One of the cousins, HJ, with whom I was raised was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was in his late thirties. He is now about eighty and continues to live in subsidized housing in a tiny town in Wisconsin. For the most part HJ handles his life adequately, and when his behavior gets more bizarre than usual, someone drives him forty miles to a state mental hospital to have his medications adjusted.
Although he makes people uncomfortable when he tries to hold a conversation with them, he has never threatened or hurt anyone. He, his brother, and I grew up on a farm just outside this town, and our extended family is well known in the community, so he is accepted.
HJ was a popular teenager, and after high school he joined the Air Force and served admirably as an airplane mechanic. Not until after his discharge, did the problems began. He lost his job, and brought his wife and two children home to the farm to stay temporarily with his parents. It didn’t work out.
After the divorce, HJ packed up his pickup truck and left. At one point, I was able to discover an address where he might be staying, so I wrote to him explaining how important it was for him to keep in touch with his children no matter where he was. They needed to know that he was safe and that he cared about them. Other than an occasional greeting card to his children with only his name signed on it, nobody heard from him for several years. The postmarks were from various western states. He was moving around from job to job.
Finally HJ surfaced in a mental hospital in Colorado where he had been voluntarily committed. His parents were notified, but they had no cognizance of mental illness or what that might mean, so they began blaming him for not living up to their expectations of taking over the farm from them when he had returned with his family.
I happened to be visiting my mother when my aunt and uncle came over to lament about their oldest son, so with their permission, I called the hospital in Colorado to inquire about my cousin. The nurse said he was doing fine and that I could talk to him if I wished. I said to tell him that his parents would call him the next day.
I spent the next couple of hours talking with my aunt and uncle about what they should and should not say to him. Absolutely no talk about the past, and what he did or did not do. No blame for anyone, themselves or their son. As a registered nurse, I had worked with mentally ill people, and although I am no expert of any kind, I used that as a credential to get their attention and their consent to treat HJ with respect at all times no matter how strange he might seem to them. The following week they drove to Colorado to bring their son home.
Over the years, as my aunt and uncle aged and could no longer drive, HJ was a lifeline for them. My younger cousin and I lived in distant places and could not supervise, but we really didn’t need to. There were ups and downs, but nothing major. HJ got along. After his father’s death, he refused to speak to his mother (she was a bit bossy and demanding), but by then both were living down the hall from each other in the same subsidized apartment building in their home town, and there were others around who understood the situation and could help.
I tell this story from my past, because it’s important to know that schizophrenia is in itself not a dangerous condition. Only when other mental conditions are superimposed upon it, or when there is failure to get appropriate help for the person who is ill, might there be a problem.
Families who have a mentally ill person in their midst, react in various ways, sometimes exacerbating the symptoms rather than helping the ill person to cope with what is already a very difficult situation for them to handle.