Life with Schizophrenia

More than 20 years ago, my niece’s life pretty much went to hell. When she was a senior in high school she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

I can’t tell you exactly what schizophrenia is–nobody can. The best way I know to describe it  is an inability to discern the real from the unreal. The voices, the hallucinations, the feelings of paranoia are very real and very frightening. When you don’t know if you should listen to your algebra teacher or the voice in your head claiming to be God, it’s pretty tough to finish high school. So she didn’t.

I  lived away for about 12 years and missed a lot of what went on. I saw my niece at holidays. She had good years and not so good years and there have been downright horrible years. There was time spent in hospitals, in group homes and  times in apartments, more or less on her own.

I remember hearing that some of the group homes were dismal. Patients did little more than watch tv, smoke and take their daily medications.

I’ve never seen my niece when the madness has truly taken hold–when the sweet woman I know turned into a stranger, filled with rage and at war with herself and everyone around her.

But I have seen glimpses of sadness. Once, during a good time when she was living in an apartment, she was asking her parents to allow her to get a cat. They were reluctant, knowing that they’d be responsible for the animal when the inevitable hospital stay came. She and I were talking about it one night when I was driving her home. She described her feelings about wanting a pet:

“Sometimes I just get lonely.”

I think about how much that one sentence says:  I’ll never have a family of my own. I’ll never go to happy hour with a group from the office. I’ll never have a day that isn’t regulated by the handful of pills I have to take to maintain my foothold in sanity.

She doesn’t let me see the sadness often. Usually when we chat she’s cheerful and even a peaceful. In the last year she’s quit smoking and lost more than 60 pounds. She loves to watch sports on TV and goes to see the Tennessee Titans occasionally with her father. I can always count on a halftime phone call when she’s watching the University of Tennessee.

At some point, her parents (my sister and brother-in-law) heard about the Center for Living and Learning–a place so low-key it doesn’t even have a website. The Center is a private nonprofit residential and vocational program for mentally ill adults. It was founded in 1987 by a local family with a mentally ill relative. It was a godsend for my niece and her family and she lived there for several years.

The Center recently built a second house for residents to live in without supervision. It’s a beautiful home with large, sunny bedrooms, each with a huge closet and private bath. There’s a screened in porch with a beautiful view of the surrounding green hills. It’s my niece’s new home and there was an open house there last week. Friends and family–more than 150 of us–came to see this wonderful new facility and to celebrate the accomplishments and achievements of our mentally ill loved ones.

In time, this beautiful building will be home to six residents, but only two live there now.

Well, three if you count Tilley–my niece’s cat.

21 Comments

Filed under At Home

21 responses to “Life with Schizophrenia

  1. I have goosebumps. What a wonderful blessing for your niece and your entire family, and Tilley of course.

  2. dinahmow

    And Tilley will be one of the most important loves in her life. I wish them all well.

  3. sherwoodisland

    Wow, that sounds nice, Cindy. I can picture the view of the green hills.

  4. Thanks for a peak into the life of your niece with Schizophrenia. It hurts my heart that she has to live like that, but life is hard and I appreciate your tender insight.

    Well said HIF.

  5. Julie

    There are all kinds of bars around our lives, aren’t there–some we make and some we are given because we are what we are. And then there’s Tilley, a key to the bars. Wow. Love can do that.

  6. Zen–Thanks. She really has been trying hard this last year.
    Dinah–Thanks so much. Tilley is a sweet cat.
    Susie–It’s out in the country, on the way to Leiper’s Fork–a beautiful area.
    ES–Thanks for visiting Franklin and for your kind words. She’s one of the lucky ones when it comes to mental illness–she has a great support system.
    Julie–The Center goes a long way to help erase the stigma of mental illness. I know it’s certainly changed my view.

  7. I’ve seen how devastating schizophrenia can be, and I’ve worked in places that are the very opposite of the Center you describe. So I’m hugely glad your neice has found a good place to live and a cat.

  8. Man, am I feeling grateful.

    And thank God for the Center. And for kitty-love. 🙂

  9. It sounds like a wonderful place. I hope your niece is able to finds everything she needs to fill that loneliness. Yay for Tilley!

  10. Wow. I love the last line. She has a cat!

  11. My wife’s cousin has full-blown schiz. It’s awful. He’s one of these guys who constantly threatens the President if he goes off his meds. It doesn’t matter who’s in office. So he’s been paid many visits by the FBI.

  12. PG–I know that lots of the homeless I see on the street talking to themselves would have better lives if they’d had access to a place like the Center.
    Elise–I know lots of people prefer dogs, but we’re a cat-loving family.
    Dingo–I imagine it will always be there to some extent. But there’s lots of family around.
    Ellie–Yes…something alive of her very own.
    UB–Oh, that must be so hard on the family. Blessings to them all.

  13. That almost made me cry. I’ve never known someone with schizophrenia, and I don’t ever want to. It would mean wishing it on a stranger, and I couldn’t do that.

  14. I’ve seen many lives bitterly damaged by mental illness. The facility sounds like a good place; a shame that places like this often come too late for so many people.

  15. cs

    Such a moving commentary, Cindy. Thanks for sharing your story and that of your niece. The more I learn about mental illness, the less that I casually use the term “crazy” when referring to someone. It seems to perpetuate the stigmas of mental illness. Anything that brings us closer to an understanding and triggers the respect that so many mentally ill deserve for persevering despite the prevalent misunderstandings is such a welcome reflection of compassion…your sharing fits that bill without a doubt.

  16. DavidO

    You are such a gifted writer. You touched me with your eloquent story.
    I am told that schizophrenia strikes very talented people suddenly in high school or college. Their personalities get robbed just when they are starting out.

  17. Rass–It really is one of the most horrible things that can happen to a person. Some people end up being really high achievers, but lots more end up on the streets.
    DJ–Thanks for visiting Franklin and commenting. It is a great place and is not only a place to live, it’s a community.
    Christa–What a great comment–thank you. You know, I cringe whenever anyone calls someone or something “schizo.”
    DO–You’re right–it’s often diagnosed just when kids are starting their lives. They are indeed robbed.

  18. older Sister

    Thanks sister, our daughter is one of the lucky ones with love from you and all her family to support her. The Center is amazing and for the first time in over 20 years I feel that she is safe and secure and I can go to sleep at night knowing that.

  19. AnnB

    Thanks Cindy, for sharing such beautiful insight on the Center and also on your niece. I’m fortunate enough to know the Center pretty intimately, as I have had the pleasure of working with them for the past 10 years through a partnership. Everyone we take there falls in love with it’s beauty and the impact it has on the lives of those who live there.
    But even more…thanks for sharing your story about your niece. I’ve known her for over 10 years and she is one of the most inspirational and beautiful young women I’ve ever known.

  20. Thank you for telling this story. How wonderful that they heard about that place! She must have a very strong willpower to be able to stop smoking AND lose weight at the same time.

    The Open House crowd. . . how very, very special!

  21. Sister–It’s always been my pleasure.
    AnnB–Thanks for reading and for commenting. I hope you’ll visit Franklin again.
    MM–She has been on Jenny Craig and it has really worked. I think that the smoking must be especially hard because most of the people she’s around (0utside of family) are very heavy smokers.

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