Mental Illness Takes a Seat

I’m completing some suggested revisions for my novel Covering the Sun with My Hand that is about a family dealing with mental illness. In my story, Julia Acevedo, Rene’s twin, tells how she and her parents manage the unexpected diagnosis and a subsequent extreme life change when they find out Rene has schizophrenia. Many people who hear the word Schizophrenia think it’s about having multiple personalities. It’s not.

Rene is in his first year as a student in an architect program in a prestigious college. This is a dream come true for Rene, who is a Puerto Rican adolescent in NYC. He is struck with the symptoms of schizophrenia and becomes paranoid and fearful that others are out to get him in his college program. He carries all of his books back and forth each day. If he leaves them in his locker, he’s sure other students will steal them.  It’s so much more than the normal apprehension that comes with the start of a new college experience. Julia notes the changes in how Rene dresses, how he begins to isolate, and is overwhelmed when he admits to believing that his classroom number is an anagram of his birthday, their birthday- all coded by the FBI. She hears him talking to himself behind his closed bedroom door. Rene begins drawing symbols on this same door for protection against evils that he is certain will overtake him. These are just some of the things that the family contends with as they adjust from having high hopes for Rene to excel in school to acceptance that all of their lives will be very different.

As I write this, it sounds strangely enough like a movie or a novel. I wouldn’t be able to raise my hand if someone asked me whether I have a family member diagnosed with mental illness. I’ve been close to people like Rene since my first year as a nursing student-thirty or so years now. When I began nursing school, I trained in large state hospitals like Manhattan State Psychiatric Hospital. I taught briefly as a psychiatric adjunct faculty member on a locked ward at Rockland State Psychiatric Center later on. For many years I worked on a mobile crisis management team. Visiting people in their homes gave me a clear view of the devastation that mental illness can bring. Sitting at people’s dining room tables, I was entrusted with a slant of life that many people may never experience but would be profoundly moved by.

My master’s degree thesis was called Social Support and Coping of Families of Persons with Mental Illness. I completed a pilot study that several families agreed to take part in- they filled out questionnaires and answered brief questions about their intense lives. My professor thought it was a stellar study. She suggested that I take it further and introduce it in another forum. Twenty years later, I am. This forum is fiction writing- different than anything that I would have considered at the time but where it needs to be.  

Novels are real life stories that are told in ways that illuminate some part of the world for others to experience. I look forward to sharing this corner that I’ve kept very sacred to me.

What books have you read or written that you’ve felt was an area that needed to be brought into the light?

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