• Patti Rodgers

Parenting Schizo-Affective Disorder

When our children are born, and we hold them in our arms, we form in our hearts all sorts of dreams for them. A successful career, loving partner, children and grandchildren. This is a story about re-thinking those dreams and realizing new ones.

Thirteen years ago our son, David, landed a job in one of the big hotels in Banff Alberta - my husband and I did a high-five because, at the time, we thought all our problems were over. David, who had grown up a beautiful cutie of a kid, had been through a rough patch with a toxic girlfriend and we hoped this new job would snap him out of the funk he was in. All that teenaged angst, the mood swings, the anger, the inability to focus, we hoped, would be over.

David settled in at first but the length between his calls home got longer and longer and our conversations shorter and shorter. He didn’t come home for Christmas and gave a vague excuse for missing his brother’s wedding even though I’d bought him a ticket to fly home. So, like any fretting mother, I flew out for a visit. And my beautiful cutie of a kid was thin, he had dark circles under his eyes, he laughed out loud for no particular reason, couldn’t make a decision about anything, couldn’t stay focussed in a conversation. First thoughts were substance abuse but there was no evidence of it anywhere, and having worked for a Young Offender lawyer, I knew what to look for.

I didn’t know what was wrong, but I was determined to fix it. When I flew home I made an appointment with the doctor and described David’s behaviour. When the doctor uttered the word schizophrenia the bottom of my world dropped out.

I left the doctors’s office, had a good long cry in my car, and then I went to Chapters and I found a book called “Surviving Schizophrenia - A Family Manual”. Then I went to Dairy Queen and I bought the biggest ice cream sundae they had. I took it to the beach and I spent the rest of the day under a tree reading. By the time I went home I felt I was equipped for the challenge. I’d get David home, take him to the doctor, get him on the right meds and we’d all live happily ever after….well…it wasn’t exactly that simple. In fact, it’s been quite a bumpy road, with multiple hospitalizations and many tries at various medications until we found the right combination, but it has also been filled with blessings. I am so grateful for my son. I admire his courage and his tenacity, his beautiful spirit and his loving heart.

On that day, under the tree, scarfing down an ice-cream sundae, I learned that people with schizophrenia have beautiful minds. - somehow we’ve come to believe that people with mental health issues are dangerous. 99% of people with mental health issues, particularly schizophrenia, would hurt themselves before hurting anyone else. In fact, they are more likely to fall victim to crime than to perpetrate it.

Typically, and as was the case with David, they want to save the world - they often share a common delusion: that they have been chosen for a mission. David's was to warn the world against the dangers inherent in the music of a particular pop star and he became obsessed with the thought that this musician was trying to harm him and others. That delusion is gone now, but it was frightening when David was in full-blown psychotic crisis.

The thing to remember, as a parent, is that a psychotic crisis is kind of like a heart attack in the brain. It happens and you heal. You get on some good medication, take therapy to rehabilitate and change behaviours that were detrimental to your health. Sounds easy - it's not - but a diagnosis of schizophrenia, schizo-affective disorder (which is a combination of schizophrenia and by-polar disorder) or bi-polar disorder is not a death sentence.

It is, however, a life-long challenge - just like any other life-altering diagnosis.

People with schizophrenia are uniquely and amazingly creative. They use thought processes that most of us under-use and live in a sensory world that is bright and rich - sometimes overwhelmingly so.

Vincent Van Gogh gives us a unique view into the sensory world of schizophrenia with his vibrant paintings. Sometimes for David the colours of the world were so bright and electric that he would shut himself away in a dark room. Sounds are amplified, and he couldn’t watch tv for the longest time. I learned to trust his instincts when he needed to be alone, and to allow him space when there's a lot of people around.

Some of the world's most beautiful music has come from the minds of mental "illness". David he is a gifted musician. He plays a number of instruments - mostly self-taught.

Parenting a child with schizophrenia has its challenges, but also many rewards. It takes patience, unconditional love and steadfastness that comes from a lot of community support.

If I were to offer three words of advice for parents they would be: "Don't be afraid."

Don't be afraid to love your child.

Don't be afraid of what people might think

Don't be afraid to ask for help

Don't be afraid to get help for yourself.

With the help of a combination of medications, counselling and a lot of love, my son is an amazing young man who works full time, plays his music, takes care of his "momma" and contributes to society. Don't be afraid.

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