I admit without shame that I manipulated Kody into coming with me to a twelve-week, two-and-a-half hour Wednesday night Family-to-Family NAMI class, an education program for family members of adults living with mental illness. After four years of dysfunctional family interactions and an escalation of discordance at home, I started attending a National Alliance on Mental Illness support group, where people strongly encouraged me to attend what they called a “life-changing” class. In my area, the class is only offered twice a year, and I needed immediate change, so I called to reserve my spot, explaining, “I’m hoping to bring my husband, but I’m not sure he will commit to twelve weeks.”
On the other end of the line, Mary, replied somewhat-conspiratorially, “Just bring him to the first class. You will share materials, and hopefully, he will keep coming.”
After registering, I text-messaged Kody’s cousin Misti, who lives in the metroplex. Recently, she had come to a jewelry party at my house that I co-hosted with Kody’s younger sister Gianna, the accessory queen and party planner, visiting us from Oklahoma. Drew stayed in his room throughout the event, and once everyone else had gone home, Misti asked, “How’s Drew?”
“Well, he’s in his room. About four years ago, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, so he avoids people. He doesn’t believe that he is sick, so he won’t take medicine, and we’re trying to figure out how to help him.”
“Really?” she said wide-eyed and shaking her head back and forth with an understood No. “I’ve never known anyone that’s happened to, but…” I censor this conversation because Kody’s cousin has an intimate relationship with someone hospitalized at that precise moment with a similar condition, and her story isn’t mine to tell. When I sent Misti information about the class, she texted back, “Thank you. Thank you. I’ll be there.”
I roped Kody into coming with me to the twelve-week NAMI Family-to Family class by saying, “Your cousin is coming. Just come to the first meeting, and if you decide not to come back after that, the registration lady told me it was okay.” Meanwhile and in my defense, I forwarded Kody information via e-mail about the class, including location, times, and dates. I guess he never read through that message because during the week-one class when he discovered the length of his captivity—from 6:30 until 9:00 that night, his blood seemed to boil beneath his skin. At any moment steam might’ve erupted from his ears and nostrils as Tom and Linda, our facilitators, began a hard-sell on the twelve-week commitment. By the way, Misti no-showed.
That first night included self-introductions, brief descriptions of our loved ones and identification of long-term goals. Tom created a T-chart on the dry erase board and said, “In the long term, is your goal for your loved one independence or functional dependence?”
When my turn came, I had two minutes to introduce myself and tell the story of Drew leaving for college on a full music scholarship and returning saying, “Something is wrong with my brain.” The story included a handful of hospitalizations and non-compliance with meds and not being able to keep a job and communication difficulties. I concluded with, “I want Drew to be independent.” Much of our recent household drama included heated words of Drew being twenty-four, needing to work, needing to contribute, needing to move out. Drew’s non-response was an issue. From the time my kids were young, I never considered any other option for them besides independence. I wanted nothing more than for Drew to have his own life and relationships and happiness beyond his bedroom walls, the walls that confined him most of the time.
Kody spoke next, exceeding his two minutes, explaining in more detail the difficulty and discomfort of living in his own home. His conclusion, however, shocked me: “Functional dependence.” During the previous year or so, Kody and I battled as foes concerning Drew and his illness and his capabilities. My Momma Bear instinct protected Drew and sided with him and made him sandwiches and did his laundry, to the detriment of my marriage. Together the three of us were the epitome of the dysfunctional family, and I had never considered the possibility of “functional dependence.” Already this class had changed my life.
The next week Kody met me once more at the church that held the class. An air of underlying hostility accompanied him. He skipped Week Three due to “work” but dragged himself back for the remainder of the twelve-week course. Together our perspectives shifted as we studied and discussed in a group setting the following topics:
Class 1: Emotional reactions to mental illness and goals
Class 2: Understanding schizophrenia and mood episodes, coping, and keeping files
Class 3: Types and sub-types of mood disorders
Class 4: About the brain
Class 5: Problem solving and setting limits
Class 6: Medication and treatment issues
Class 7: Understanding the patient
Class 8: Communication
Class 9: Self-Care
Class 10: Recovery
Class 11: Advocacy
Class 12: Certification Party
Before the NAMI class, I thought I knew practically everything I needed to know about mental illness. In four years, I had researched and read a handful of books and many-an-article. I watched Ted Talks and YouTube videos. Not to mention, I lived with Drew. However, the first six classes provided a plethora of new information, and the last six classes addressed the emotional side for patients and their families. In four years, I hadn’t considered how Drew might be feeling day in and day out, and this perspective changed my life.
Over the three-month period, I encountered complications as usual in speaking openly about Drew’s illness without my throat splotching red or my eyes swimming, Kody’s contributions became less angry, and together we learned more about Drew, biological brain disorders, and empathy. Each Wednesday night after class, we stopped for sushi and sake bombs and decompression, reflecting about the topics of the evening. Kody became my friend once more, and I cherish the memories of those Wednesday night dates.
Toward the end of the twelve-week program, another mom in the class approached me during a break and said, “It’s been really great to watch your husband’s transformation.” She leaned in and continued, “I know you had to trick him into coming.” Almost four years after Drew’s schizophrenia diagnosis, a miraculous and radical change had occurred in our ability to cope with the illness and communicate with our son, and we owe that to NAMI.