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Schizophrenia takes a daughter away

Despite a loving family -- and treatment at 11 facilities in four years -- the disease prevails.

December 29, 2007|Scott Gold and Lee Romney | Times Staff Writers

By the time she landed at Metropolitan State Hospital in 2006, Tiffany Sitton had been haunted by delusions for 15 of her 23 years. Spiders burrowed under her skin. Ghosts ordered her to hurt people. Schizophrenia and psychiatric drugs dulled her eyes and numbed her brain.

Hers was the most vexing kind of case, blending severe mental illness with a rebellious disposition and drug abuse. When she got to the austere Norwalk hospital known simply as Metro, she'd bombed out of virtually every other option the mental health system had to offer.

She had mastered the art of institutional life. If her caretakers wouldn't give her a match to light a cigarette, she knew how to use a gum wrapper and a light socket to set fire to a tampon. She wore studded dog collars and shredded stockings, and her hair, once as wispy as the crown of a dandelion, had been hacked off and dyed.

None of that changed the fact that she was a wealthy kid from the suburbs whose bedroom, back home in a pocket of horse ranches and eucalyptus groves in San Juan Capistrano, was waiting for her.

She was scared at Metro, and perhaps she was right to be.

Past the red sign at the door of Unit 410 -- "HIGH AWOL RISK" -- was a prove-yourself hierarchy of bulimics and cutters and patients known as picas, who swallowed staples and keys and whatever else they got their hands on. During her six-month stay, three patients attacked her. One tried to rape her.

She called home, again and again, begging to get out.

Her parents refused.

Cynthia and Michael Sitton believed they had no choice. Before she could start getting better, they thought, she had to hit bottom.

The strategy seemed to work. When Tiffany was ready to leave Metro six months later, she seemed finally willing to embrace treatment.

"I don't ever," she told her mother, "want to be in this place again."

So, one year ago, they made a pact. Tiffany would quit sabotaging her treatment, getting in fights, snorting other patients' meds. She would remember why it was good to be alive. Her parents would find a top-of-the-line hospital. When she was able, she could visit at home. They would keep her safe. They would keep her out of Metro.

The next year would be a test -- of Tiffany and her parents, and also of California's mental health system, which so often fails the toughest cases.

Unlike most who suffer from severe mental illness, Tiffany had everything going for her.

Her doctors had found the right cocktail of pills to ease her symptoms. She had a full-time advocate in her mother. Wealthy through Michael's flooring company, the Sittons had spent more than $250,000 on her care. Now they pledged to redouble their efforts.

Would it be enough?


It came out of nowhere.

Tiffany tugged on the sheets next to her mother's head and whispered into the darkness. She'd seen dogs in her room, menacing dogs with red eyes. Cynthia told her she'd had a nightmare.

"She insisted," Cynthia said recently, "that she had been awake."

And she had been.

Tiffany was 8.

Hers had not been the easiest of childhoods. Cynthia's first marriage, to Tiffany's biological father, had not ended well. Mother and daughter had spent several years living like gypsies, poor and mobile.

Still, they were unusually close, and Tiffany's gregarious spirit seemed unaffected by the turmoil. Their lives had stabilized. Cynthia married Michael, like her a recovering alcoholic. Michael adopted Tiffany, and he and Cynthia had two more children.

The Sittons dismissed the hallucination at the time. They know now that it was the first symptom of schizophrenia, a disease shared by an estimated 2.5 million Americans.

At 12, Tiffany became convinced that she was personally involved in stories that appeared on the TV news. At 13, she began hearing voices. At Aliso Niguel High School, she shaved her eyebrows and announced that she was a member of a gang called the Slick 50s, though there was no evidence that she knew any actual members.

At 15, after she pulled a knife on a schoolmate, a county psychiatrist told Cynthia to order a pizza and give Tiffany more hugs. It was the first of many times the system would fail them.

After she stole a car, Tiffany landed in juvenile hall, where a doctor diagnosed schizophrenia. It was a particularly early onset of the disease, and the timing was devastating. Tiffany had exchanged the normal, vital chapters of adolescence -- algebra homework, prom, her first kiss -- for a bewildering and often terrifying fantasy world.

Cynthia steeled herself "to do anything I had to do to make her better." She believed that there was help coming, that they could beat this.

"I still had the luxury," she said, "of naivete."

That wouldn't last long. After Tiffany got out of juvie, she ran away, hitchhiking to Los Angeles, where she lived on the streets, eating uncooked ramen noodles and using any street drug she could find. A friend found her in Compton, badly beaten.

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