How A Mother And Son Learned To Live With Psychosis

By Dr. Annie Brewster
Guest Contributor

Chris is a 38-year-old Ph.D. student who spent 10 years struggling with and fighting against his psychotic illness. His condition has been hard to diagnose — it’s been characterized as Bipolar and Schizoaffective Disorder at various times. Regardless of the specific diagnosis, the bottom line is the same: Chris has a lifelong mental health condition. He hears voices, and has suffered from paranoia, depression and mania along the way.

Chris, a 38-year-old grad student, and his mother Eileen (Photo: Courtesy)

Chris, diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and Schizoaffective Disorder, is now a grad student at the University of New Hampshire. Here he is with his mother Eileen, who fought mightily to get him adequate mental health treatment. (Photo: Courtesy)

His symptoms started when he was a 25-year-old grad student in New York City. Before that, according to his mother, Eileen, he was extremely high functioning — an excellent student, an athlete and a friend to many. She would never have suspected that her son would become ill. But when he grew paranoid and started acting erratically, Eileen began to worry. Ultimately, when she realized how sick her son had become, she knew she had to act. She quickly learned how difficult it is to get help for someone who is mentally ill but over the age of 18. Eventually, after multiple frustrating and unsuccessful attempts to get Chris into treatment, she was told “you need to find three strong men who love him, and you need to go get him, and you need to take him to a hospital,” and this is what she did. Eileen’s story highlights the challenges of navigating the mental health system and of accepting and ultimately embracing her son’s medical condition.

Listen to Chris tell his story here:

Eileen offers her perspective here:

These days, Chris says he is in a different and better place. He has accepted his illness and has learned to manage it with medications, therapy and his support systems. Like any chronic condition, it requires constant monitoring, but he feels equipped to handle the ups and downs and he has become quite skilled at recognizing his symptoms and titrating his medications in response. He is now a Ph.D. student at the University of New Hampshire’s Natural Resources and Earth Systems Sciences program, where he is integrating environmental economics with his background in environmental sciences and engineering. He is engaged to be married and will soon gain a step-daughter. Though his illness complicates his life, he has learned to live with it while maximizing his happiness and productivity.

Unfortunately, and despite much talk to the contrary, mental and physical health problems are treated very differently in our society. We marginalize the mentally ill, and often fail to see the individual underneath the diagnosis. In so doing, we make it hard for such individuals to seek help and to move forward.

Why this double standard? Why the stigma? For many of us, it is easier and less scary to imagine losing physical capabilities than it is to imagine losing control over our mind, even temporarily. In fear, we distance ourselves and see the mentally ill as “other”. This distancing is detrimental on an individual and a societal level. Instead, we should listen and try to understand, and focus on our similarities instead of our differences.

(Dr. Annie Brewster is a Boston internist who became interested in storytelling as a way to promote healing among patients. You can hear more of her stories here, here and here, as part of our Listening To Patients series.)

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  • heidi

    Great story Dr. Brewster. No doubt a huge help to anyone who struggles with any ailment. one step at a time. Chris had good insight into life.

  • stacey

    Thanks to you Chris, Eileen, and Dr. Brewster. Your story is so moving. I love the message of going slow — one thing at a time — and the power of friendships and family. What also struck me is how at first you could not “trust” yourself. Your instincts and your own subconscious mislead you. But now that sounds very different. It seems like you can rely on yourself to do the right things to care for yourself. I think we are all working on this! Eileen you are so brave and a wonderful mother.

  • Forrest

    Thanks for sharing your story!

  • Eve

    What resources are available for families going through this with their own young adult children?

    • Eileen

      Eve – Chris’ mom Eileen here. In fact, there are two Massachusetts General Hospital mental health programs that immediately come to my mind, and I would encourage you explore them online (see web-page links below). As for our family’s own experience, both programs have been very family friendly, and over the years have proved to be extremely useful. (1) Mass General Hospital’s (MGH) First Episode & Early Psychosis Program (we have personally worked with some of their staff and we think they are extraordinary) — you can check out their web page at: http://www.massgeneral.org/schizophrenia/services/treatmentprograms.aspx?id=1571

      (2) MGH’s Mood & Anxiety Disorders Institute (MADI) can help you identify myriad resources and opportunities for support (in the Boston area and beyond) — check out their web page at the following link: http://www2.massgeneral.org/madiresourcecenter/moodandanxiety_finding-support_familysupportservices.asp

      You can also email me directly at: bipolarson@gmail.com if you think it would be helpful. Sincerely, Eileen

    • Rachel Zimmerman

      I’m posting this comment from Eileen:

      Eve, Chris’ mom Eileen here. In fact, there are two Massachusetts General Hospital mental health programs that immediately come to my mind, and I would encourage you explore them online (see web-page links below). As for our family’s own experience, both programs have been very family friendly, and over the years have proved to be extremely useful. (1) Mass General Hospital’s (MGH) First Episode & Early Psychosis Program (we have personally worked with some of their staff and we think they are extraordinary) — you can check out their web page at: http://www.massgeneral.org/schizophrenia/services/treatmentprograms.aspx?id=1571 



      (2) MGH’s Mood & Anxiety Disorders Institute (MADI) can help you identify myriad resources and opportunities for support (in the Boston area and beyond) — check out their web page at the following link:http://www2.massgeneral.org/madiresourcecenter/moodandanxiety_finding-support_familysupportservices.asp



      You can also email me directly at: bipolarson@gmail.com if you think it would be helpful. Sincerely, Eileen

  • Katie

    Thank you to Chris, his mother, and Dr. Brewster for sharing this incredible story. I was so touched by the family’s candor and willingness to make difficult decisions on behalf of Chris, and by Chris’ insight and wisdom as he navigates his own healing. As someone else wrote here, Chris offers advice all of us can follow (start with a small change, then adjust, then a bigger change…and focus on relationships). Chris and his mother also demonstrate the best of family: being there for each other, no matter what.

  • Ned

    I learned so much from listening to both Chris and Eileen. Thank you for sharing your story. We don’t talk about mental illness in our society. You have helped lift the stigma of mental illness, and shown us grace, perserverance, as well as a powerful sense of humanity – something we all hope is out there when times get tough.

  • Wick Sloane

    Dr. Brewster —

    Wow. I didn’t know anything about these situations. Listening to the patient and to the mother makes such a difference. This is excellent.

    What’s next?

  • Marie

    Chris and EIleen, Thank you for sharing your story. There is alot here for us to learn and I plan to listen again. These include adding things to our plates one at a time and paying attention to their impact; how to help someone who needs it; looking at my own biases and people’s hearts and souls and the fact that we all struggle with something, often on an on-going basis; and the relationships I have with my children and how to embrace them more fully. Thank you for sharing your powerful story and helping us all to learn and grown in the process. I wish you strength and blessings as you move forward.

  • Kathy Smith

    Chris and his Mom’s story is just like my son and my story. My son was diagnosed with schizo affective disorder but when his symptoms first started at age 18 they weren’t sure of exactly what he had since he exhibited symptoms of so many of the diseases. Thank you for publishing this article as it makes me and my son feel like we aren’t the only ones going through all of the frustration with the mental health system.