My first-hand experience with mental illness happened three years ago, when my older brother Sovereign had his first mental break. The day it happened, we—my three other brothers, my mother and myself—didn’t have a clue of what was going on. All we knew is that for several days straight Sovereign wasn't his normal self. However, after some strange behavior for a few days, like obsessive cleaning, unnecessarily suspicious of others, rambling, we noticed he wasn’t sleeping well and his rambling was getting more and more far-fetched. My mother concluded that maybe he just needed some quality time with her.
“Even if my heart races and my eyes cry, I have to say something. I have to try. My heart says I need to, so I must.
So, she took him to run some errands with her and talk to him and try to get to the bottom of his odd behavior. However, being out in public only magnified the situation. When they came to their first stop, she parked and got out of the car. Immediately, he screamed in fear, “Mommy, come back! They’re going to get you! Come back in here!” With each day that passed he tumbled further and further towards his mental break.
He stayed completely awake for three days straight and couldn’t control his thoughts any longer. On that third day, I was left home alone to watch him. He would ramble on and on about the government and the Bible and being the reincarnation of Jesus and Adam and Eve. Then, to my shock, he took off all of his clothes and ran outside to our backyard. This bizarre stream of erratic behavior was something I’d never experienced before, and the fact that it was happening to my older brother—someone who is so kind and shy that he’d been compared to Forrest Gump—made me feel so hopeless and more scared than I’d ever been in my entire life.
I scrambled to call my mother and to tell her what was going on. She said that she was rushing home as fast as she could. But that comfort only lasted until I had to hang up with her and go back to the reality of my frantic brother. What was I going to do? What do you do when someone jumps in the shower and puts it on the highest temperature and screams in agony? What do you do when someone wants to burn the Bible and go outside naked because they’re “not ashamed?” What do you do when they’re your older brother?
You see, I’m 5-foot-4 and 100 pounds soaking wet. Sovereign is 5-foot-10 and 150 pounds of muscle (he’s always had serious discipline about working out every single day). Physically stopping him was out of the question. So, I had to come up with a strategy under pressure. That’s when it came to me. Talk to him. Sovereign loves to talk.
So, I got my brother’s old video camera and ran to the backyard. Through tears and shaky hands, I calmly said, “Sovereign, why don’t you come on inside? The world wants to speak with you. Come on, Sovereign.” And it worked. It calmed him down. This held him off just long enough to keep him inside until my mother arrived. Eventually it occurred to her that someone may have slipped him a drug; it seemed like the only explanation that made sense. We had no idea about mental illness and how it can seemingly slip up on you in the night. We were utterly clueless.
So, she took him to the hospital where she was faced with the beginning of what was probably the most horrific experience she’s ever had, especially as a mother. When Sovereign was in the hospital he did everything you could name. He warned everyone about the government. He was convinced they’d implanted a chip in his arm. People were out to kill all of us. He was God. He was Jesus the Messiah. He could see people that other people couldn’t see. No one knew what was wrong. We were all distressed. Even my middle brother who I’ve never seen blink from unhappiness, was in tears over Sovereign. But my mother. My mother was in this wailing, dark pit of hopelessness. I can only imagine it was a thousand times more harrowing for her than any of us could understand.
We were told at the time that he was having a bad psychotic break. Fine, we thought. At least now we know. My mother assumed that they would simply give her something that he could take and she would be able to take him home that night. But it wasn’t that easy. From then on there would be no such relief for quite some time. The problem was that she couldn’t have him back. Her eldest son, her baby boy that she carried in her womb for nine months; her son that she breast fed until he was able to eat; her son that crawled and toppled and learned how to walk; her son that she cherished every moment with as he grew up into a young man because you can never get those years back. Her son wasn’t hers any more. He was now a ward of the state.
The state shipped Sovereign from one facility to another, ultimately ending up in a mental institution that was three hours away from the comforts of home. Over a period of three months my mother would drive those three hours to visit Sovereign every single day. It would soon be discovered that Sovereign had a severe case of paranoid schizophrenia. And, yes, that state would figure out how to calm Sovereign but they would never truly bring him back to his mother. Even when he did come back home, drugged up, with a full beard and an even fuller belly, he wasn’t the same. As of today, there is unfortunately no cure for paranoid schizophrenia. Medical professionals simply don’t know enough about it.
To be brutally honest, just judging off of the emotions I’m feeling right now—even from writing about it—I’d say that I never want to talk about this. Ever. Because this is something that hasn't just gone away. It has continued to pervade our lives as my brother has spent the past few years continuously in and out of mental wards. In fact, I would rather curl up my story, and all of its emotions, stuff it into a bottle and let the sea have it, so it can never be heard or seen again. Judging from my emotions, I don’t want to speak about this in front of one person much less an arena full of people. But every time I hear my mother crying over someone else who got shot because they were off their meds; every time I pass someone that most other people refer to as a “crazy” homeless person who may just not have had the help they needed to persevere; every time I see my brother, I know that I have to talk about it. I have to say something—anything.
For my brother and for the millions of others out there who are like him who have no voice, I have to use mine. It just breaks my heart into a million pieces and I have to do something. Even if my heart races and my eyes cry, I have to say something. I have to try. My heart says I need to, so I must. I will spread awareness because too many people are embarrassed or scared to tell someone. Too many families are like we were: left in the dark. I’ve got to do something to help. I’ve got to give someone that peace of mind. And maybe in making some kind of difference, my mother will gain a better peace of mind, too.
I will use my role as an artist and performer to help spread NAMI’s message and raise awareness of mental illness. That’s something you can do too, no matter who you are. So join NAMI and raise your voice.
Thank you so much NAMI, for all that you do by continuing to keep us all aware of mental illness and how it affects all of our lives. Your efforts are appreciated by all of us.