First Person: Schizophrenia Stole My Brother. This Is How I Got Him Back
Zander Sherman's journey with his schizophrenic brother.
BY ZANDER SHERMAN | May 2, 2016 | Culture
I was going to kill my brother. If he took another step toward our father's house, I was going to slip off my backpack, unsheathe the knife inside, and drive the eight-inch blade through his sternum. I counted the moves, rehearsed them in my head.
One. Two. Three.
It was the fall of 2011. I was twenty-five and in the belly of a hollow darkness. It was a year into Joshua's illness and we still didn't know what he had, only that it had dramatically changed his perception of our parents and me. We were no longer his loving family but murderers, monsters, pedophiles. Believing our father was a hypnotist who had cast a spell on him, my brother had shown up at Dad's riverfront bungalow in Muskoka, two hours north of Toronto, seeking revenge.
"I'm just here to talk," Joshua said, taking a step forward. "If you'll just let me inside…"
I swung my backpack to the ground. One. Somewhere along the way, I had shouldered a weight that wasn't mine. Two. I had become my brother's keeper: the one who was trying to save his life, and the one who was ready to take it away.
We were homeschooled, receiving an education in our mother's intellectual obsessions from the confines of our house in Muskoka. Language, mostly. Words. From an early age, I knew the meaning behind my brother's name: Joshua, Yeshua in Hebrew. My saviour.
At sixteen, Joshua was everything I wanted to be. A competitive high-jumper, he vaulted over every bar, both literally and figuratively: good grades, cool friends. He made people—especially girls—laugh, which for me was unimaginable. I was a quiet, inscrutable child. By the time I joined the public-school system at thirteen, my brother had become my protector. A bully who'd picked on me relentlessly for three months one day threatened to kill me. I went to my brother, who drove me to the bully's house and told me to wait in the car while he spoke with the boy's parents. Ten, fifteen minutes he was gone. The bully never bothered me again.
The only incident that briefly unanchored Joshua was our parents' divorce, in 2002. After thirty years of marriage, Mom and Dad suddenly had "irreconcilable differences." For a while, our family was an ice floe, its fractures deep and wide. Dad bought a house in town. Mom stayed where she was, in the country, and her mother moved in. Joshua and I shuttled back and forth. I coiled further inside myself; Joshua became jaded, cynical. Much to our parents' chagrin, he spent a couple of years after high school drifting. He worked at a surf shop. He went to Australia.
Then, over time, Joshua healed. He moved west to Nelson, a small city in British Columbia, to attend college. He studied music, just like our father, and became an aspiring songwriter. He was elected president of his school's student union. Outgoing and adventuresome, he was once interviewed on NPR after spending two months camping in the mountains of southern Utah. I visited Joshua a couple of times in Nelson. We went to the gym and sat in a hot spring and hiked to a nearby lookout. It was the first time we'd been alone together as adults, and surveying the tiny world below, I saw the shape of the sky, the way the colour was bluer in the middle and whiter toward the edges. We'd spent our lives beneath a dome, sheltered from worry. Invincible. Immune.
"There's something going on," Joshua told me in an email. He wasn't sure what it was, exactly, but something—or someone—was controlling his life, putting obstacles in his path, making him stumble. "It's gotta be Dad," he concluded.
It was August 6, 2010. Joshua was twenty-seven and had recently moved from Nelson to our aunt's house on Vancouver Island, off the west coast of Canada. Due to work and travel and a couple of repeated courses, it had taken him four years to complete a two-year diploma. In the weeks prior, he'd told me how happy he was to be finished with school. A friend was meeting him on the island, and together they were going to start a band. "I've gotten to the point where I know I can make it in the music business," he wrote in a journal entry earlier that year titled "Becoming a Rock Star."
Then our father, who had been fully supporting my brother, cut him off. It was two years into the recession, and Dad had been gutted, cut in half. Joshua could survive in the wilderness by himself for weeks at a time, but the real world, to him, was a frightening and inhospitable place. He floundered. He found work washing dishes and making coffee, but no job lasted longer than a week. Our aunt finally asked him to leave.
He wrote a friend to say he felt "pretty much insane. I think my nervous system has been shot somehow. I can't think straight and I can't stop crying." Later, he told me that a homeless person had blown crack smoke in his face. "That's the moment where everything went wrong. When I smelled that smell."
Our parents flew him home to Ontario. For those first two hours after his arrival at Mom's house, he and I sat alone on the steps of our childhood home. "What happened?" I asked.
"Man, I don't know." He seemed lost, confused. "It has something to do with the crack smoke." The smoker, he claimed, was trying to invite or initiate him into an underworld of drugs and petty crime.
"Okay," I said. "But what does that have to do with Dad?"
"Listen, Alexander." His tone was suddenly icy. He hadn't called me Alexander in more than a decade; no one had. "I cannot speak to Dad's intentions. He's an evil person who is probably just jealous of my music career."
I nodded, frowning, and changed the subject.
Later, Mom sat at the computer as I dictated words for her to Google: paranoia, delusions, rambling. The Internet returned schizophrenia, and we both scoffed. Schizophrenia was another way of saying crazy, and my brother was not crazy; he just needed to get his life in order.
After Joshua had gone to bed, I sat with Mom on the porch. "He'll be thirty by the time he figures it all out," I said.
She nodded slowly, muted by the sadness of the thought.
We made an appointment with a prominent Toronto psychiatrist who would videoconference with us at our local mental-health office. The catch: He couldn't see my brother until late October—more than eight weeks away.
Until at least the date of the appointment, Joshua would be living with Mom, our grandmother, and me. My brother chose to sleep in the tree house: an enclosed building we had played in as kids. It was small but had everything he needed: a bed, a heater, a plug for his amplifier. Posters of girls, bikes, and weed were still plastered on the walls from when he'd taken over the space as a teen. Most days, he arrived in the kitchen late, ate quickly, and retreated back to the safety of the woods. At night he played strange music, the tone and pitch unfamiliar: a songbird I struggled to identify.
Once, Joshua walked in on a conversation Mom and I were having in the kitchen. "Are you guys talking about me?" he asked.
"We're worried about you, sweetie," Mom replied.
"And did I give you permission to talk about me? Did I say it was okay?"
"No," I said.
He turned to me. "Are you talking for Mom now?"
I said nothing.
"Sweetie—" Mom began.
Joshua whirled around. "Now you're talking for him? What is this, a setup? Are you guys ganging up on me?" He stormed out of the house.
"This is bad," I said. Mom didn't respond.
On the day of the appointment, my brother didn't let us sit in or even take him there. He drove himself in our mother's Chevy, came home an hour later, and went directly to the garage, where he'd moved for the winter to escape the cold. It wasn't until four years later that I found the doctor's report in a cardboard box in Joshua's abandoned apartment.
My brother, in the psychiatrist's opinion, had no major mental illness. What had happened in B.C. was a one-time episode—a "drug-induced psychotic break." He'd heard voices and seen things that weren't there, but now, apparently, he was fine. "I would not recommend ongoing treatment," the psychiatrist concluded.
The psychiatrist was wrong. Joshua may have had a psychotic break, but it was not a one-time episode. It was more than that. Now I was convinced: My brother was suffering, and it was only getting worse.
Not long after the appointment, Joshua flew back to Vancouver and slept on a friend's couch, scraping by with odd jobs. What his friends saw as the meanderings of an eccentric personality—a struggling artist trying to make it in the music industry—my family saw as a mind unraveling. Following months of back and forth, I persuaded him to come home for another assessment.
The appointment was at arguably the best public institution of its kind in Canada. On a hot Friday morning in July 2011, just under a year since the crack-smoke incident, Mom, Joshua, and I drove to Toronto (at this point, Joshua would not set foot in the car if Dad was in it).
The institution's main building was located in an old psychiatric hospital. We drove past a high stone fence built by former patients who had etched tiny, frantic messages into its jagged surface. Current patients wandered the grounds, seemingly oblivious to the world around them.
Mom and I were escorted into one room to meet with a psychiatrist, and Joshua into a second to meet with two others. I brought a binder containing hundreds of pages of emails, which clearly and acutely documented my brother's decline. (To our father: "I hate you to the very bone and I hope you die a very painful death and it happens very soon." To our mother: "Are you fucking gay? Do you remember how to be a grown woman?")
An hour later, we gathered around a large conference table. "Good news," said one of the doctors who had interviewed my brother. "Joshua has no major mental illness." No one said anything. The woman lowered her voice. "We see this as a family-dysfunction issue."
I glared at Mom, but she didn't look back.
The psychiatrist continued: "After consulting with the other doctor"—the one who'd interviewed Mom and me—"we realise that Joshua chose not to disclose some of his issues, especially his pot use."
"That's not something I've ever had a problem with," my brother said.
The doctor nodded, satisfied. The meeting was over.
On the highway I sent my father a message: On our way back. Joshua "has no major mental illness." Dad replied: WTF. We were stunned. We knew my brother's pot smoking confused the picture. Maybe he was doing other drugs. But there was clearly something more profoundly wrong.
It wasn't until later that I learned more about schizophrenia than just the word. There is no known cause or cure. You can have two of the five symptoms and still meet the diagnostic criteria. It can arise without a family precedent—we have no known history of the illness in ours. In its early stages, some people can "present" normally. The day before my brother's assessment, he had gotten his hair cut. Though he'd been dressing increasingly poorly, he'd cleaned up for the appointment.
It didn't last. A week later, Joshua was fired from his painting job for yelling at a wall. Not long after, he told me he thought our family was related to George W. Bush. By then he was living in Bala, a small resort town thirty miles from our parents' houses, and all of a sudden it was so much worse.
He announced plans to sue our father for "sexual abuse." He left a message on our mother's answering machine saying that he had "witnessed" her abusing our grandmother and was going to report her if she didn't let him back into the house. The statements were delusional, but underneath I glimpsed a coherent impulse: My brother was trying to find external abuses—abuses to the body—that captured the magnitude of what he was feeling inside.
One night in September, Dad called to say his car alarm had gone off and someone had pelted his window with apples. At almost the same moment, my brother sent me an email saying that "the hammer" was coming down and soon I would have to choose a side: his or our parents'. It was too much. I picked our father up and drove him back to Mom's. We sat in my room and sipped wine and tried our best to ignore the pain of facing a descent with no end. I gave Dad my room and slept on the porch. It was the first time in a decade that the three of us had slept under the same roof.
Joshua posted a three-thousand-word rant on Facebook in which he proclaimed, among other things, that our father was a murderer, hypnotist, pedophile, drug addict, child molester, rapist, and sorcerer. "My father practices warlock or black magic and has told me this on several occasions. As well as telling me he is in communication with the Devil."
Dad started parking at a neighbour's, shuttering the blinds. He installed a fake video camera and put stickers on the doors. There was a sense of dread, of impending doom. Something bad was going to happen. It was just a matter of when.
It was November 2011, Joshua was still living in Bala, and I was still at our mother's place. I was in the home office, at my computer, when the phone rang.
"He's here," Dad said. "Drop everything. Come now."
I went to the couch and lifted up the cushion. Underneath was the knife I had stored since my brother's return that spring. (I had placed another knife between my box spring and my mattress, and a Glock-shaped pellet gun in the closet.) I grabbed the knife and stuffed it into my backpack.
"What's going on?" Mom asked, sensing my urgency.
"Nothing," I lied. "Dad just needs my help with something. Be right back."
By the time I arrived in town eight minutes later, Joshua was standing in the driveway of our father's house. "What are you doing here?" he snarled. "Did Dad call you? Is he inside right now?" He looked at the front of the house; all the lights were off.
I ran, putting my body in between my brother and the door.
"Stop," I said. "Stop moving."
"What's gotten into you?" He cocked his head, as if he suddenly didn't recognise me. "Since when did you become so aggressive?"
"You're not going inside," I said, clutching my backpack, ready to pull it to the ground. I could feel the weight of the knife inside, the sheathed blade digging into my back.
"I'm just here to talk," Joshua said. "If you'll just let me inside…"
He took a step forward. I dropped the bag, spread the seams apart, and reached inside.
Then the door opened. Joshua looked up. Dad was standing there, looking down at us.
"Hey," Joshua said. He made a move to get past me, but I stood my ground.
"So you wanna talk?" Dad asked, coming down the steps. "I'll talk." He was so calm, so reasonable. "But let's do it in the car."
I looked at my brother. He didn't move.
"Come on," Dad said. "Let's get in the car. We'll drive you home."
Forty-five minutes later, we arrived at my brother's apartment in Bala. For most of the drive, Joshua had spoken in cryptic questions directed at our father ("Why did you and Sharon"—our mother— "get a divorce? Why do you talk now as if you're still friends?"). When we rolled into the driveway, Dad got out too, reaching for his wallet.
"I don't want your fucking money," Joshua said, the last words he has ever spoken to our father.
We all suffered. Dad became increasingly scattered, unable to make it through a sentence without changing his mind, getting lost, staring over my shoulder at the wall. But it was Mom who worried me more. One morning I awoke to find her lying on the sofa. "I've been having a panic attack since five o'clock this morning," she whispered.
I looked at the clock. It was seven-thirty.
I went to the bathroom and found the lorazepam. She had already taken her daily tricyclic—an antidepressant I had all but forced upon her. Could she mix the medications? I guessed and put a small white pill in her hand. She was shaking so badly she had trouble getting the pill into her mouth. Then the tears came, followed by dry sobbing so hard she couldn't breathe.
People asked how I was holding up, a question I resented. Homeschooling and an altogether isolated childhood had made Joshua and me twins, conjoined through the tissue of anomalous experience. I had come to think of it like this: My brother was going to go to jail or end up on the street, and then he was going to die. Exposure. An overdose. Lung cancer. What was I supposed to do with that knowledge? Either repress it so much I'd live in misery or face it full on.
The tension was making it hard to find any pleasure: have friends, go out. So I stopped having friends. I stopped going out. I broke up with my girlfriend, canceled a book tour, went days without leaving the house. Everything I did had to involve trying to help my brother; otherwise it didn't count. I composed emails at night, woke up to the replies, and spent the hours in between writing down each new piece of information, no matter how small. I had an eight-gigabyte file with all of the gathered evidence—every phone call, every Facebook photo. I had documents as intimate as a journal entry and as formal as a legal brief. They were all I had left of him, and all I could use to try to get him back.
I read them so many times I could quote them by heart.
Mom: "When did he have that first video thing with Dr. what's-his-name?"
Me: "October 21."
Mom: "And remind me again what he said?"
Me: "He advised Joshua to stop smoking pot, 'as clearly he is one of those people who is too sensitive to be using any kind of stimulant.’"
I created an impossible standard of devotion when it came to Joshua, then resented our parents for not living up to it. I didn't trust them to do a better job than I had, and got mad at myself when, overwhelmed, I could not possibly meet my own expectations. It was my fault Joshua wasn't better. It was my fault I hadn't seen the red flags. Even before saying he'd gotten crack smoke blown in his face, he had said and done strange things that stood out only in hindsight: a look here, a comment there. Still, it was my duty as a brother to have seen them and to understand their significance, and I failed. I felt my brother's life as if it were my own. He was not doing well, so I was not doing well. That's all there was to it.
In the summer of 2015, my phone pinged. "Hi Zander. I am wondering if you have an older brother named Josh? If so, please message me back." The sender was someone I knew—the mother of my brother's ex-girlfriend. Joshua, it turned out, was back in Nelson. After days of walking, he had arrived on the mother's doorstep saying he needed help. "My family is driving me to suicide," he explained.
Joshua had not spoken to me since I'd shown up at his apartment on Christmas Day, 2013. He'd slammed the door in my face. He had not spoken to our mother since the day he turned thirty-one, when she showed up bearing gifts and a birthday cake. He'd slammed the door on her too. Dad hadn't spoken to him in years. My family's only connection to him was through me, and my only connection was through his Facebook page. He had long since blocked me and deleted most of his friends, but I could still see what he made publicly available. It looked like outsider art: collages of colour and paint, the ideas disconnected. "Sherman hates, hates me," he wrote in a dialog box that led to a blue face with a serpent's tongue. "It's pretty obv!" In another, he edited pictures of our parents and me to make it look like we were all sitting around the kitchen table. Mom's eyes were gouged out. Dad was decapitated.
I got on a plane, arriving half a day later among the snowy mountains and tube-brush pines of southern British Columbia. Eight years earlier, my brother had come here to fulfil his dream of becoming a rock star. Now he was living in a tent.
I spent three days in Nelson, walking the streets, checking the shelters, watching the morning lineup of the homeless waiting for the soup kitchen to open. I went to the local outreach centre, told a social worker that I thought my brother was suicidal. For context, I presented her with a paper summary of the past five years, punched, bound, indexed—the fruits of my obsessive investigation. It was enough to prove that Joshua was a threat to himself and others, almost the sole criterion by which someone can be involuntarily committed.
Immediately after our meeting, the social worker went searching for Joshua, and ended up at the public library. She stumbled upon him sitting at a computer, uploading photos to his Facebook page. "Are you Josh Sherman?"
His eyes narrowed. "Who wants to know?"
She read him a letter our mother had written to Joshua, saying how much we loved him, how worried we were, how we believed he needed—
He interrupted: "You don't have my permission."
"Permission?" she asked.
"You need my permission to speak to me," my brother said. "And I didn't give it to you."
The social worker called the police, and my brother was taken to the hospital.
I called my parents to say that it was over, but of course it was just the beginning. We didn't know anything about his treatment: how long he would be in the hospital, whether we could visit him. I called the front desk. Joshua wouldn't speak to me, and soon the hospital staff seemed to take his side, refusing to give us any information. It was all privileged, available to us only if he allowed it. "The only way you'll know if something happens to your brother is if he dies," I was told.
Through a family friend with whom Joshua stayed in touch, we learned that my brother was out of the hospital and living in a small room attached to a homeless shelter. He had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Twice a day, someone came by and watched him swallow four milligrams of risperidone, an antipsychotic. If he didn't take the pill, he'd have to return to the hospital.
It was everything that could reasonably be hoped for, but it wasn't enough. I had decided long ago that I would accept nothing less than the return of my brother. Not a different version. Not a version who required medication. My brother, exactly the way he used to be.
"Is that realistic?" a friend asked gently.
"Realistic?" I said, suddenly furious. "It's impossible."
My parents and I decided that one of us should go back to Nelson. We missed Joshua. We wanted to see him, tell him how proud of him we were for taking the first step toward recovery. More than anything, we believed he needed us. Medication only addresses the most visible aspects of schizophrenia—the delusions, the paranoia. The hidden and equally devastating symptoms are treated by other means—teaching, learning, adapting—things that we were best equipped to offer.
It made the most sense for me to go. Joshua remained fully paranoid about Dad; if he saw him on the street, he would bolt and vanish. And Mom couldn't go; she had Grandma. So I returned.
I first went to the homeless shelter; he wasn't there. I called his phone, but a stranger answered—his number had changed. I sent him emails: "Joshua, I'm in town. I want to see you. Please respond." He didn't. I tried other places: the food bank, the library, the park. Had he gone off his meds? I called all the hospitals in the area. He wasn't there. He was nowhere.
I started going to all the places we had been when I'd visited him in college: the gym, the hot spring. I sat in the steaming bath and then plunged my head in the glacier-fed falls. Hot and cold. I did it again and again until I couldn't feel my skin. I wanted to close my pores; I wanted to stop them from receiving information.
At night I awoke in my dark hotel room and looked at the second, empty bed. My brother and I had shared a bedroom for the first ten years of my life. Every night we were no farther than an arm's length away. Now I lay awake and wondered why I hadn't reached out and touched him then. Grabbed him. Held on.
On my last day, I hiked to the lookout trail. My brother had once told me he could get to the top in thirty minutes. I set the timer on my phone and started off, my knees buckling, sweat pouring down my face, and made it to the top in exactly that amount of time. I looked out at the panoramic view: the distant mountains, the tiny city, the emerald water. I saw the domed sky, a crack now formed down the middle and vanishing into the earth.
At the airport on the way home, thinking how I'd failed in every way to reach my brother, I received a call from Mom. "I just spoke to Joshua," she said. It was the first time she'd heard his voice in almost two years.
I stopped moving. I stopped breathing. I tried to process the words Joshua and home in the same sentence. Then I wondered: Was this a coincidence? Or had he seen my emails?
"He was in Winnipeg," my mother explained, one thousand miles east of Nelson. "He was looking for a job, but it didn't work out. Now he's in Vancouver, asking for his aunt's phone number." Her voice was filled with tiny bubbles. "He sounded really good!" she said, as if she had been expecting to say those words all along. "He was clear and calm. He made complete sense."
My brother told her his plans: how he was ready to figure out his life, get a job, find a stable living situation. He was thirty-two and saving money for a wedding he wished to have once he found someone to settle down with.
My phone buzzed. It was a text from Dad: Just spoke with Sharon. Amazing news! Though he knew Joshua would not want to see him, my father was eager to get on a plane the second he found out, the feeling so overwhelming that it almost monsooned all reason.
I pressed the phone back to my ear: My brother had agreed to call home every week. "I told him how much I love him," Mom said, "and he kept saying, 'I love you too. I love you too.'"
She gave me the number he'd used to call. I tried it as soon as we hung up, but it didn't go through; he'd probably called from a pay phone. Through the window I could see a line forming, people getting ready to board. I paused for a moment and allowed the blood to rush back to my head. Joshua was in our lives again. I didn't know if it would last, but I didn't care. For now it was good. For now it was enough.
From: Esquire US.