Mental illness, through the generations, has been misunderstood at best, and, at worst, treated as a curse. It seems our younger generation has a better understanding of mental illness and the openness to talk about it, and along with that find new ways to help. My connection to someone with mental illness involves the person in my life I have known the longest. We were introduced as kids because we are related, but the bond we forged over the decades stays solid through great memories.
When he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, the term didn’t mean much to me. Not knowing much about what that meant, I shrugged it off, thinking, “OK, we’ll figure out what it is later and fix it.” The thing was, he didn’t just get "better." He didn’t go on medication and return to "normal." This would be a long, life-changing battle, but eventually he would find the elements that make him feel as functional as possible. Everything he went through makes him stronger, and me prouder of him, now.
He wasn’t just my cousin, he was a magnet; he was and still is a complete delight to be around -- full of humor and life. When we were in our 20s and 30s, a lot of our antics and activities fed through Pat because of his fun energy. Ironically, he looks back at those times much differently than I do. I remember all the good times, and he describes feeling like he had a "heart of stone," almost a cold way of dealing with life and its responsibilities. This inner life was unknown to me.
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Eventually, he settled down and worked a full-time job just like the rest of us -- including 14 years at one position that had serious responsibilities -- and for the most part, I believe, he liked the job. Still, at some point something changed and/or happened that changed him. Or maybe it was multiple things that happened all at once, but I must accept it did happen. He did randomly drive to Montana, following "signs" he heard on the radio, or lights he saw, all to find his abducted son, who wasn’t abducted at all. He did enter a house he believed was his and was eventually arrested. He did travel with his sister to Texas and back to Iowa, mostly on foot.
Talking to him about it now, I’ve learned he was hearing voices telling him what to do and where to go, and he had no choice but to follow them. Those voices would guide him to many places, leading him to encounter many things -- some downright dangerous. His family worried but he was an adult and there were always limitations to what they could do for him. His brothers and sister tried everything possible to get Pat help, but this is schizophrenia.
Eventually Pat lost everything: a house, a truck, his job, all the while aliening the people who knew and loved him the most. His behavior and demeanor made him seem like a different person.
This wasn’t easy to write. But I wrote it with Pat’s help after a long, afternoon conversation with him by my side. Pat and I talked through this column together. As for me, I am still trying to understand what he is dealing with. I still look at him hoping to see a glimmer of the other Pat I once knew. We are coming to accept that person is mostly gone, but we are finding new things we can enjoy together.
As for Pat, he is in a better place than he has been in a long time. He found the right medication and knows it’s important to manage it and stay with it. He returned to his faith. Being a part of a church and his belief in Jesus has given him a foundation he can hold onto and keeps him grounded. To say this was a difficult journey is an understatement. His family and friends are still trying to understand this devastating illness. I am telling you there is a way through it no matter where it leads, when the root of love for the person never leaves.
The occasional musician, songwriter, comedian and traveler, Robert Dixon lives in Bismarck with his wife and has four grown children.