BALTIMORE — This is how one schizophrenic's sister explained his problem to her young children: "It's almost like when you go to sleep and you have a bad nightmare," she told them. "It's like he's in this bad dream, and he can't wake up."
Dan Thompson, whose name and those of his family have been changed, is 33 years old; he has been hospitalized a number of times by the nightmare of schizophrenia. He is now in the hospital again, awaiting placement in a halfway house and another foray into living on the outside.
"It's like a revolving door," says his mother, Joanne, who seems remarkably placid for the 15-year ordeal that she and her family have been through.
Families of schizophrenics bear much of the emotional and financial burden of this devastating illness. Most schizophrenics--70% by some estimates--don't work, and many can't live alone, leaving their families to care for what is often a lifelong illness.
For all the heartbreak involved, though, the Thompsons say that coping with Dan's illness has brought them closer together.
Dan had a fairly normal childhood, his mother says, including Little League, friends, the works. But he was something of a problem in school. He misbehaved often, disrupting class and calling attention to himself.
Still, there was no reason to suspect his disruptive behavior was the sign of a major mental illness. But when he was 16, life seemed to turn upside down. His father was dying of cancer; he did some minor experimenting in drugs; he joined a religious group and started preaching to people on the street.
Some experts believe that although stress does not cause schizophrenia, it can trigger an episode in those vulnerable or predisposed somehow to developing the illness.
Thompson began talking about his mixed-up thoughts, and how he could not straighten them out. He was fearful and angry. There would be bizarre, frightening outbursts, seemingly unprompted by anything.
"He would scream these blood-curdling screams," says one of his sisters. "Sometimes, we would hear him in his bedroom. He sounded like he was possessed, and he was saying these weird words. Or he'd come in while you were asleep and stare at you from the foot of the bed."
He was diagnosed quite easily as schizophrenic, but finding the right treatment proved to be more difficult.
Hospitalization, release, hospitalization again, drugs, electroshock therapy, megavitamins, prayers have all failed to totally quell his mind's frenetic activity.
"He has scary thoughts," his mother says. "He'll be afraid to be alone at night. He'll be afraid he might hurt someone."
When Thompson first was diagnosed, the family did not know where to turn for support or help. Instead, whatever the hospitals suggested, the family agreed to--including electroshock, which his mother says that she would never agree to now.
"There was nothing available," Joanne Thompson recalls. "I had to go to the library and look up the word schizophrenia. " Eventually, she found other women in her same predicament. They formed a support network and now are part of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.
The Thompsons have pursued all sorts of solutions, none entirely satisfactory, although Dan's current regimen of medication appears to be working better than past ones.
While other families have drained their bank accounts in getting treatment for the illness--by one estimate, the lifetime costs of treating a schizophrenic are likely to reach $300,000--Joanne Thompson says insurance has paid for much of Dan's treatment.
Still, no amount of dollars can buy Thompson what he has lost, and will never have.
"The saddest thing from a mother's point of view is seeing your child suffer," his mother says.