When someone has a mental illness, he or she feels at odds with the world. Family members struggle to understand what is happening and may blame themselves or each other for the illness. Frequently, the family blames the person for his or her illness. In reality, serious mental illnesses are biologically-based disorders that are no one’s fault.
In my experience, most families do the best they can in the face of a difficult situation. These days, there are many treatments that can help people cope with mental illness. These treatments offer new hope and are transforming the fabric of families affected by mental illness — families like mine.
For as long as I can remember, I experienced symptoms of schizo-affective disorder, which is a combination of a mood disorder and schizophrenia. I felt like I was in a bubble, separated from the world around me. I would sometimes feel exuberant, but I would quickly fall into a deep depression. I felt slapped down. I did not understand myself or feel understood, especially by my family. I’m sure they tried to understand, but it was very difficult for them.
As time went on, we grew farther apart. My father mistreated me, and I grew tired of trying to make my family situation go right. I couldn’t help but feel angry and bitter. In 1999, I moved to California from my hometown of Houston, Texas. The rift continued to grow, and eventually I decided to cut off all communication with my family.
After living with my illness for so long, often being confused, desperate, and homeless, I finally reached out for medical help. With regular trips to a psychiatrist, I made real progress. The fog lifted and I felt calm, centered, and focused. I also got permanent supportive housing at Step Up on Second, which stabilized my life even more. Despite the fact that I was feeling better and getting my life together, the break with my family continued.
In the fall of 2008, a huge hurricane hit Houston, causing extensive damage. My thoughts went to my family. I decided to make contact to be sure all was well. First, I called my younger brother. The phone was disconnected. My spirit dropped. I thought of calling my Uncle Henry whom I hadn’t seen in over 12 years. He was a retired, soft-spoken Methodist minister who never had a bad word to say. I found his number on the Internet, called, and left a message.
Soon I received a call from him saying that all was well and he was glad to hear from me. Afterwards, we spoke from time to time. It wasn’t unusual for us to spend two hours on the phone talking about “stuff.”
In the summer of 2009, I received some bad news from my aunt: Uncle Henry had passed away. My aunt added that he always spoke well of me and that he was proud of me and my stability. She told me about my half brother, James, and what he was up to. James is about 30 years younger than me. I had always felt a special bond with him, but for years I was plagued by the feeling that I wasn’t good enough to be a decent big brother. The last time I had seen him was 12 years earlier at a Boy Scout event where he received a special award. I remember him telling me that I was his “cool brother.” That touched me deeply.
I told my aunt that if any family members wanted to get in touch with me, please give them my information, especially James. Four days later I received a call from James. We had a great talk. I told him that I felt bad that I was never the brother that I wanted to be and the brother he deserved. Without skipping a beat, he said, “It’s never too late to start.” And thus, a wonderful relationship began to grow.
I have since contacted and stayed in touch with other family members through Facebook. They all seemed happy to hear from me and know that I was well. Recently, James visited me here in Southern California. We had a great time and bonded even more. I was finally enjoying being a big brother.
On Father’s Day, at the gentle advice of my girlfriend, I called my dad and wished him a happy Father’s Day. I hadn’t spoken to him in over 10 years. He seemed to take it really well. Although we spoke for only a minute, it was a huge step in my life.
I hope to become more connected with more family members in the future. It is good to see that the long-standing break with my family is beginning to mend. I’m sure it will take time, but my joy and happiness of seeing it happen is truly rewarding and healing.
Les Jones is a resident at Step Up on Second, a nonprofit based in Santa Monica that works with mentally-ill people, many of whom are homeless, and helps them find housing and stabilize their lives. This column appeared in Step Up’s publication “Brainstorm,” which is produced by members of Step Up.