My son Ben, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at age 20 after five years of confusing onset symptoms, has often seemed “frozen in time” in this phase of recovery; emotionally and cognitively stuck at the age he had been when the symptoms began during high school.
Despite three relapses during this near decade of stabilization (all due to instances of refusing meds), Ben has been in recovery most of those years and has progressed in many ways, as I wrote in an earlier post, Mental Illness Frozen in Time Can Thaw.
But, until recently, Ben had few friends and I wondered if he would ever get that particular joy back in his life, or when he might reach the stage of self-acceptance that is crucial to healthy friendships.
Would he ever again regain what he had before schizophrenia set in; the simple joy of having people with whom he could share a meal, see a movie, laugh and talk, or just hang out?
Recently, the answer to that has been: yes. This has happened in the 18 months since Ben Behind His Voices was published and it’s the happiest epilogue I could ever write.
Self-Acceptance and Mental Health Medication
Before this year, Ben had regained many things: good school grades, full family participation, sobriety, even part-time work. But outside of these activities his phone seldom rang. When he left his residential facility in 2011, his social world shrank even more. A big part of this is due to stigma. He lived in fear that possible new friends would somehow discover that he takes meds to stay stable, and that they would judge him, make fun of him, ditch him. And, yes, that does happen.
But lately, it feels like Ben is somehow getting back some of the years he missed in his adolescence when schizophrenia took over. Lately, texts and calls are coming in from people he has met at school, at meetings, at Starbucks. And, for the first time since schizophrenia, some of these friendships are lasting past the first “date.”
Sometimes, they even stay as friends after they learn that Ben is taking meds. That is the biggest miracle I’d hoped for.
Why? Well, many of these friends take meds too. And, wonder of wonders, they are learning not to judge each other – or themselves. They compare notes. They cement the self-acceptance by being open with each other. And, by connecting in this way, they enhance each others’ sense of self-worth.
Fight Mental Illness Stigma – and Help Friendships Bloom
Slowly, and hopefully, we can all learn that having to take medication is not shameful, does not make anyone inferior. It
simply IS. I need Vitamin D supplements, Prilosec, fish oil, and sometime anti-inflamatories. I don’t like it, but I need it. My friend needs her insulin. Another friend is undergoing chemotherapy. Her son reaches school goals with the help of Concerta for his ADHD. My husband needs his allergy treatments. Sure, there are other elements to our health (good diet, life structure, exercise, etc.) – but the meds help too. Brain, liver, joints, or heart – if meds help us reach our goals, I am grateful they exist. And no one should judge me for it – particularly people who don’t know anything about why they help.
And, we all need to know we are not alone. The more we stop thinking that medical treatment is some sort of shameful secret, the more we can move on and see the whole person.
My son’s treatment has helped him regain some lost years. Reducing the fears that he will lose all his friends if his “medication secret” is revealed helps him relax and clears his brain to focus on other things with his friends – like discussing the Super Bowl, taking a walk, playing Boggle, working on projects for school.
It’s “Next to Normal” and I am thrilled – and surprised – to see this new step.
The Value of Patience
To all families dealing with mental illness in a loved one, let me add this important word to the advice I’ve given before in this blog (“SEARCH”= Support, Education, Acceptance, Resilience, Communication, Hope/Humor).
That word is Patience.
It works best, of course, when the other elements are in place – but recovery in mental illness can never be rushed. Encouraged, perhaps, and nurtured – but not rushed. That includes hoping and waiting for your loved one to regain abilities, experiences and accomplishments that may have seemed lost forever – and, happily, for Ben, that has recently grown to include friendship.
I am amazed, happy, excited for Ben – and with fingers crossed that he can continue, however slowly and carefully, down this path to self-acceptance, community, and belonging.
Even if it is to “Club Meds.” So what? When we have friends, everything is easier.