Living with schizophrenia

November 20, 2014


It was mental health week recently. It reminded me I’ve been meaning to write this post for maybe a year now but I’ve never quite figured out what to tell and where to start. So I guess I’ll start where Mum Pham learned that Dad Pham was suffering from mental illness.

It was 1980 in Germany. I know this because Mum Pham was pregnant with Big Brother Pham at the time. The newlyweds were strolling along the streets of Giessen when a street sweeper with its roaring engine, flashing lights and scraping bristles came around the corner. Dad Pham grabbed Mum’s hand and told her to ‘RUN! The Vietcong are attacking!’ They both started running in a panic – Dad thinking the communists were going to kill them; Mum thinking something was very, very wrong. The couple ran all the way to their small apartment where Mum called Uncle Ten, who had been in the country longer so could speak enough German to have Dad hospitalised. It was the first of dozens of hospital trips over the next few years.

Dad was eventually diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia brought on by post-traumatic stress disorder from fighting and surviving the Vietnam War (another topic that’s been fundamental in shaping me and my siblings that I’ve been meaning to write about).

Germany was the worst of Dad Pham’s schizophrenic episodes while they tried to figure out what the issues were, and tried different medications and treatments. The thing with his mental illness is it’s not something you cure; it’s something you learn to live with. I wasn’t alive for the worst years and I was too young for the tail-end of our life in Germany to remember much. But I remember he had a few more hospital stays in my tween and teen years. Not to mention a couple of trips to the emergency ward in the middle of the night during my university years so the psych nurses and doctors could help me convince him that he hadn’t been poisoned by the commies.

I remember as a child, before I knew about mental health and ilness, I believed we were being haunted by a demon who took on Dad’s form to trick us. But I was too clever for that dumb demon. I knew to look in its eyes – my Dad had peaceful eyes, the demon had wild eyes like it was seeing too much at once. Because Dad paces a lot as well, it meant checking his eyes every couple of minutes as he walked in and out of the room. I realised when I got older I was looking to see if he was on the verge of an episode.

Episodes happened when he tried to give up his medicines because he thought they were poison and felt stifled by them or sick. His meds alter the chemistry in his brain so I can understand why he didn’t like being on them. We were lucky in a sense…Dad’s paranoid delusion is that the Vietcong still torment him, constantly monitor him and  find ways to poison him. So the times he thought he was poisoned and needed one of The Phamlings to take him to hospital, the doctor would give him meds (the antidote) and he’d feel better and come home.

It’s hard for extended Phamly and friends to understand that Dad lives this delusion and when he drops it in conversation, which is common for his kids, they freak out and call me to check he’s still taking his meds and isn’t having an episode. My Vietnamese isn’t strong enough to explain that since that day in Giessen, Germany, Dad Pham will always be hunted by the Vietcong. It’s a part of who he is. He’s learned to live with it, we’ve learned to live with it – mental illness can be manageable.

Dad’s schizophrenia in a way gave me great insight into the human mind. He has no filters, he can’t control the things he says and does. He’s the realest person in my life and this has taught me patience because he is cripplingly indecisive, self-awareness because I see how what I do or say immediately affects his being,  and helped me learn to not fear the unknown.  People ask me a lot how I’m so chilled out even when shit hits the fan. It’s because I grew up with a schizophrenic; I’m prepared for anything to happen every day - from coming home to dozens of fish in a tank after he broke our hearts setting a nest of domesticated finches into the wild, to throwing out all the pots and pans so he was sure there were no meat traces in his new (and like everything else short-lived) vegetarian phase, to him locking himself in his room and drinking bottled water until he nearly drowns because God told him to. That’s how I’m so chilled. Life’s unpredictable. You've got to go with the flow. Only crazy people try to control it.


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