Red Flags of a Fractured Mind

Courage defines us

Courage defies us

What does it mean to be human anymore?

 

Give blood

Spill blood

We don’t listen anymore.

 

A nation in trouble

People confounded

Is there a solution anywhere?

 

Anger brings violence

Blinders bring idleness

We have been broken at the core.

 

Now we are crying

Now we are vying

We are desperate for reform.

 

But where will it come from?

What will it lead to?

Will it save us from ourselves?

 

As you may have guessed, this poem came to mind one night as I stared at the TV and watched the horrific details surrounding the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Again, and again.  Year after year.  I remember Columbine, I was a freshman in high school. That was 19 years ago and here we are again.  Here we are again, and again, and again.

We shed tears, we are angry, we cry and hold up signs.  Students are now holding “die-in” demonstrations—I commend them for their determination.  I listen to people talk about the root problem—attackers are called cowards; conservatives blame the actions of the attackers on the degradation of family morals, violence in video games, violence in music.  Some suggest teachers be armed, which sounds absolutely ludicrous to me. If we head in that direction, we might as well just revert to the gun-toting mentality of the wild west—which honestly feels like where this nation is going. The fastest draw wins.  Never mind the innocent bystanders.  Make yourself scarce at high-noon. I’m not trying to satirize a very serious problem; I’m only feeding off the opinions of certain politicians.

My humble opinion is that the root problem stems from two major issues: insufficient gun-control laws and a lack of mental health resources.

I suspect some share in my opinion, especially in the former.  I obtained substantial perspective in the latter after my own brother faced a mental health crisis.  And it really made me understand that the mental healthcare system of the United States is truly in desperate need of reform, as are gun-control laws.

This is not entirely my story to tell. The majority of it is my brother’s, but in light of this recent tragedy, I will share my perspective.

Your brother is missing.

That’s the text message I woke up to one morning. My brother had never been diagnosed with any sort of mental health disorder and all of a sudden, at 25, my family went through the hell of witnessing him unravel into a paranoid, destructive, suspicious, aggressive version of himself.

I immediately got a flight from Los Angeles to Portland, OR. I arrived to find my disheveled brother had returned home, he was playing a Mario video game in the living room and had removed his glass eye. He claimed the glass eye was part of a government conspiracy, or that he received the injury to his real eye when an animatronic character at Chuck-E-Cheese attacked him. Pasqually was the culprit, if I remember correctly. The two stories often melded into one.

My mom was beyond exhausted, afraid, and desperate for help. She had taken my brother to a psychiatric facility the day prior. He was given medication but it could take up to three days to control his symptoms. While at the facility he had apparently scaled the building and entered either the second or third story through a window where he bumped into a nurse and told her that he was told to follow her. He was returned to my frantic mother and sent home with the medications.  Three days, we just had to make it through three days.

Part of the problem was that my brother wasn’t sleeping. He might sleep for a couple hours but in the middle of the night, he would leave the house and wander. Prior to my arrival, on the night he went missing, police had spotted him at a closed Taco Bell.  There he pounded on the windows, insisting that there was someone inside he needed to speak with. But my brother left and so did the police. He went on his way and they went on theirs.

So my main objective was to stay with him and keep him away from harm. To let my mom, step-dad, and step-sister sleep, because they still had work and school to attend. I would go to sleep when my brother did and wake minutes to a couple hours later when he woke. I could barely get my shoes and jacket on fast enough before racing out the front door after him.  Usually, I didn’t even get my jacket on. He would storm ahead of me, ranting and raving about whatever his fractured mind decided was pertinent. At night, he was angry and often spoke of violence. I always attempted to re-direct conversations. I tried listening earnestly, but it was often impossible to follow his thought process. Whenever I tried to re-direct conversations, it was an effort to ground him in reality, I never consented to the hallucinations or fears surrounding him.  One of our nightly escapades took us from the house, through neighborhoods and fields, to a diner called Shari’s. We arrived at the restaurant at dawn. He wanted to get food. I had no money on me but I did have my phone. Once we were seated, I called my mom and step-dad, they joined us for breakfast. I think by this time I had been up for over 24 hours. When the waitress brought my plate, I could only stare at the eggs, hashbrowns, and toast, beyond nauseated from sleep deprivation and anxiety. My brother was concerned that I wasn’t eating. All of a sudden, he was concerned about a lot of things. It was a trend I noticed, during the night he was angry and destructive, during the day he tended to be more agreeable and empathetic, and he had no recollection of the night personality during the day and vice versa .

There was a psychiatric crisis line for my mom to call. One night, as things were taking a bleak turn, she called the number. Both my mom and I thought that maybe nurses would come out, some 24-hour emergency service associated with the psychiatric center, but police came to the house instead. My brother was upstairs in his room, angry. He hated the world, he hated himself. He hated everyone. When my mom went out to the police, she asked if they would use deadly force. Their reply was: if they needed to. My mom sent them away. She was frightened by the idea of my brother resisting or even contesting the police—trapped in a world we can’t rationalize or imagine—he might think they are monsters, government conspirators, who knows. Her greatest fear was my brother ending up dead for being mentally ill.

Anything that could be used as a weapon—guns, knives, hammers—in the household were hidden or given to family friends to safeguard until the crisis was over.  My brother knew this, and he seemed to be okay with the fact that he wasn’t allowed to have any weapons. He was more about ranting and wanting people to listen to him. I briefly tried to help my sister with her algebra homework and that triggered a rant session that went on for most of the night. But there were moments when we got scared.

Three days. 72 hours.

We counted the minutes, waiting for the medication—which my brother willingly took—to kick in and start to control the mania we witnessed. We knew we couldn’t infringe upon his rights. We couldn’t force him to stay in the house, we couldn’t force him to do anything. We had to wait. Twice while I was there, we went to the same psychiatric facility that prescribed my brother his medication. These doctors, nurses, physician’s assistants, and psychiatrists weren’t seeing my brother at his worst—they wouldn’t listen to family members. They only spoke with my brother. And that was frustrating because in my brother’s mind, he was fine.  We were all the ones that were sick and insane. My mom broke down in tears several times because she felt like they weren’t really helping him. Come to find out, my brother never really saw a doctor, he mainly saw nurses and PAs. A psychiatrist evaluated him once. I understand the burden they are under, but it was agonizing to feel so helpless. My brother was prescribed another medication to help with the nightmares he was having which apparently were what kept him awake at night. While we waited for the medication in the psychiatric facility’s pharmacy, he told me about how much he hated the pharmacist—a man he didn’t know—and how the pharmacist was giving him dirty looks and wanted to harm him.  People that passed by were making comments about him. I sat there, reassuring him that the pharmacist was not a bad person and that no one was speaking against him, over and over again.  What he heard and saw were not the same as what I heard and saw.

On my third day there–up for over 48 hours–we sat in the living room and watched a movie. I couldn’t tell you what movie it was. My eyes were open and I was fixated on my brother, but my mind had shut down. At some point, my sister went outside where my step-dad was doing some light yard work. I had closed one eye. My brother went out with them. My sister’s friend came over—a boy named Justin—he wanted to borrow a frame for his photography class. They were talking just outside the open living room window. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my brother sidling up behind Justin. Synapses were firing, muscles were slow to respond, but I knew I had to get out there. In a flash, my brother threw out his arm and caught Justin in a headlock. I leaped to the window and nearly fell out of it—there was no screen. I shouted at my brother: STOP! He let go of Justin before anyone really had any idea of what was happening. My sister and Justin were in shock, my step-dad was just coming around the corner of the house, and my brother stared blankly at me. My brain had to rationalize for him. I told him that Justin had an expensive camera hanging from his neck (which he did) and to be mindful of others and their possessions. It all seemed to make sense as my brother grinned and gave the lanky teen a slap on the back, then apologized.  My step-dad made a light-hearted comment, telling my brother that Justin was basically his brother, a brother from another mother.  A blank expression returned to my brother’s face. I asked when he last ate—it was something he was supposed to do, eat every 6-8 hours—he couldn’t remember. I told him to walk with me to Subway, which was just down the street and across an intersection, so we could get sandwiches for everyone. He seemed to like the idea.  As we walked down the street, my brother said: Wow, I just found out I have a brother. Recalling my step-dad’s comment, I replied: He’s not your actual brother. I’m your sister. Justin is a metaphorical brother because you’ve known him since he was a little boy. And then the conversation suddenly went dark as my brother said: I think he tried to kill me. I shook my head and said no. I tried to reassure him that he was just a kid and that he possessed no means to do harm. Then my brother started to rant about malicious intent. He said that they had gone into the forest, to practice sword combat—my brother studied bujinkan ninjitsu all throughout high school and into his early twenties—and that Justin knew he was blind in his left eye and repeatedly tried to attack from the left. This was apparently malicious intent. It suddenly dawned on me that there was a student from his dojo that he would often train with who shared the name Justin.

We walked and my brother began to grow increasingly agitated. He wanted to kill Justin because Justin posed a threat to the safety of children. He would use a Jack Sparrow costume to get close to kids. This meant that we had to gather a group of friends and go kill him before he killed us. I calmly told him that we are not killing anybody and that if he really feels Justin is a threat to anyone, he needs to call the bujinkan instructor. Every time I mentioned the instructor’s name, my brother would calm down and agree that that was the appropriate course of action. But as soon as he would calm down, he would fire up again. We crossed the intersection to him naming off people we could get to help us kill Justin. I was trying to remain calm and collected but inside my fatigued brain was freaking out. Was this it? Was this the moment that my brother would bolt off—of course I would chase him, but he was far more athletic, I would have to call the police—I had to ground him. I told him that we needed to get sandwiches and at the moment, I needed his help to carry everything back home. Soliciting his help seemed to bring him back to reality, giving him something to do. It didn’t last. While in line at Subway, he began showing me pictures on his phone. Obviously of Halloween costumes, but there was a young man dressed as Jack Sparrow and this was Justin in disguise. My brother ranted and raved at Subway, I witnessed people collectively back away. I tried to keep him under control, reiterating that we would call the bujinkan instructor as soon as we got home. I know the man behind the counter saw the distress on my face, he worked as fast as he could to get my order ready. At the cashier, I paid and gave my brother the cups to fill up. A task, a much-needed task. He’d start to do as I asked then rant, put the cups down on random tables. He even took a cup from a family’s table. The kid stared up at me, unsure what to do. My brain was failing; my logic was fleeting. I pulled my brother over to the fountain, we filled the cups, grabbed straws and left. The pace home was quick, my brother’s paranoia about Justin killing him was gaining momentum. When we got to my mom’s house, we placed all the sandwiches, chips, and drinks in the kitchen. My brother went around and shut all the curtains and blinds so Justin couldn’t get us, then he was momentarily convinced that Justin had already killed him and was in his body. He gathered all the food we had just bought, piled it on the floor in the kitchen and began to devour it like an animal. I leaned against the counter and could only stare. My brother continued to rant. Finally, he called the bujinkan ninjitsu instructor and the first thing he said was that he just found out he had a brother.

After the phone call, he went upstairs and took a shower. I called the bujinkan instructor and informed him of what we were dealing with. He said he would try to help my brother in any way he could.  When my brother came back downstairs, he began to prepare a duffle bag. He was putting random things in it, he dumped out my little bottle of Listerine and threw the empty bottle into the bag. I tried to find out what he was doing, he said he had to go. I tried to ask him where he wanted to go, but he wouldn’t tell me. Eventually, he got mad at me and went up to his room. My dad was on the way from Montana, it would be several hours before his arrival since he was driving. But I hoped that once he got there, my brother might listen to him. We were approaching 72 hours and there was absolutely no sign of improvement with the medication. Things seemed to be getting worse. Now my brother was preparing to leave again. I only had a couple more days before my flight back to Los Angeles and I just wanted to see my brother start to improve. My family and I managed to keep my brother from leaving and when my dad arrived around 2:00am, my brother was happy to see him and wanted to go out and get Mountain Dew and chocolate donuts. Dad told my brother that he needed to go to the emergency room because he wasn’t sleeping. My brother listened to dad. (Small detail I forgot to mention earlier, my brother was distrustful of women because of our ovaries—I have no idea where that came from as with most of what he said). We drove to the nearest emergency room and there my brother consented to treatment for not sleeping. While he was there, doctors witnessed him conversing with himself and “people” who weren’t there. My brother was the only one in the room. They put a hold on him and a social worker from the state arrived.  Doctors gave him an IV cocktail of meds that should help him sleep for a solid twelve hours, minimum. My brother woke after only four and was transferred to a lockdown unit where mentally ill patients were temporarily held until they could be relocated to a psychiatric facility. By this point, I had been up for over three days with only fragments of sleep, nothing restful. My stomach felt grated and raw, twisted in knots, I was shaking, and the stress diarrhea was unreal. My mom and my dad took shifts staying at the hospital, waiting for my brother’s transfer and updates from doctors and staff.  It was supposed to happen at 4:00pm.  I went home and managed to sleep a few hours but returned to the hospital to wait alongside my mom and dad.

When my brother was willing, up to two people were allowed to sit with him in his room. His empty 4’x6’ room with nothing but a hospital bed. There was nothing allowed in the room. We were able to bring him magazines and food but we couldn’t leave anything behind for him.  My mom and I stayed with him in his room until 4:00pm.  The transfer didn’t happen as we were told, it happened at 10:00pm. I’m glad we stayed with him.

And that might be the end of my perspective but the story went on for months and even years for my mom and my brother. It was a real struggle to get my brother on the right medications—he was actually overmedicated for several weeks with a medication that should have been tapered down, but no one bothered to deliver those instructions. He went through crippling depression as the drugs stole his artistic abilities, he couldn’t draw or paint. He felt like his life had been stolen. He still grappled with the concept of being mentally ill.  Self-confidence had been lost, he couldn’t get a job. Meanwhile, family members, aunts and uncles, would make comments like: all he needs is a good ass-kicking. He’s lazy. All he wants to do is play video games and watch movies.

Such things are beyond hurtful, especially coming from people that really have no idea.  They didn’t chase after him, they didn’t work tirelessly to get him care, to keep him out of harm’s way. There’s such stigma surrounding mental illness and how to “handle” it.  My brother actually stopped playing video games and watching movies because they contributed to hallucinations.  He wanted to work but was often embarrassed to tell an employer that he would need certain days or hours off because of appointments.

Once my brother was stable, he didn’t want any of his weapons back. They remain with friends and family. He has considered going back to bujinkan but mainly for meditation.

Now he is doing well and has integrated into society once more and would be looked at as “normal”, slightly odd maybe, but he is an artist—he draws and paints again.  No one would ever know unless they were present when it all went to hell a few years ago.  It took a lot of effort and determination from a family, especially a mother, to get my brother back—if he didn’t have that then he might be one of the countless homeless wandering the streets, or in jail somewhere. It’s gut-wrenching to think about the “what if’s” which I tend not to do.  But every time one of these tragic, senseless shootings happens, I read about the attacker. They are often troubled, disturbed, mentally ill.  I’ve even read some things about shooters that remind me of my brother—red flags of a fractured mind lost in a society that struggles to treat mental illness.

I’m sorry that this is just a story and doesn’t really offer any ideas for solutions.  I am glad to see some progress as urgent care centers specifically for mental health are beginning to become available.  I hope the resources only grow and that mental illness falls to history, just as I hope gun-law reform sweeps across this country and America becomes less scary, especially for children in their classrooms.

Who and what exactly are those clinging to their assault rifles afraid of?

red knight small

(The Red Knight–one of the first paintings my brother completed after recovery)

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