Coping with Disbelief and Denial of Family Members

by Robin Cunningham Patient Expert

The perspectives on schizophrenia I can provide are not those of a psychiatrist, psychologist or licensed clinical social worker, but rather a consumer and family member. I have walked the walk on both sides of the street. As such, I can speak with experiential authority. It is my objective to share with you, as best I can, what my experience with schizophrenia has been like on a day to day basis, i.e., to compare notes with you. I will also make observations about being a family member and advocate based on my own experience. Any observations or comments you choose to make in return will be of great value.

With my last submission, I began a short series of blogs portraying the reactions of others to the sudden appearance of the strange ideation and odd behaviors which were to become the hallmarks of my schizophrenia. More specifically, I recreated an argument between my parents concerning what to do with me, an argument I was not suppose to overhear.

This blog is the second in the mini-series.

The following conversation, which took place between my uncle Marvin and me in 1956 during my initial stay in the hospital, constitutes a response very different than that of my parents, but one that was commonplace then and remains so even today.

The reader will note that in this excerpt I have included in bold italics and quotation marks the voices of three demons which only I could hear and whom I had named One, Two and Three. I believed they were determined to frustrate a "sacred mission" I had been given by God and recruit me instead for what they termed my "destiny" in the service of Satan. My silent responses to these demons are italicized and appear in quotes, but are not in bold type. My internal thoughts are italicized.

Uncle Marvin's sudden appearance startled me. I dropped the carton of milk from which I was drinking, spilling the remainder of its contents on my breakfast tray.

"Look at you You're a mess. You hair is a rat's nest and you're not even dressed yet."

I said nothing.

"You had better straighten-up, young man. You've got your parents spending a fortune on this hospital, not to mention that crackpot doctor. You're acting like a spoiled brat and you're an embarrassment to the whole family."

"Where did this character come from?" Three asked. "Is he family?" "He's my uncle."

Mother's older brother, Marvin, never wasted time or words. His full name was Marvin Rudolph Schroeder and he had flaming red hair. He dropped his middle name after Gene Autry's hit Christmas song "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" moved to the top of the charts. Family members continued to call him "Red," but business associates thereafter knew him only as Marvin R.

"Doesn't he know you're being prepared for your destiny?" Two asked.

"Not that again. Why don't you give up?"

"Maybe if you don't say anything, he'll get tired and go away," Three suggested. "Not Uncle Marvin!"

"Dr. Levy's not a crackpot," I said, poking at my scrambled eggs.

"You're not old enough to make that kind of judgment. But it's high time you started to act your age. You've got your parents worried sick. If you were mine, I'd straighten you out in no time. And you can bet a good hickory switch, the kind your grandmother used, would speed things up a bit."

"Is your whole family like this?" Two asked.

"My mother's family is."

"What about your father and his family?" "My dad's not like this and he doesn't have much family left."

"What does your dad think?"

"He doesn't think I should be here."

"So let me get this straight. Your father doesn't think you should be here and your mother's whole family thinks this is a waste of time and money. So why are you here?" "Why don't you ask Satan? He knows the whole story."

"He likes to see us work," One said.

"Because my mother thinks I need help."

"So your mother's put you in here despite what your father and her entire family thin ks?" "Yeah, I guess you could say that."

"She's a feisty one, isn't she" Three observed.

"She's just stubborn."

"Are you listening to me, young man?" Marvin demanded. He was close to shouting.

Tongue tied, not from fear but anger, I was unable to reply.

"I'm not going to mollycoddle you like your mother. You'd better be out of here inside of a week or you'll pay the piper."

"What's he going to do?" Three asked. "Lynch you from the nearest tree?" "My uncle can make things hard for me."

"More to the point, does he really think he can alter your destiny with a lousy hickory switch?" One asked.

I decided to ignore Marvin completely.

"Don't think you can bamboozle me like you have your parents. You're going to hear the truth whether you like it or not."

"Just who does he think he is?" asked One. "You've got better things to do." Marvin moved directly in front of me. I stared at his shirt buttons.

"Your childish attempt to get attention isn't going to work. Your mother and father work very hard to put food on the table every day. They don't have time for this."_ Satan is attacking me. What makes Marvin think I want attention? I'd be much better off if everyone just left me alone.

"If it's my parents that put the food on the table," I challenged, "why do we always thank God before every meal?"

I smiled broadly. Marvin's face turned beet red.

"You're an ungrateful little brat! How dare you? You'll be . . . "

He turned on his heels and stormed out of my room.

Uncle Marvin, my mother's older brother, had married Mildred, my father's younger sister. Marvin and Mildred had three children, who were, therefore, my double cousins. Mildred, her older brother, Walter, as well as William, their father, had all developed schizophrenia. Although at the time of their marriage Mildred had not yet become ill, Marvin was fully aware of the family's history of mental illness.

Given the above, one might have expected when I became ill that Uncle Marvin would have been more compassionate, more understanding. Instead, he was hostile at best, refusing to accept the fact that I had developed schizophrenia, accusing me of being childish, of trying to draw attention to myself.

Was Marvin, as his comments suggested, ashamed of me? Was I an embarrassment to the entire family? Was he afraid of being ostracized by association? Or did he really believe I was faking it?

In 1956, when the conversation recreated above took place, there was little hope that a person with schizophrenia would ever recover. But Uncle Marvin was aware of the Cunningham family's history. Why did he react so strongly to my illness?

I urge you to continue reading this mini-series of blogs and to post your responses to the questions raised in the comments section of my blogs. It'll be interesting to see if we all arrive at the same or similar conclusions.

Robin Cunningham
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Robin Cunningham

Robin wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Schizophrenia.