That's Me

That's Me

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Mental Illness & My One Wish

Since I saw the news on Friday morning, my heart has not stopped aching for everyone involved in this tragedy. The children who will forever remember that day & what they saw & heard. The children who will grapple with survivor's guilt. The children who's lives were stolen from them. The parents, siblings, & other family members who have to look at wrapped gifts under the Christmas tree knowing that the recipient will never open them, that will have a hole in their heart for the rest of their lives, not knowing how to move on from that day. The loved ones who have the entire country's prayers & support right now but will one day have to face being on their own with the pain as they watch the world go on without their child. The parents of the children who did make it out alive but wish with all their might that they could erase their child's memory of what they saw & heard. The parents who also have to deal with survivor's guilt. The teachers in that school, those who have to live with the what if's, the memories, & those who are no longer here on Earth.

Everyone, from news anchors to friends, is trying to understand what happened. Everyone wants to know why. There will never be an answer to the why questions. We cannot understand the mind of someone who goes after innocent, defenseless children. It's impossible to understand.

Everyone wants to have something to blame. Something everyone seems focused on is that Adam Lanza was autistic or had asperger's. Look anywhere & you will find that this has brought on tons of posts & articles on children with mental illness. Look the other way & you will see everything you can imagine about guns & if Adam hadn't had access to the guns, this wouldn't have happened. Because it is impossible to understand what made him do what he did, it is natural to want to blame something.

It is so much more than what Adam Lanza's mental illness was or how he gained access to his Mother's guns. It is about the deeper issue of what this is doing for our society's view on mental illness.

There are so many unknowns around mental illness & unknowns create fear. My hope is that as a society we can use this nightmare as a time to come together & see mental illness for what it is. Not for what it is not.

Mental illness is not a murderer. Mental illness is not a scary monster. Mental illness is not something to fear.

There are a few reasons why mental illness is at the forefront of my mind every day.

One Reason: If you know me or have read my blog for a while, you know that I'm in nursing school. I traded in any semblance of a life for textbooks & homework. Instead of getting together with friends, I'm meeting with teachers. In place of girls nights out I'm in a classroom. Some of my favorite classes have to do with abnormal psychology. "Abnormal psychology" is, simply put, mental illnesses.

Another Reason: As a CNA, I am great with my psych/neuro patients. It quickly becomes commonly known with my co-workers that if they have a "difficult" patient who is not cooperating, Eddi is the person to call in. I'm proud of this. I love what I do & it's usually a thankless job, but when the "harder to love" patients that hate everyone & everything ask for me by name, I take that as my thank you. Due to the psychological illness of each patient, you need to understand why they are doing what they're doing or why they're so angry. It takes a lot of personal patience & understanding to be able to work with people who have illnesses that changes who they are or what they're capable of.

The #1 Reason that mental illness never leaves my mind is not because I study it a lot in school or because I work with a lot of patients who suffer in one way or another from's because of my brother.

Through my brother I have learned to see the person behind the illness, something that I admit is not always easy. Through my love for him, & my frustration at an illness that took him away & left a stranger in his place, I have a passion for mental illnesses & their treatments that I didn't have before. Because of my brother, I am able to show love & compassion for the most difficult patients because I know that deep down inside, there is a person who can't fight what their illness is making them do. Because of my brother I know that somewhere at some time each patient had someone who loved them & felt helpless as they watched their loved one disappear behind their illness. Because as I take care of my patients, I also live their loved one's life.

It's because of my brother that I am able to see past the hatred of a man who is physically hurting his nurse to the person inside who is struggling to not lose a battle. A battle with an illness that he cannot control & is taking over every part of his body, including his brain.

For one of my classes I had to give an 8-minute informative speech. There were 50 requirements for this speech, but it could be on anything we wanted to inform, without persuading or debating, the class on. I received an A on my speech. For the first time in the history of 20 years of teaching, the teacher was so focused on the information being given, that he was on the edge of his seat & wanting me to go beyond the maximum 8 minutes. There were many questions after my speech & half of the 30 people in the room were wiping tears. The A was nice but the reactions I got were exactly what I'd wanted from my speech. I wanted to change perceptions & get into people's hearts with what I had to say.

I have decided to share that here, in the hopes that other will not see every person with a mental illness as an Adam Lanza. My one wish in writing this is that every single person who reads it will stop focusing on whatever illness Adam Lanza had & realize that the illness is not what caused him to become a murderer. I want everyone to realize that we do not need to fear mental illness. We need to look deep within ourselves & find a way to help the people who are suffering inside their own minds with no way to help themselves.

Here's my speech, along with some of the visuals from my PowerPoint, entitled Three Common Misconceptions of Schizophrenia...

I started out with a video clip of a man talking to a tree in the middle of a park.

"Schizophrenia is a disease that is close to my heart.
[each of the following pictures was on PowerPoint slides with the heading: The Face of Schizophrenia]

Meet Brother*. That's me on the left & Brother on the right, on a camping trip when we were kids. He's 21 months younger than me & we were inseparable as children. He was like any other child except he was deaf. Brother was born 3 months premature in 1981 & he was the family's personal little miracle for surviving. When Brother was a preschooler, he was sent to a school for the deaf where he learned sign language. I also learned sign language so that I could be his interpreter. At home I would tell my parents what he was saying, at church I would tell him what the Sunday School teacher was saying. I loved him from day one. He looked to me to help him out when he didn't understand what someone was saying or to remind other people to look at him when they talked so that he could read their lips. He came to me when he got picked on for being different & to this day I am very protective of my little brother.

That's Brother in 1996 at my oldest daughter's birth. He's the one looking at the camera smiling. He was so happy that day. I was 16, he was 15. 1996 is also the year I was aware that he was seeing things. The only problem was that I didn't realize he actually saw these things. I thought my baby brother, the person I was so close to, was lying & I didn't understand why. He "saw" me spank my 8 week old daughter, among other things I hadn't done. In my journal I wrote how angry I was at my brother for telling our parents that I did such a horrible thing as hurt my newborn daughter. When my parents confronted me about it, they were confused on who to believe because neither of us had ever had a habit of lying. I was hurt & angry at Brother for such a vicious lie.

This is 1999. Brother is holding my son who is a year old here. This is the year I became aware that he was hearing voices. Brother's an amazing uncle & is very close to my son. He loves all my children, but there is definitely an extra special bond between him & my son. My son has always loved his uncle & as a teenager he still enjoys spending time with his uncle.

Here we are in 2010. Brother is the tall guy on the far right. He looks like any other brother standing up in his sister's wedding. This is an especially proud moment for me because he spent a whole year where I wasn't sure he knew who I was. I watched my baby brother, the little boy who had looked at me to help him out when he wasn't sure what to do or say, suddenly look at me blankly as if he'd never seen me before. I watched as an illness none of us were prepared for took over & left a ghost of my brother in place of the guy I loved so much.

It took a lot of work & concentration on Brother's part to be able to block out voices & things he saw in order to stand up in my wedding. Imagine you're standing up in your sister's wedding & you have people screaming & running at you & you can't look at them but they're doing everything they can to get you to lose your focus. Imagine doing this all day long, gauging other people's responses to let you know how you should be reacting to even the smallest detail, not understanding why no one else is distracted. What is wrong with you that you can't ignore it all like they can,  why is no one else laughing at the joke, why can't it all just stop? I don't know what he sees or hears all day, but the things he has told me are terrifying. I can't imagine seeing those things & questioning my instincts all day, every day.

[the next slide was labeled: Living With Schizophrenia & had info to go along with the following]

2.2 million people, or 1% of the population, in the US are living with Schizophrenia. 

[I included how many people with Schizophrenia would be living in the city where my school is, according to the 1% of population figure] 

You probably interact on a daily basis with someone who has Schizophrenia & you don't know it. The number of people with Schizophrenia is 2 times that of Alzeimer's, 5 times that of Multiple Sclerosis, 6 times that of Insulin-Dependent Diabetes, 60 times that of Muscular Dystrophy. We all know someone with one of these illnesses. Alzheimer's & Diabetes are very common. If we all know someone with one of these illnesses, then chances are that we go to school with, work with, or associate in some way with someone with Schizophrenia. These numbers show how important it is for everyone to understand mental illnesses like schizophrenia, because there are so many people suffering with this illness.

[the next slide was labeled: Misconception #1 & had facts to go along with the following]
I am now going to discuss common misconceptions about Schizophrenia. There are many untruths out there about this disease; many of them stemming from people's fears about it. While there are many misconceptions, I am only going to discuss the 3 that I hear the most often. The first one...

[On the slide: Schizophrenia causes people to be violent] the most commonly heard & believed. It’s still a common belief that people with this illness should be kept away from the public because they are dangerous to others. To be completely honest, this was actually my first fear when my brother was diagnosed. He is very close to my children & I feared he would not be aware of what he was doing & unintentionally hurt them. If you were to meet my brother, you would see he would never hurt another person & this illness doesn’t cause him to hurt anyone either.

The truth [I brought up facts on the slide] is that people with Schizophrenia are more likely to harm themselves than another person. There are murderers & violent people sitting in prisons who do have schizophrenia, but that’s a very small portion of the population. The majority of people with schizophrenia are not violent or dangerous to others. A person is much more likely to be attacked by someone without schizophrenia than by someone with it. If the person was not violent before their diagnosis, they are not likely to be violent after the diagnosis. 

People with Schizophrenia are 50% more likely than the general population to commit suicide & 10-13% of patients with Schizophrenia die from suicide than any other cause. Schizophrenia patients have such a high rate of suicide because of 3 reasons. 1: they cannot take the hallucinations & delusions any longer & that is the only way they can see to make it all end. 2: they are scared that they will hurt someone else because they feel out of control of their own bodies & don't trust themselves anymore. 3: they feel like a burden on their loved ones & want to make life easier for everyone around them.

Schizophrenia in & of itself is not violent. The illness does not cause people to become something they wouldn't have naturally been. Someone with Schizophrenia that is violent, would have been violent if they hadn't developed Schizophrenia. The majority of crimes are not committed by Schizophrenics; the majority of Schizophrenics do not commit crimes. Schizophrenics are no more likely to be violent than the general population & violence is not a symptom of Schizophrenia. Brother was always a very caring person & never wanted others to be hurt, and schizophrenia did not change that in him. One day Brother kept jumping in front of me everywhere I went. It was quite annoying. I kept telling him to knock it off & he finally told our Mom that there was a man that kept appearing in front me that was trying to shoot cancer darts at me. Brother was taking them for me so that I wouldn't get sick & die.

[the next slide was labeled: Misconception#2 & had info to go along with the following]
Another one that I hear often is that Schizophrenia is just another name for Multiple Personality Disorder, or Dissociative Identity Disorder. DID & Schizophrenia are 2 separate illnesses with different symptoms.

DID is often misdiagnosed as schizophrenia.

DID is often believed to be brought on by childhood sexual or physical abuse. Schizophrenia is believed to be caused by genetic predisposition combined with environmental exposures or stresses.

People with Schizophrenia do not know the difference between reality & their hallucinations &/or delusions. People with Multiple Personality Disorder do not hallucinate nor are they delusional, which is to see or hear things that are not there or really happening.

People with Multiple Personality Disorder have between 2 & 100 separate & distinct personalities that coexist, causing them to not always remember things they have done. This is not the same as hallucinations or delusions. Schizophrenia does not cause amnesia, so people with it do not have the lapses in memory like a person with Multiple Personality Disorder does.

[the next slide was labeled: Misconception#3 & had info to go along with the following]
The third misconception I am going to bring up is Schizophrenia is not treatable. This illness is treatable but not curable. A diagnosis of schizophrenia does not mean a person is doomed to a  worthless life or wandering the streets yelling at unseen things like we saw in the video I showed.  Antipsychotic medications control symptoms so the patient can live a life free of hallucinations & delusions. Psychiatrists can teach their patients appropriate ways to function in social settings. Job training helps so they can be productive members of society. Brother has a job in my Dad’s construction business. He’s not able to work on his own or without prodding & reminders, but he loves to work & be busy. There are workshops set up for people with mental illnesses, so they can learn to work with others, stay on task, and feel a sense of accomplishment like any other person wants. Support groups for the patient & the patient’s family help to alleviate the loneliness & isolation that comes with this illness.

Many people are affected in one way or another by Schizophrenia. Hopefully I was able to teach you all the truth behind 3 common misconceptions with this illness."

My brother cannot live on his own & he never will be able to. Rather than put him into a home where he would be away from his family, my parents care for him 24/7. When they pass, he will move in with me because I promise that he will never know what it is like to feel alone in his battle over his mind.

I want each person who reads this to reach out to someone they know that is suffering, whether that be a person with a mental illness or their loved ones who care for them. Caring for someone who is not "normal" & is socially inappropriate is stressful. It's lonely. It's never-ending.

Reach out to that person &/or their loved ones. Be their friend. Let them know they are loved. Help that Mom who is struggling with her child. Ask what you can do to lighten the load. Be an ear, a shoulder to cry on, make a dinner, fold a load of laundry.

My speech was about Schizophrenia, but it is all true about anyone struggling with a mental illness. As a society we need to stop fearing what we don't understand.

*The only thing I changed in this speech are names.

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