ANITA SNOW – ASSOCIATED PRESS – February 23, 1992
NEW YORK — He is there on every almost page of the family photo album, the shy little boy with enormous dimples who captured my heart as a child and broke it as a grown-up.
There’s my little brother Jimmy, just 9 months old, sitting next to me on the couch and clutching my hand. We’re both giggling at someone to the left.
Here he is as a toddler, standing next to one of the Three Little Pigs at Disneyland, scared and delighted to be so close to such a strange and wonderful creature. Again, he holds my hand.
I study Jimmy’s eyes, expressions, the way he stands and sits. There’s a certain timidity in the eyes, perhaps. A hesitancy in his smile.
But there is no clue to what he would someday become.
There is no hint that he would be diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, condemned to spend his adulthood in jail cells, psychiatric hospitals, board-and-care homes. That he will always have to take medications such as Haldol and Thorazine to control the terrifying demons that seize his brain. That he may never hold down a job, or marry and have children–or lead a “normal” life.
We, his family, will never lead a normal life, either. He is part of us, and so part of us will always be wounded. It is that way in the family of a paranoid schizophrenic–the pain is inescapable, and so is the love.
Jimmy came into this world seven weeks premature on March 28, 1960. Weighing just 3 lbs., 10 oz., he had to stay in the hospital another month before coming home.
I loved him immediately.
Just 15 months apart, Jimmy and I were the best of childhood friends. Our older brother didn’t seem interested in playing with us. We never made many other close friends–our dad was in the Navy, and we moved every few years.
In the woods of New London, Conn., we ate crab apples, got poison ivy and lost our sneakers in piles of fall leaves. In Honolulu, we climbed trees and ran through the sugar cane fields. In Coronado, Calif., we flew kites on the beach and collected hermit crabs, sneaking them home in our towels so we could put them in the bathtub.
But I quickly sensed that Jimmy had problems.
Once, I heard my parents whispering in the kitchen. When I asked what was wrong, my mom said they had received a letter from Jimmy’s teacher, complaining that he was “acting up” in class, preventing the other kids from learning.
During open house, when Jimmy was in the second grade, our family entered his classroom to find his little chair sitting in the corner. The teacher wanted everyone to know that Jimmy had been bad.
Jimmy never talked to me about his school problems. All I knew was that he got in trouble for chatting, giggling and otherwise disrupting class. He got bad grades, even though he consistently tested at two to three grades higher in math and science.
Jimmy eventually was sent to a string of different private schools. Some were strict. Others were for children with learning disabilities. Jimmy never finished high school.
Our dad died just before Jimmy turned 12, and it was about then that I lost my childhood playmate. Soon I had my own friends and he was off with friends of his own, stealing bicycles and experimenting with drugs like LSD.
The family drifted apart in those years. Our older brother went to Indiana to study medicine, then stayed to start a practice and a family. Our mother and younger sister moved to North Carolina, then to Indiana. Jimmy and I stayed in Southern California, where I went to college and started my career.
Because I was close, Jimmy called on me.
Sometimes he called at 2 or 3 in the morning, wanting me to bail him out of jail, borrow money or give him a ride to a friend’s home.
When he was arrested for burglary, a sympathetic public defender asked me to help her get him sentenced to a psychiatric hospital instead of jail. I collected records of the diagnosis made when Jimmy was in his early 20s: “paranoid schizophrenia with possible brain damage due to drug abuse.”
Once Jimmy had served his time, the doctors said he could stay. But he left the psychiatric hospital, even though he had nowhere to go.
“Can I stay with you?” he pleaded over the telephone.
I visualized him living in my one-bedroom apartment, driving off in my car, selling my stereo.
How was I going to support him on the salary from my newspaper job? Where would he sleep? How would I make him take his medications? How would he act if he didn’t take them?
“No,” I heard a cold, decisive voice say.
“But I would help you if you didn’t have a place to stay.”
Jimmy went on to live on the streets, in boardinghouses, in hospital psychiatric wards, in jails cells. When he had money, he gambled it away or bought drugs. Whenever he obtained a possession of any value–a radio, a television, or a car–it was either stolen or destroyed. One car was torched during a quarrel with a “friend.”
I began having nightmares about people hurting the 5-foot-4-inch man with the nervous giggle and darting brown eyes. I clipped out articles about schizophrenia and a new drug for its treatment.
Meanwhile, Jimmy moved into a licensed board-and-care home in Southern California. He now has a room, regular meals, someone to administer medications that keep him from seeing and hearing things that aren’t there.
His care is paid for by Social Security funds; a court-appointed conservator oversees his finances.
Because I have moved a lot over the years, I visit Jimmy infrequently. We last saw each other when I moved from the West Coast more than a year ago.
Jimmy’s appearance changes depending upon where he is living and what medication he is taking. I never know if I will find him beardless or clean-shaven, with long hair or a buzz cut, a bit overweight or extremely thin.
And I never know what he will say or do.
During one visit he asked matter-of-factly if I ever heard voices coming out of the radio when it’s off. “I do,” he said.
Another time he told of angering the manager at the local pharmacy by standing in an aisle and drinking cough syrup out of a bottle.
“Why did you do that?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said.
At other moments, we can laugh about how, as children, we got lost in the woods during a family vacation in the San Bernardino Mountains.
We still write fairly regularly, and every card and letter he sends recalls the little boy who was my best friend. He says that he prays for me. He sends along the greetings of his girlfriend, another board-and-care home patient.
“I love you,” he always writes in large, shaky print. “Your brother, Jimmy.”
Again he captures my heart.
And breaks it.