How my son battled schizophrenia for a hard-fought draw
It was 26 years ago – 18 months into my retirement – when my wife and I discharged our son, Peter, from a psychiatric ward for the first time. My lad had just spent a fortnight in a secure mental health ward after he had a severe psychotic episode that had caused him to speak in tongues, shave all his body hair and claim he was the messiah, willing to die for the world’s sins.
Before my son’s release his psychiatrist informed my wife and I that Peter was suffering from schizophrenia. “I must warn you,” said the consultant, “this disease can cause great anguish. However, with proper vigilance, a sufferer’s life can be filled with purpose, accomplishment and happiness.”
For the moment, he advised us that the best place for our son to learn to cope with his “new normal” was in our stable and loving environment in the country. “This disease,” he said as we left his consulting room, “isn’t pretty or kind, and it will change his life irrevocably but it will also change yours as well.”
That day, when I helped Peter into the back seat of our car with much delicacy, I remembered how I had shown the same care when he came home with us as a newborn. When we drove off, Peter, stunned from all the anti-psychotic drugs, placed his head in my wife’s lap. Looking back, I am glad I didn’t know what the future had in store for me at 66, my 61-year-old wife or my 30-year-old son, because it would have made our voyage through mental illness all the more painful.
During the first years of my son’s mental illness it was as though an Arctic winter had descended on our home. My wife, Frieda, and I lost track of time. We stopped travelling abroad and curtailed our many interests that made retirement pleasant, as taking care of Peter became a full-time commitment. We felt like we were sailors on a small skiff that had been caught in a never-ending tempest.
The voices my son heard in his head were persistently cruel, and there were many nights when I slept beside him, at his insistence, to stop him self-harming.
Sadly, each one of us lost most of our old friendships, because mental illness in many ways is treated like leprosy was in the 19th century – an affliction that must be isolated from society. I don’t think my wife and I could have survived our son’s disease had it not been for the fact that our marriage was strong.
Still, there were moments of anger, grief and recrimination between us. Fortunately, they didn’t last long because our love had been forged at the end of the second world war, when trials and tribulations were a daily occurrence for my generation. Still, what my wife and I endured because of Peter’s mental illness was nothing compared to what he shouldered – a mental anguish that was as acute as the pain that fire causes when it burns through flesh.
Yet I also believe that my son was more fortunate than most people who suffer with schizophrenia because before he was struck with this illness he’d been a visual artist. During brief moments when his schizophrenia crested into calmer waters, he was able to return to his art. In detailed drawings, Peter sketched the demons that plagued his mind when he was imprisoned in the solitary confinement of extreme mental illness.
Over time and through advancements in drug therapy, Peter was able to regain more independence and greater confidence to resume his life. After 10 years of living with us, he was able to marry his long-term girlfriend, who also suffered from mental illness. Tragically, a month after Peter’s wedding my wife died from cancer. Five years ago Peter, having battled schizophrenia to a draw, died when he developed idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which destroyed his lungs.
After Peter’s death, among his writings, I found a note he’d sent to a gallery curator about his life and art which gave me great comfort: “I am not a pessimist, because I know that all of us are constantly changing through the passage of time or from experience. I don’t know how long I have left to live but my existence has been a good experience rather than a bad one, even with the dreaded schizophrenia, so I am glad to be alive because all in all, it’s been a fucking blast.”
Harry Leslie Smith. (2015). How my son battled schizophrenia for a hard-fought draw. Available: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/feb/09/my-son-battled-schizophrenia-social-isolation?CMP=fb_gu. Last accessed 10th Feb 2015.