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Loving Someone with Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a mental disorder that distorts thinking. The name comes from the Greek words, schizein, which means split and phren, which means mind. I don’t think that the name is an accurate description of a schizophrenic. The personality is not split, as in Dissociative disorder; it is more accurately described as a total confusion. The schizophrenic mind is a place of chaos. My brother has schizophrenia. He was diagnosed 15 years ago at the age of 18. During the time of his life that he should have been graduating from high school and thinking about going to college and what he would be doing with the rest of his life, my brother was sitting alone for days at a time talking to himself and reading the bible. He began to do really odd things. He would take all of the batteries out of every clock in the house and fashion really odd tools from the silverware. He made very strange gestures and often just sat and stared at you, breaking out in inappropriate giggles. He stopped bathing and taking care of himself and he often took off for a walk and didn’t come back for hours. Sometimes he would disappear for days. When the family started to realize that he was definitely not himself, we had him placed in a hospital to be evaluated. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and began the long battle with this illness that would eventually steal his identity.

According to NIMH, Schizophrenia is a mental illness that most often strikes men in their late teens and early twenties. Women can be diagnosed with schizophrenia, as can children and older adults; however, a young man is the most frequent victim. Schizophrenia causes hallucinations, delusions, distorted thought patterns, odd behaviors, and cognitive problems. There is no cure for schizophrenia and the treatments are often ineffective. Although there are many high functioning schizophrenics, there are also a great number of people with schizophrenia who can’t maintain a normal, everyday routine.

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Having someone that you love stricken with schizophrenia can be devastating. My brother and I were always very close. When he became ill, he unfortunately was the victim of a very acute case of schizophrenia. He became a completely different person. He no longer liked the things that he always liked before. He didn’t care about the same things that he used to before he became ill with schizophrenia. Not only did we have to get used to the “new person” that looked like my brother, we also had to deal with a lot of new challenges. His medical care is time consuming and expensive. He has a horrible smoking habit (most schizophrenics do, it calms them), he isn’t able to maintain his personal hygiene without prompting, and sometimes he can’t prepare meals and clean up after himself.

Family members of schizophrenics are often overwhelmed by taking care of their mentally ill sibling, spouse, parent, child, etc… There are several ways to keep your sanity while taking care of your family member who is mentally ill.

First, it is so important to take time for yourself. You have to get away sometimes, even if only for a day of shopping, exercising, or even just taking a walk in the park. You may feel guilty taking personal time, but if you don’t take time for yourself, you won’t be able to take care of anyone else.

Another thing that will help you to maintain your cool is to remember not to take things personally. A person with a mental illness can say and do a lot of things that may feel like a personal attack on you. Try to remember that the mental illness can cause your family member to say and do things that they don’t even understand. Don’t take it personal.

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The third thing that you can do is to avoid burnout by asking for help. There is no shame in admitting that this task is more than you can handle. There are day programs for the mentally ill. These programs can keep your loved one busy during the day, giving you a much needed break. Other family members and friends can also volunteer to give you a hand. In our family, everyone takes turns with doctor appointments, picking up prescriptions, buying cigarettes, and just spending time watching TV or eating dinner with my brother.

The final and most important thing that will help you to cope with your loved one’s mental state is to realize that you may have to alter your expectations. Your family member may not have the same goals that you have; this doesn’t mean that they can’t be happy and fulfilled. You may have to reevaluate what is important in your loved one’s life so that you can better determine if their needs are being met. The best way to do this is to ask! They still have a say in what they would like to do each day. Be considerate and remember that they may be different, but they still have a right to make some decisions about their lives. The feeling of having a say in their treatment, their living arrangements, and even their daily activities can actually improve their prognosis.

Although your family member, or friend, is affected by a very serious disease, they can still have an active role in your family. My brother is not the same boy that I grew up with. He will never hold a full time job and I doubt that he will get married or have children, but I love him dearly and he enriches my life. He is a wonderful carpenter, he can make me laugh, and he is a great uncle to my children. A diagnosis of Schizophrenia doesn’t mean that you are losing your family member or that they will no longer be a part of your life. You just have to adjust your expectations.

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