Family Secrets

My Schizophrenic Brother

Mental illness isn't contagious, but it may as well be

The four of us

I like to remember my brother as a hero for putting a gun to his head in room ten of the Travelodge Hotel in Burbank and pulling the trigger. I like to think that, in a lucid moment, he ignored the voices in his head that demanded he kill a child—my child—and did the right thing.

That warm day in October, he borrowed a rifle from a friend, drove through at Jack in the Box, got a burger, fries and a large coke and checked into a Travelodge, where he swallowed 60 Haldol tablets, ate half his burger and then shot himself. His body lay there for a week before anyone wondered where the tall, skinny blond guy in his early 30s, with the pockmarked face of a 17-year-old, was.

"The voices keep telling me to kill a kid," Mark said one bright afternoon, four years before he put a bullet in his head. My husband and I were about to leave for a badly needed weekend away when he dropped this bombshell. My mother was taking care of our baby. I pulled her into the bedroom.

"He can't be here, Mom. Make him go. Please. He can't be around the baby."

Our daughter Sarah was 6 months old and her dad and I were practically psychotic from lack of sleep and sex. We booked a weekend at the Chateau Marmont and were crazy excited, like a couple of teenagers going out on a first date.

"Oh, he'll be fine. Your brother would never hurt Sarah," she said.

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My mom was a warm, upbeat woman. I don't know if it was her positive attitude, naïveté or the stubborn refusal to believe her son had a mental illness and wasn't just a little mixed up, that helped her survive the hell our life really was with him. She defended him to the neighbors; dealt with the police when they showed up at the door at 3 a.m., my brother screaming in the background; bought him codeine cough syrup when he'd exhausted his stash of beer, whiskey, pot, crank, crack—anything he could get his hands on to self-medicate.

"I know he would never hurt Sarah, Mom, but the voices in his head would. Do you understand? It's not him talking. It's his disease."

"Go. Have fun. Don't worry about your brother."

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Calling home later that evening, I could hear Mark laughing in the background. He was still there.

"Mom!" I shrieked.

"You should see them together, sweetheart. It's the cutest thing. Sarah just loves him," she said.

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My husband and I checked out and went home.

After three girls, my parents were desperate for a boy, so when Mark was born, they were over the moon. He was a sensitive, creative kid—bright and happy—and everyone loved him. But things started to unravel when he hit junior high. He refused to go to school. Every morning, I pulled him out of bed. He fought and screamed while my mother sat at the kitchen table and cried. When he did go, he didn't engage. He even hated sports—refusing to undress in front of the other boys in gym. If he were being bullied or picked on, he wouldn't say. He remained silent. He also refused to open up to the shrink my parents sent him to—a bold step for an Italian family in the early '70s.

Mental health information was hard to come by in those dark days and my brother being mentally ill was not something my parents would even consider. Instead, my father blamed my mother for my brother's behavior.

"You're babying that kid, Rose."

And my mother blamed my father.

"You need to spend more time with your son, Nunzio."

My early childhood before Mark was sweet. My parents were crazy about each other. My dad would grab my mom's ass whenever she walked by. She would curl up on his lap; her head nestled on his shoulder most evenings in front of the TV set. When I was 7, they were on Art Linkletter's "House Party," a popular variety show in the 1960s. They played this game called Guess the Newlyweds. Six couples lined up onstage and a woman from the audience had to pick out the newlywed couple. She picked my parents. They'd been married 13 years, longer than anyone on that stage.

My brother would be born a year later. How could they possibly know his birth would destroy their marriage? None of us knew how Mark's illness would affect our lives. But, boy, did it ever.

*

I woke up to shouting outside. It was around 2 a.m. on a Saturday night in the Hollywood Hills. Noise carried in Beachwood Canyon below the Hollywood sign and we heard every party or fight in the canyon. I put a pillow over my head.

"Open the fucking door, Gail!"

It was Mark. He stood on the front lawn of our duplex, banging on the locked security gate. I appeared on the balcony in my nightgown, my husband at my side.

"Stop shouting, Mark. What are you doing here?" I said looking down on him.

He was agitated and jumpy, his red eyes spinning in his head.

"I need some cash."

"I don't have any."

"Don't lie to me, you fucking bitch."

"That's enough, Mark," my husband said.

"Come on. Float me 20 bucks," he said.

"I'm not giving you money for drugs. And if you don't leave, I swear to God I'll call the police."

We left him standing there. He finally gave up and left.

He showed up a few more times in the following months but I held my ground. I didn't want him near my daughter. I bent my rule once, throwing a party for my dad's 65th birthday. Mark was on his meds and my mom promised she'd watch him. It was a wonderful night. For a few hours, we were a happy family again. It wasn't until the next morning I discovered he'd stolen all my gold jewelry, including my wedding ring.

Mental illness is hell. Everyone knows this. It's a bottomless pit of suffering—almost medieval. This includes the treatment. Sure, there are drugs now but most are a chemical cocktail of incapacitating side effects that include suicidal thoughts. I'll never understand the logic of treating suicidal tendencies with drugs that encourage suicide.

My brother hated them: the brain fog, lethargy, heavy legs, and zombie-like physical and mental slowness. He even drooled because he couldn't swallow when he took them.

No doubt about it, his suffering was epic. But the family members of a mentally ill person suffer, too. And although it feels whiny in comparison to living in hell, it's still real. And it hurts.

Over the years, my parents and brother created a dysfunctional threesome. They were locked in a sad dance that could only end with someone's death.

Their ménage à trois looked like this: insane brother, enabling mother, bullying father. My brother would do something crazy—like throw a beer bottle at a passing jogger's head—and someone would call the police. The police would take him to the hospital on a 5150 and put him on a three-day psych hold. Then my mom would release him. Out of his mind with anger, my father would rage for a few days, then retreat to his den, exhausted, and hide out until the dust settled.

Living with that heightened level of stress and anxiety on a daily basis wears you down, like fighting in a war 24/7 with no leave or R&R. Ever. My sisters did badly in school. They couldn't concentrate, missed homework assignments and failed tests. I spent most evenings at the library or with my boyfriend, coming home as close to my ten o'clock curfew as I possibly could.

We all jumped into disastrous early marriages or relationships to get out of the house. I married one of my college professors—an alcoholic narcissist 20 years older than me, a huge mistake—but that new hell was better than the hell that was home. One sister married a serial cheater. She was his fourth wife. And one moved in with her boyfriend who was later arrested for molesting a 13-year-old girl.

My marriage lasted five years. After my divorce, I fled to New York and then London, where I met my current husband: a lovely Englishman—calm, intelligent and sane. I had never been so happy. I was finally free.

But the happiness was short-lived. Work and the birth of our daughter brought us back to L.A., where it soon became clear that my family had hidden the extent of my brother's deterioration during the six years I was gone. I was shocked. Torn between my love for the sweet boy he'd been—his crib in my room and me almost a mom to him for the first five years of his life—and this raving lunatic that appeared at my house at all hours of the night and day demanding money and threatening to kill my kid, I chose my husband and child. I set strong boundaries and did not back down.

My sisters weren't that lucky. My parents died soon after I moved home. Longevity ran in their families but they only made it to their mid-60s. Stress indeed kills.

Divorced by then, and alone, my sisters picked up the baton. Mark became their responsibility. But it was only a matter of time. In and out of state mental hospitals and desperately missing our mother, my brother chose death.

I have to be honest, the relief I felt was epic. Getting into my car after his funeral, I realized how on guard I'd been for years—looking around corners, checking the backseat of my car every time I got into it, expecting him to jump out at me with a knife.

I like to think in a lucid moment, he decided to protect his niece from the voices. We've discussed this, my sisters and I, many times over the years and believe that, yes, he knew what he was doing. He sacrificed himself to protect her. This could easily be denial but we find comfort in the thought when those dark days come flooding back.

It's been 25 years since my brother died and I'd love to say the bad days ended in that hotel room in Burbank. However, I have spent the last two decades watching for signs of mental illness in my daughter, who has her uncle's blond hair, creativity, zany sense of humor and deep compassion. Medical books say the chance of inheriting schizophrenia from an uncle is only slightly higher than the general public getting it. Every tantrum, weird dream, strange comment, crazy meltdown, and irrational episode—normal childhood behavior—filled me with fear and anxiety. My brother's illness still held my life hostage even in death.

My daughter is 27 now and I've finally started to relax. She's in the clear. Now, when I remember my brother, it's as the gentle, loving person he was and not the terrified schizophrenic enduring intense psychic pain every waking moment of his life.

My daughter will marry next year. Children will soon follow. I'll have a few years before I go on watch again, this time with my grandkids.

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