My dad’s schizophrenia symptoms started at 41. What will my 40s look like?
Note: I wrote this on my birthday back in August.
My dad was in his 40s when he had his first, noticeable schizophrenic episode, and I turned 40 today.
I say “noticeable” because having your first schizophrenic episode at 41 is relatively rare, so I have long assumed we must have missed something leading up to it. Some previous, milder episode, or some warning sign.
But in the official records, he was 41 when he had his first delusion. He had three kids, a wife, and a new, but very firm belief that he was the owner of the Carolina Panthers NFL team.
So firm in fact that he left those kids and that wife in the Chicago suburbs and drove their tattered family minivan to the Carolina Panthers headquarters in Charlotte. When he arrived, he went into the lobby and demanded to be taken seriously.
Then, he was arrested.
It was 1995. So, I was 12 and in seventh grade when my mom had to get on a plane with my dad’s boss — the only person we knew with enough money to buy two same-day plane tickets — and go pick up my dad from the mandatory psych hold he was under.
After he was released from the mental hospital 72 hours after being arrested, my mom, my dad, and my dad’s boss made the 12-hour drive back home to Illinois — in our tattered family minivan.
When they arrived, my childhood died.
I was 12 then, and today I’m 40. And I didn’t realize just how scared I’d be that I too would have my first, noticeable schizophrenic episode in my 40s. It is often genetic after all.
As a teen, I’d always been told that most people have their first schizophrenic symptoms during puberty, so when I made it through high school, I let out a sigh of relief. And when my two younger brothers graduated as well, I let myself relax a bit. After growing up surrounded by my dad’s mental pain, I didn’t want that for them.
I did, for a time, want children. But in the back of my mind, I worried about them too. It’s one thing to see your dad have full-fledged conversations with the aliens he sees in the dining room, but I assume it’s another to watch your own kid do it. So maybe that’s at least partly why I ended up child-free at 40, engaged to a man who had a vasectomy. We have 3 cats and last I checked, cats don’t get schizophrenia.
I keep wondering whether or not one knows when they’re having a schizophrenic episode. How real, exactly, does the delusion feel? Is it naive to hope that my excessive self-awareness would puncture through enough for me to see some truth? Or would my perceived self-awareness only make it worse? And what is “truth,” really? If it feels real, does it matter if it’s not?
I watch Tiktoks from schizophrenic millennials who overshare in a way that I’m both desperately grateful for and selfishly uncomfortable with. It’s the closest I have to my dad’s side of events. And the most painfully direct exposure I have to the childhood trauma I’ve worked so hard to forget. I scour their content for understanding, insights, warning signs.
I don’t know if this is the case for all schizophrenic people, but my dad had a way of picking up like-minded friends. They’d congregate at our house, talking and chain smoking for so long that their thoughts and cigarettes formed thick clouds in our living room. I’d navigate around them while trying to find dinner for my brothers, finish my homework, or use the kitchen landline to call boys.
One, Roy, was a neighbor. He talked about things that don’t sound all that crazy looking back. How corrupt the US government was. How taxation should be illegal. How people could live in the moon. No, not on. In. And look, I’m not an astrophysicist. Maybe people CAN live in the moon? Space sure seems closer than it did at the turn of the century.
A few years after I left for college, I got word that Roy had killed his wife — and then himself in a murder-suicide.
Is thinking that the US government is corrupt the first step in that series of events? Because if it is, I’m on the staircase.
I’m honestly not sure if Roy was ever officially diagnosed with schizophrenia. I just know that he and my dad had the same vibes. And Roy’s story ended tragically. But people with severe mental illness are much more likely to be the victims of violence than they are to inflict it. And my dad was never physically violent with any of us.
His health did cause me a lot of stress though.
At first, as a teen, it was just survive. Don’t let my brothers drown. Get through junior high. Graduate high school. Finish college. Find a job. Keep that job. Ride out the chaos. Don’t let go.
In my early 30s I finally got some time to notice my life. I started seeing a psychiatrist mainly for my debilitating anxiety, and he told me that everything I told him sounded exactly the same as everything that every other child of a schizophrenic parent told him.
It wasn’t just me. Others were also trying to untangle the trauma. Others had the same lasting issues. There wasn’t much I could have done differently. There wasn’t some secret, superior way of handling things that I should have found. It just was what it was.
My psychiatrist taught me that I could have empathy for how difficult it must have been for my dad to parent with schizophrenia while also acknowledging how painful it was for me to have had him as my parent. Learning how to believe both of those things at the same time is what eventually helped me learn how to set healthy boundaries.
I started to stand up for myself in romantic relationships. I found a partner who encouraged me to be assertive. I mostly stopped talking to my dad.
Last year, in 2022, my dad died. COVID. He was 67.
Research shows that schizophrenia is the second highest risk factor for death from COVID, with only age being worse. The theory is that increased risk of physical health issues for patients with schizophrenia causes increased risk of death from the virus. But if schizophrenia is anything, it’s complicated. For my dad, it was in large part because the schizophrenia made him especially susceptible to anti-vax propaganda. His mind loved conspiracies and moral absolutes.
He never got the shot, and three weeks after testing positive his kidneys failed and his heart stopped.
When I found out he had COVID, I realized immediately that he’d likely die as a result. He’d been battling other physical health issues for years, so I correctly assumed his body wouldn’t be able to fight it off.
To be honest, though, I had almost the same realization when I found out he was refusing the vaccine — but I didn’t do anything. I assumed that choice would eventually kill him. But I didn’t call him and beg him to get it. I didn’t drive the two hours to his house and work to convince him. I didn’t go with him to any of his doctor appointments, where a medical professional could have helped me try to convince him. I just, let it go.
I had put decades of my life into trying to help him. When my brothers and I were still his dependents, there wasn’t any other choice. But I’m older now. And my brothers are safely living their own lives as adults too. I just didn’t have any fight left in me for my dad. He never wanted to be rescued, so I didn’t even try this time.
We cremated him, and my brothers and his current wife each took a third of his ashes. I assume they judged me for declining, but it was one of the easiest decisions I’d ever made.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve lost 52 lbs. since my dad died. Food was my go-to childhood coping mechanism. The only available dopamine source. And even as an adult, when my dad would try to call me, I’d feel myself walking toward the kitchen, almost like on autopilot.
I didn’t have the luxury of holding onto his ashes without flashbacks. So I let them go.
And I thought the story was finally over. But I didn’t realize how worried I’d be to enter my own 40s. Constantly wondering if anything around me or inside my head was actually a schizophrenic delusion.
Are my cats real? Is my fiancé? What does it feel like to convince yourself that you own an NFL team on the East Coast?
My best friend April and I met when I was 15, so the schizophrenic version of my dad was the only version she ever knew. But she was there for a lot of it. Going to the police station with me when we needed to ask about the process for getting my dad forcibly committed. Uncomfortably trying to sleep in jagged hospital lobby chairs while we waited for updates from the doctors. Cleaning up the house and taking care of my younger brothers when he was gone for those three-day holds.
I’m sure that part of the reason April and I are still friends 25 years later is that it’s really hard to find people who understand what that was like.
I used to try to explain it to people, but I quickly realized most people couldn’t understand. They’d bring up “A Beautiful Mind” — a representation of schizophrenia that my dad absolutely hated — or they’d tell me how their mom was anxious a lot when they were a kid, as if that was in any way the same as growing up with a dad who signed his emails “Timelord” because he thought he could manipulate time.
During one of my dad’s early episodes, he played a George Thorogood CD at full volume, on repeat for days. And nights. He paced our tiny townhouse living room, talking to himself while I tried to stay out of his verbal crossfire.
Even now, the first few notes of “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” make me feel physically sick. When we met, my fiancé Chris had it on his driving playlist, and I made him delete it. But as I sit here tonight, officially 40 years old for the last 2 hours and 34 minutes, I take a second to evaluate that interaction. Is my fiancé even real? Or is he some sort of long-term delusion? There are photos of us together though, I tell myself, so I think, probably, yes? Ok. Yes. Chris is real.
It’s been almost three decades since my dad thought he owned the Carolina Panthers and schizophrenia treatment has made depressingly little progress. If I do have it, I doubt my life would be much easier than his. He spent at least a year homeless. He worried about money until the end. And as far as I know, the voices he heard only died when he did.
Chris finds me sitting in the dark at 3 a.m. typing this out, and I confide my Year 40 fears in him. He sits down next to me on the couch, rubs my feet, and tells me that the fact that I made it past 35 means I’m probably in the clear. That the possibility of truly having your very first schizophrenic episode at 41 is so rare that it could be considered impossible. That we probably missed things back then. That my dad probably did have symptoms before that.
I don’t know if it’s true, but I want it to be.
I take a guilty comfort in the idea that my dad had been struggling with severe mental illness even longer than any of us realized. Maybe I’ll be safe. Maybe I’ll avoid his fate.
And if there’s one thing I learned from my dad it’s how to: “I don’t know if it’s true, but I want it to be.”
So I close my eyes, and let it go.