until a couple years into college when he started experiencing symptoms of paranoia. Dan was convinced his roommate had stolen his phone while he was sleeping, and he started to think his neighbor was stalking him. He slowly started to isolate himself from friends he had known all his life and sever ties with people.

When Dan came home for Thanksgiving his sophomore year, his personality was different, but we just thought he was being a brat. Even with the previous incidents of paranoia, we didn't realize things were bad enough to require help or medical intervention. Then he ended up having a physical altercation with my dad, and my parents called the police. The police came and took him to the hospital, to the psychiatric ward, but they ended up releasing him right away. He wasn't experiencing any symptoms to keep him there, and we didn't know enough about mental illness at the time to know if he needed any additional help or intervention.

I hadn't heard much from Dan until the next Spring when he called each of my siblings and my parents to tell us he loved us. It was out of character for him; we knew something was off. He was home alone because my parents were out of the country, so we had a neighbor go check on him. We were expecting the worst.

Instead, Dan, our two family dogs, and the car were all gone. We had no idea where he went. My dad was able to track the location on his phone — Dan had come to the city where my sister and I lived, a few hours from my parents' home. He drove all the way there with the dogs. He rented a hotel room; apparently, he wanted to go see a baseball game.

We were tracking his location and knew he was still in the city, and I was worried sick about him. That night, when I saw he was making his way out of the city to drive back home, I tracked his car down and stopped him in the middle of the street. I begged him to stay the night and drive home the next morning; I was in tears. It was getting late and I didn't want him driving in the dark.

Finally, I convinced him to stay the night at the apartment I shared with my sister. I woke up the next morning to make sure he left. He told me he had to go to yoga and had to be somewhere at noon. I was so confused. He left and when he came back, he was acting really strange. Then it was getting late again, so he said he was going to wait and leave the next day instead. I was getting pissed because I thought he was playing games.

He was sweating and had the wildest look in his eyes. "I'm not safe here," he said.
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That night, I heard him take a bath in my bathroom. It got really hot because my bathroom doesn't have a lot of ventilation. I heard the door slam — he was gone, even though all of his clothes were still there. I then heard the fire alarm in the building go off. He had gone up to the roof in my women's Patagonia jacket and nothing else. He's 6'3" and I'm a foot shorter than him; it didn't exactly fit. He was sweating and had the wildest look in his eyes. "I'm not safe here," he said.

In hindsight, I should have gotten help for him right then, but at the time, I didn't realize just how bad things were going to get. I managed to get him to come inside and get through to him that we were absolutely leaving the next morning — I would drive him the few hours back home — no questions asked.

Finally, he got up again the next morning and we were getting ready to go. He said he was going to leave to get breakfast. I went to go find the car so we could drive home, and he never came back.

Not only did he disappear, but he left his phone at my apartment. We later found out it was because he thought Apple and Verizon were trying to hack him. I also found some hospital papers in a grocery bag he left behind that stated: The patient should follow up with a mental health professional. I called all the hospitals in the area asking if they had seen him. No one had any information.

We knew it was bad, and we weren't sure how to find him. I was able to log into his bank account and track what he was spending on his debit card. I saw he went to a Starbucks so we called a bunch of Starbucks locations trying to find him. That night, I was expecting him to show up, but he never came. It was going on almost 24 hours of him missing, and that's when panic started to set in.

I saw he spent money at my gym, so I called the facility. They said they saw someone who matched the description of my brother come in to shower but they had to kick him out because they found him sleeping in the locker room. I stayed home from work and spent the day tracking his spending. Every time he would spend money somewhere, I'd call to see if they had seen him.

When I saw he spent money at Petco, I called and a woman said my brother came in and bought a large $100 Tempur-Pedic dog bed. We knew he was going to use it to sleep on the street.

Although we had initial contact with police officers, they weren't being helpful or taking us seriously. But after he was gone for over 24 hours, we went back to the police station and found some understanding officers who helped us file a missing persons report. My parents came to town to help us find him.

I opened up his Instagram direct messages, and that changed everything.

I decided to look through his texts and Facebook messages to see if he left any clues but couldn't find anything. Then, I opened up his Instagram direct messages, and that changed everything. He rarely posts on Instagram, but he had been DMing celebrities incoherent messages, having lengthy conversations with them as if they were responding. There was one celebrity in particular he messaged multiple times, saying he would meet him at a diner down the street for lunch. That is why he said he had to be somewhere at noon a few days before. We knew then he was seriously in trouble.

On the fourth day he was missing, my parents and I were having lunch and we decided to check his bank account one more time. Turns out, he had bought food from the grocery store around the corner. We called the detective who had been working on our case to come check out the surveillance tapes.

As my sister and parents went to go look over the tapes, I decided to look for him on my own. It was a beautiful Spring day and I thought to myself, "What would Dan do?" I knew there was a tea shop nearby and he loves tea, so I checked there. Sure enough, there he was, sitting at the counter. He looked like he was back to himself. Whatever psychotic break he was in, he was done. "How did you find me?" he asked. "We've been looking all over for you," I told him. "You're a missing person. Your photo is all over the city. We love you, we were worried about you. Of course we were looking for you."

The detectives and an ambulance came and took him to the hospital. I rode in the ambulance with him, and that's when I got a sense of what was going through his mind during those four days. "I felt unsafe and I removed myself from the situation so nothing would happen to anyone else," he told me sternly. "You want me to tell you I'm crazy — I'm not crazy. This is how I felt and this is the way I handled it. It's the way I wanted to."

He went to the hospital but the doctor decided that since he wasn't experiencing any symptoms of psychosis at the moment, there wasn't much they could do. They held him for 24 hours for observation, and the next day we picked him up. We found out that he left our apartment after taking a bath because he was convinced someone was trying to poison us. Before he went missing, he even visited the police station and they sent him to the hospital, hence the papers I found, but he was released right away. In his own way, he was trying to protect us.

It's been a couple years since this incident. And while my parents sought to get him help, it took a lot of trial and error to find a psychologist or therapist who would even see a patient who was experiencing the symptoms he was: paranoia, hearing voices, and having had a full-blown episode of psychosis. Eventually, they were able to find a psychologist who said Dan absolutely has schizophrenia, but the exact diagnostic process was complicated. To make things more confusing, Dan refused to see a therapist regularly or entertain the idea of taking medication.

My parents go to a support group throughout the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) with other families in their area. The other members of the group include another family my parents already knew from when Dan played sports growing up. It just goes to show that mental illness, even serious mental illness, is more common than people realize.

Some things are different, but my brother Dan is still the same person I've always known and loved.

Right now, Dan is doing better. He got a part-time job, and his employers said he is the hardest-working person there. He has plans to go back to school. He does well when he has a set routine, and he eats super healthy and does Bikram yoga regularly. He still exhibits signs of paranoia — he's convinced that any food that isn't organic is poisonous — and still hears voices, but for the last couple years, he's been pretty stable. As much as we have tried to convince him to have a more clinical intervention, he still doesn't take medication and would rather handle his illness through a healthy lifestyle. He said he can control the voices and goes through periods where he doesn't hear them at all. We know that another episode could happen again, but we are more prepared for it this time. It's not a matter of if it will happen but when.

Some things are different, but my brother Dan is still the same person I've always known and loved. When things get tough, my family stays calm and rides the wave. But we don't treat him any differently. I don't tiptoe around him, and I don't handle him with kid gloves. I want him to feel as normal as possible.

I didn't know anything about schizophrenia before my brother had his psychotic episode. When I first heard that diagnosis, I was scared. I wasn't sure what it meant. But now knowing what we know, I want other people to realize that they shouldn't be scared of someone who has a mental illness, and it's not something that should be stigmatized. People should open up the conversation more and talk about it. You never realize what someone or their family is going through.

If other families are living with a loved one with schizophrenia, I want them to know not to turn to fear. Try to set up as normal of a life as possible; they can't help what's happened to them, so allow them to get as much out of life as they can. And keep talking about it. The more I've talked to people about our story, the more I've realized that everyone knows someone who has been affected by mental illness.

My brother Dan is who he is, and we love him and support him — there's nothing to be ashamed about.

*Name has been changed.

If you or someone you love are experiencing signs or symptoms of schizophrenia and are seeking mental health help, the National Alliance on Mental Illness has resources and a helpline (1-800-950-6264). You can also text "NAMI" to 741741 or email info@nami.org.

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