Caring for a family member with schizophrenia is possible
My daughter was 20 years old when our lives changed. There was nothing unusual about her childhood; she did well in school, she had her usual set of friends. She did well in her Class XII exams and joined a good college in the science stream.
And then things started to go wrong. Initially, she would come back from the college and go straight to her room and shut the door, not coming out until dinnertime. We first assumed that she was studying – until one day, I went into her room and found that it was in chaos. Clothes strewn everywhere, and closets emptied out. I was shocked to see the mess and asked her what was going on. That’s when my daughter told me about her fear: she was convinced that there were chips planted in her room. She was sure that there was a government agency tracking her every move, and she was trying to find the chips so she could destroy them.
I was very afraid. My initial reaction was to scold her, and ask her to stop speaking nonsense.
Over the next few weeks and months, she became more isolated and I would see her mumbling to herself. She stopped taking care of herself and finally stopped going to college. Her father tried to talk to her but found that she was barely listening to him. She seemed to be engaged in a conversation with herself.
She spent two sleepless nights looking for the “hidden chips”. She barely ate or rested, and that’s when we decided she needed to be taken to the hospital. At the hospital, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. We were devastated.
When we went home, my husband and I read about it. It made us feel no better. My daughter stayed in the hospital for a month. When she came out, she was much better but seemed dull. She needed to be reminded to take her medications. She was not as outgoing as before. She mostly sat on the sofa at home and watched TV.
For the next three years, my daughter was in and out of the hospital, particularly when she did not take her medication. It has been ten years since her diagnosis that changed our thinking, about mental illness and otherwise. We have worked on accepting that our daughter has an illness that she will have to live with, all her life. We have also accepted that she will not finish college (she tried to go back to her classes and could not handle the stress). [It must be noted that not all people with schizophrenia end up dropping out of school/ college. Individual cases may vary.]
My husband was diagnosed with depression and is on medication for it. We now know that sometimes, one does not just ‘get over’ a mental illness.
I have learnt to cope by volunteering at a hospital near our home that also treats patients with psychiatric problems. I support other parents whose children suffer from similar illnesses. I have started a group for families of people with serious, long-standing mental illness and found that families who join these groups feel supported and heard.
My daughter works at a small shop near our house and gets a small salary every month. She has good days and she has bad days. We have learnt when to talk to her and when to leave her alone.
I am grateful that there are medications that help her function because I can’t imagine how she would have suffered without them. She has not needed to be taken to the hospital for several years now.
We go for walks, my daughter and I. I know she needs exercise and sometimes, she can’t seem to motivate herself. Her brother and sister visit us and always make it a point to engage her in conversation and take her out shopping, or for a movie. We are essentially a normal family with one member who needs more love than the rest of us.
This real person account has been recorded by Dr Sabina Rao, specialist grade psychiatrist, NIMHANS, with the consent of the narrator. Names have been changed for privacy.