A Mother’s Story of Schizophrenia, Recovery and Hope: Karen S. Yeiser
We recently interviewed author and speaker Bethany Yeiser on Mental Health News Radio. She shared her journey with schizophrenia, homelessness, and recovery. Today we enjoy speaking with her mother, Karen Yeiser. Karen has written what is a companion book to Bethany’s story.
One of the questions we asked Karen was how life may have been different for their family if her own book had been available during their years of struggle but also recovery. It was an honor to interview both mother and daughter on separate shows in order to understand what happens on both sides.
Karen was also generous with information listed in her article below to help other families going through this kind of a struggle. Please join us in welcoming Karen S. Yeiser on the show.
My husband and I are the parents of two children, a daughter and a son. Our daughter Bethany was a kind and loving child with a bright mind and a passion for knowledge. In grammar school she developed a love of academics and a passion for the violin. As each year passed, her motivation to achieve accelerated. During her last two years in high school she enrolled in a program which allowed her to attend all of her classes at a local community college. By the time she graduated from high school she had 65 college credits, held an academic college scholarship and gained acceptance into one of the highest ranking universities in the country. At the age of seventeen, she moved out of our home in Ohio to attend college in California. Her future looked bright as she embarked upon a career in medicine.
Bethany excelled in her studies. By the time she was ready to begin her senior year at the university, she had served as concertmaster in a university orchestra, authored a scientific research paper which was published in a prominent professional journal, traveled to China, spent a summer in Africa, and established a legitimate non-profit organization. However, by March of her senior year, and just months away from graduating with her bachelor’s degree, with failing grades, she dropped out of college and disappeared.
When did you first recognize something was seriously wrong with your daughter?
Some of the symptoms characteristic of the pre-schizophrenic, or prodromal stage of schizophrenia are similar to typical behaviors of young adults. When we mentioned things in Bethany’s life that did not seem right to us, she always had a valid reason or logical explanation that somehow made sense. When she began to pull away from us with fewer phone calls and emails, we considered it fairly normal. However, her desire for secrecy gradually progressed to the point where she traveled alone to work in an African mission during the summer before her senior year of college without providing any contact information. While she was in Africa we became certain there was something seriously wrong, but by that time we were overwhelmed by the way her life was unfolding, and we had begun to lose perspective. At times we wondered if we had become too closed minded. Upon her return from Africa Bethany grew even more distant and hostile toward us as she planned her next seemingly illogical international trip which diverted her focus away from completing college. When we opposed her plans to travel to Thailand during Christmas, she cut us out of her life completely.
Were you aware of how your daughter’s life was unfolding after she refused to have contact with you and your husband?
All information we received about Bethany was second-hand from a variety of people and mainly through the Internet. We had to be careful about communicating and sharing information with people who knew her because if she suspected that a friend was speaking with us, she immediately and permanently cut that person out of her life. On a few occasions total strangers searched for us online and contacted us with information and concerns. As parents, we found ourselves in an agonizing and impossible situation. It was confusing to decipher exactly what was going on as we received conflicting reports of her continued international travel and her success in raising funds for humanitarian causes.
How and when did you eventually reunite with your daughter?
After nearly five tortured years of total estrangement from Bethany, we received an unexpected call from the police informing us that she was being held against her will in a hospital emergency room for psychiatric evaluation. Within twenty-four hours of receiving the call in Ohio, my husband and I were reunited with her in a psychiatric hospital in Los Angeles. In a meeting with her psychiatrists we were informed that she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was presumed homeless. We also learned that she had been arrested and held in jail on two occasions for bizarre behavior, prior to coming in contact with officers who recognized her need for psychiatric assessment.
So what is the rest of the story? Has your daughter recovered from schizophrenia?
People with schizophrenia commonly lack insight to recognize and accept the fact that they are mentally ill, and therefore may strongly refuse treatment. Initially, this was the case with Bethany. I would like to tell you that following her initial hospitalization, she made a quick and uncomplicated recovery, but that was not the case. We persuaded her to move back to Ohio with us and supported her through a tortuous year of failed drug trials and two additional hospitalizations. Against all odds, she eventually made a full recovery on the antipsychotic drug clozapine.
My psychiatric experience in nursing school took place in the 1970s and in a county hospital in Chicago, Illinois which housed impoverished people with chronic, untreated mental illness. For the most part, those diagnosed with schizophrenia appeared filthy, disheveled, incoherent, and completely out of touch with reality. For me, those patients were templates not only of schizophrenia, but also of utter hopelessness. Because the earliest symptoms in my own daughter’s life presented gradually in more concentrated forms of normal behavior, it was too sensational and horrifying to attribute them to schizophrenia. There was too a wide gap between the insidious emergence in my own daughter’s life and full-blown schizophrenia I witnessed as a student. In a way, my limited psychiatric education acted as a negative instead of a positive at the onset of her illness.
Do you have any further comments?
I am deeply thankful that despite being diagnosed with severe schizophrenia, my daughter Bethany currently enjoys a healthy and productive life. I believe it was by God’s grace she was kept safe through years of untreated illness and homelessness, and at just the right time met Dr. Henry A. Nasrallah. He is the psychiatrist who initially prescribed clozapine for Bethany and a strong advocate for her continuing success as a motivational speaker.
What is Schizophrenia?
According to Henry A. Nasrallah M.D., Chairman of Neurology and Psychiatry at the St. Louis University School of Medicine,
“Schizophrenia is a complex neuropsychiatric brain disorder with multiple clinical features which include:
• Psychotic symptoms which manifest as delusions (fixed, false beliefs of which paranoia is an example of) and hallucinations (most commonly hearing voices when no one is there, and sometimes seeing people or animals) bizarre behavior (such as posturing) and agitation.
• Deficits such as apathy, lack of motivation, minimal speech, restricted facial expression and marked social withdrawal.
• Cognitive impairment including severe memory difficulties, inability to learn new things, difficulty making decisions or planning ahead.
Before the term schizophrenia was adopted, the illness was called ‘dementia of youth.’
• Mood symptoms such as depression (the suicide rate in schizophrenia is very high) or aggression (but only a very small minority of persons with schizophrenia commit a crime, contrary to public perception. In fact, they are much more likely to be victims of crime).
• Alcohol and drug use is very common. Marijuana has been shown to trigger the first psychotic episode in susceptible individuals (i.e. with a family history of psychosis).”
“Persons with schizophrenia can have mild to severe forms of some or all the above symptoms. About 2.5-3.0 million Americans, or just under 1%, suffer from schizophrenia. Follow-up studies have shown that 20% of persons with schizophrenia recover completely, but the other 80% remain disabled to varying degrees, suggesting a spectrum of severity within this illness. Homelessness among people with schizophrenia is very high and so is incarceration (close to half the patients are in jails and prisons around the country due to the closure of the state hospitals where they used to receive medical care in the past).”
“The onset of schizophrenia can be in childhood before age 10 (rather rare) but most commonly in mid- to-late adolescence and early 20s in male and 20s to 30s in females.”
What causes Schizophrenia?
“The causes are mostly genetic (hundreds of risk genes as well as mutations have been discovered) but can also be due to environmental disruptions of brain development during fetal life such as maternal infections, gestational diabetes, drug abuse or hypoxia and complications during delivery. Faulty wiring of the brain during fetal life (neurodevelopment) is believed to be at the root of schizophrenia.”
“For the 20-25 % of patients who do not respond to the available antipsychotics, clozapine has been shown to work in treatment-resistant or refractory patients (where the hallucinations or delusions never go away with the usual antipsychotics). Remarkable recovery and cure for severe schizophrenia have been achieved with clozapine.” (Henry A. Nasrallah, M.D.)
Karen S. Yeiser is a registered nurse who has devoted twenty-two years to the care and advocacy of people with developmental disabilities. While living through the severe mental health crisis in her own daughter’s life, she gained a deeper and more personal understanding of the unique challenges patients with schizophrenia and their families face. She hopes to awaken new interest toward the possibility of recovery from schizophrenia and offer encouragement to patients and families throughout the recovery process. As a mental health advocate, Karen is passionate about affecting positive change in the way people with schizophrenia are perceived and treated by society, and cared for in the mental health system. Karen has shared her story at professional conferences and on SiriusXM Radio. She is the mother of two adult children and lives in Ohio with her husband, David. Her memoir Flight from Reason: A Mother’s Story of Schizophrenia, Recovery and Hope, is the companion book to her daughter Bethany’s memoir Mind Estranged: My Journey through Schizophrenia, Homelessness and Recovery.
Please visit Karen’s website at www.karensyeiser.com.