This guest article is by Don Moore.
Some families are presented with the dual dilemmas of dealing with a child that is both gifted and troubled. Such is the case with my daughter who in spite of her schizophrenia nearly ended up on the popular television show American Idol.
Most fathers would be quite pleased if children came with owner’s manuals. Mind you, the great majority would not read the manual, but prefer to use their own experiences and logic to determine appropriate actions in parenting. Owner’s guides would be a fine reference resource to look up how things were to be done after trying their own thoroughly contemplated actions before resorting to some sort of predetermined remedial action.
Particularly in American society, a Man’s perspective is to reason out and come up with solutions to problems they encounter or to follow a set of requirements at their employment to retain their job. Sure, there are exceptions, especially for those who pursue artistic endeavors, but even these can often be reduced to techniques, learned, practiced and then applied. (More about men’s approaches to parenting is here: For men who raise troubled kids)
Like many other parents and especially fathers, my work revolves around the repair of things and when I first encountered my daughter’s difficulties with life, I followed an approach of analyze, find a solution and apply a remedial fix to my interactions with her.
Much of Western medicine follows this thought process as well; study the problem, recommend a treatment and magically the problem will be gone. The real problem is that this simplified view does not reflect the nature of the underlying problem with many mental health issues. An especially difficult disorder to use this approach with is schizophrenia. Because we define this illness as a set of behaviors and characteristics and each person can have or not have many of the characteristics, the approaches that I followed in dealing with my daughter’s situation were woefully inadequate as well as misguided.
In fact, most of my approach to dealing with my daughter would have been ineffective with just about any teenager, much less one suffering from hearing voices and disjointed thinking.
If the point of reference that you are using to deal with a child with schizophrenia is that the child is somehow concerned with what effect their behavior will have upon you, you are sadly mistaken. This is precisely what I thought when I would painfully explain why some task had to be done, like load a dishwasher. If she could not complete the task, it was obviously because she was trying to agitate me and I responded by becoming agitated and angry at either her lack of compliance with my instructions or the poor quality of her efforts. As the behavioral difficulties became more serious my frustrations escalated accordingly. The escalations were equally ineffective.
All of the difficulties came to a crisis point when my daughter left to attend a performing arts college in Minneapolis. There her difficulties took on another level of seriousness and she returned home. Under the care of a psychiatrist, some progress was made and my wife and I elected to take a class in dialectic behavioral therapy (DBT) for parents. The class, in conjunction with some wise advice from her psychiatrist finally got me to see that her difficulties were from within her own mind and the best approach was to understand her behavior reflected her struggles to deal with her view of the world and were not based upon a master plan to disappoint or offend me personally. DBT techniques allow you to understand the effect of delusions on the child’s behavior and instruct you to deal with the feelings that those delusions have on the child’s behavior. There is not an acceptance of the truth of the delusion, but there is an acceptance of how the person feels about the thoughts they have. Having someone verify their feeling about the delusion (It must be frightening to believe the government is using thought control on everyone) without accepting the truth of the idea helps the person modify their response to the delusional thought.
Once there is an understanding of the thought issues facing the person with schizophrenia, there is hope that the narrative that their brain has created for their existence in the world can be refocused to include new ways of viewing the world and how they are to interact with those around them. Proposing alternatives to how they see the world is a method of getting them to rethink the ideas that they hold and readjust to a new way of behaving. It is by no means as simple as an owner’s guide, but progress is possible.
In my case, the treatments my daughter received helped considerably at first and she was able to make a journey to American Idol tryouts, meet the famous judges in person and come one audition from actually being on the television show. You can see her story in the February 2006 SZ Digest magazine http://www.schizophreniadigest.com/e107_plugins/szproducts/images/articles/2006_spring_story1.pdf or at my website, www.matersofthemind.info .
Another aspect of mental illness that seems to be misunderstood is the wide range of seriousness and variation with symptoms. My family has been both fortunate and unfortunate. My daughter has been blessed with a set of skills in singing that brought her national recognition for her efforts with American Idol, but did not ultimately reward her with employable skills or remediate her disease. There are others with schizophrenia with truly exceptional talents who find jobs and recovery. There are also those who struggle with more serious symptoms. Whatever the course of your loved one’s illness, there is some measure of comfort in seeking and finding skills that will help in dealing with the issues that are confronting them. Not the least of these skills are understanding the emotional turmoil that the person feels in dealing with their view of the world and helping them deal with the issues surrounding that view.
During her American Idol experience, my daughter wrote and recorded a song entitled “I am Not Alone.” There is no reason that any family or person should be alone in their efforts to deal with their condition. While it may sometimes feel lonely, seeking out resources and learning about the experiences of other people with similar challenges will help in your efforts to create not an owners’ manual but a guide to help you understand alternatives while you seek a better path to follow. You may not cure the disease, but you can respond better to the challenges you face in your own journey.
I offer deep gratitude to both Don and Tracy for sharing their remarkable experiences