From Chapter 1 of A Lethal Inheritance, A Mother Uncovers the Science Behind Three Generations of Mental Illness
“I have completed my diagnosis of Alex,” Dr. C said. “He has paranoid schizophrenia.”
She couldn’t have just said that. I shut down all my senses to keep it away.
“His condition is complicated by his recent use of marijuana and methamphetamine, but the underlying symptoms of paranoia and delusion are
clearly present. I’d like to keep him here for a month to stabilize him with an antipsychotic medication.”
After a long silence, my wits returned enough for me to ask Dr. C if she wouldn’t mind explaining how she’d come to her diagnosis.
“He has hallucinations,” she said. “He believes he is being watched by aliens.”
Oh God. I knew this was not good news, but I was still not sure what she was saying.
Reading from her notes, the doctor related Alex’s belief that we’re being observed by beings from other planets who mingle among us in human form. He calls them “walk-ins,” she explained.
Oh so that’s a hallucination, I remember thinking, still confused.
I’d heard him talk about aliens before. It was, after all, 1998, the peak year of popularity for the television series The X-Files, in which only the clueless didn’t believe in aliens. In the series, the FBI has a special unit charged with investigating their alien antics.
When I asked Dr. C about the TV show, she told me she’d never seen it. No doubt she worked long hours. She had no wedding ring, probably no kids. I moved on.
“What’s the second thing?” I asked.
She reached into her file and held up a picture, a self-portrait by Alex. In it, behind a painfully intense set of eyes that I recognized as his, Alex sketched a mass of jangled cables and broken circuits. I’d seen that image countless times too, imagining it a reflection of teenage moodiness.
Schizophrenia. Although I didn’t yet know details, what I thought I knew boiled down to its being the worst possible disease a young person could have―akin to a death sentence. I didn’t think to question the doctor’s conclusion or her explanation that schizophrenia was a “chronic, life-long illness.”
Nor did I think to resist when she explained that Alex would need ongoing psychiatric care which, depending on how well he complied with taking medications, would likely include several more stays in mental facilities like this one.
Without using the words, she was telling me that Alex’s mental illness was chronic and incurable; the best we should hope for was for him to learn to manage his worst symptoms. Oh, and we’d better give up our expectations of what our son might still accomplish in his life. The message was clear: it would be counterproductive for us as parents to think of the patient as the same son or daughter we had known and loved. That person was gone. It was far more constructive, we were to understand, to get on with the business of symptom management.
Well-meaning family and friends were sympathetic, but clearly pessimistic about Alex’s chances of recovery. One recommended Alex “learn a trade,” so he might remain independent. Others spoke as if my son was already dead, suggesting I allow myself to “mourn his loss.”
As it turned out, my most important asset at this time—beyond the false sense of control I’d acquired as the adult child of a long line of alcoholics—was my professional training as a science journalist. Although I was more comfortable dealing with environmental subject matter than psychiatry or neuroscience, I at least knew how to read a scientific report. I quickly moved my search for answers to the national mental health databases and professional journals. Since I was also a working single mother, these research efforts had to be squeezed into early mornings and late nights while I spent the better part of each day working as a freelancer writing TV scripts for Hollywood production companies; assigned to cooking and gardening shows for cable channels and the occasional nature special for Disney. Many days, I felt like I was leaving a disaster movie unfolding in slow motion at home to escape for a few hours of fun at Disneyland, famously pegged as “the happiest place on earth.”