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Caring For A Schizophrenic Son, Worrying About The Future

Gary Mihelish and his wife now teach classes for families that are coping with mental illness.
Courtesy of Gary Mihelish
Gary Mihelish and his wife now teach classes for families that are coping with mental illness.

Each week,Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.

This week, mental health is in the spotlight after former Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds was stabbed by his son, who then killed himself. In the Sunday Conversation, NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with Gary Mihelish about caring for and advocating on the behalf of a child with a severe mental illness. At Mihelish's request, the names of his wife and sons have been left out of this conversation.

Gary Mihelish's elder son has lived with schizophrenia for 29 years. Mihelish remembers a psychotic episode in 1991 that made it clear something serious was wrong.

Mihelish and his wife were used to their son taking off on photography trips and disappearing for a few days. They worried about these trips a lot, but this time was different.

"Four or five days later, we got a long-distance phone call from Santa Monica Boulevard," Mihelish tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "He said, 'I'm someplace called Santa Monica Boulevard. I can't find my truck. I parked it and I don't know where it is.' "

We knew something was wrong when he was a sophomore in high school. He began to isolate and he just withdrew into himself. We thought it might just be adolescence, an adjustment. But when he came home from the first day of school and said, 'I'm not going to school anymore,' you get a feeling that that's not appropriate behavior.

Mihelish's wife convinced a bank manager to loan their son money to get to a relative's house. She realized something was terribly wrong with their son and brought him back to their Montana home. "My wife basically kidnapped him, because he was of legal age ... and we were told we could not take him back to Montana against his will," Mihelish says.

There, the Mihelish family endured a traumatic transition. "His younger brother ... slept with a baseball bat under his bed because he was afraid he would be attacked," Mihelish remembers. That did happen once. At a family dinner, the elder son hit the younger son, who ended up with three stitches. Mihelish's elder son broke his hand.

"That was the only violent thing [that] ever happened in 29 years, but it was terribly scary," says Mihelish. "You just wonder what's happening. Basically our son is very gentle, very sensitive. And he still is today."

Since then, things have stabilized. After trying numerous medications, Mihelish's son has found one that works and is living with his schizophrenia in check. "He delivers meals on wheels to about 60 senior citizens and shut-ins, and the clients he serves love him," Mihelish says.

Things are good now, but the big question mark is what happens next. "We're his main support system, and we socialize together. He eats dinner with us every night, and about 9 or 10 o'clock he goes to his home." Relatives have said they'll care for him after Mihelish can't anymore, but, he says, "you worry anyway."

Join Our Sunday Conversation

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