Like many parents we were caught off guard by our son’s descent into mental illness. To say that we were blindsided by his car accident, arrest and hospitalization would be an understatement. It took awhile for us to overcome the shock and begin to process the meaning of what had happened to our son and our whole family.
We were soon advised of our son’s suspected diagnosis, schizophrenia, and urged to read available literature. I reached for the National Institute of Mental Health’s booklet on schizophrenia which defines the positive and negative symptoms of the illness as follows:
Positive symptoms refer to a distortion of a person’s normal thinking and functioning. They are “psychotic” behaviors. People with these symptoms are sometimes unable to tell what’s real from what is imagined. Positive symptoms include: hallucinations, delusions, thought disorders and movement disorders
Negative symptoms refer to difficulty showing emotions or functioning normally. When a person with schizophrenia has negative symptoms, it may look like depression. People with negative symptoms may: talk in a dull voice, show no facial expression, like a smile or frown, have trouble having fun, have trouble planning and sticking to an activity, talk very little to other people even when they need to.
The positive and negative symptoms are very evident when the illness is full-blown and psychosis sets in. One cannot miss the decrease in functioning, the tendency to isolate, the change in thinking, the pacing, the alteration of the senses. In our son’s case, there were earlier signs that we missed or misinterpreted as normal teenage behavior. It is these symptoms I want to share as they could be helpful to other parents struggling as we did to understand the difference between normal teenage behavior and behavior signaling a developing mental illness.
EXCESSIVE NEED FOR SLEEP: Jay always slept a lot sometimes 13-14 hours a day but wasn’t that what teenage boys do? Today, I would say that Jay’s frequent tardiness to his first high school class, his difficulty completing his assignments and constant need to sleep a lot was a sign that he was slowly falling behind in his ability to keep up with his siblings and classmates. By many standards though he did well in school and sports but his success was much more of a struggle for him.
DIFFICULTY MAKING DECISIONS: We noticed that Jay wanted to go to college but could not make a decision about where to apply. My husband finally drew a circle on the map with a 60 mile radius from home and asked Jay to select colleges within that framework.
DIFFICULTY HANDLING DEATH: Jay fell apart when his pet bunny died and walked our neighborhood with me for a long time before he regained his composure. He did the same when our dog was put to sleep.
EXCESSIVE LEVEL OF ANGER: Jay’s reactions to things that upset him were at times extreme in the level of anger and hostility he showed.
Hindsight brings clarity, but my husband and I do wonder if we had recognized these symptoms earlier if we could have taken steps that would have prevented Jay’s illness from becoming as severe as it is.