“I would give about anything to not have to say what I am about to tell you.” The speaker was our family physician, a friend of twenty years, and the conversation occurred six years ago.
“Among other brain malfunctions, I strongly suspect Michael is suffering from paranoid-schizophrenia . In short, that means as he completes puberty his brain has lost the capacity to regulate certain hormones like endorphins. The over-stimulus completely swamps the brain receptors. Desperate for control, the mind will organize this into voices and forces that overwhelm him.”
We all went in to join our son Michael, and cried together—our friend doctor, me, my wife, and patient. All, but Mike, knew God had embarked us on a challenging journey that combines some of the worst features of both chronic and crisis illness. Mike only knew he hurt. He described his brain as “a cotton candy machine. But instead of sugar, it’s broken glass spinning around and around.”
Referred to a psychiatrist, who has done an excellent job caring for our family, he minced no words. “I see that you have been very intelligent, Michael. Tons of awards. Graduated high school early. You will not be able to rely on intellect to get you through any longer. In fact, your fight will get worse.
Much worse. You are very severely disabled with more than schizophrenia. With your amalgamation of dysfunctions, you have about a thirty percent chance to live past twenty-nine years old.”
Those words proved prescient. The first hurdle? Medicinal, as it takes a difficult process of trial and error to find the drugs that work best for each person. During the time of medication adjustment, Mike often felt terrified. He would sneak alcohol or marijuana in a desperate attempt to dull the voices and pains in his head. These, of course, would negate or dangerously heighten the effects of his prescriptions.
We made a second serious adjustment to our family mind-set. Our other children, who had for years found Michael increasingly difficult, suddenly understood why. That comprehensive relief
was countered by the reality that because of their brother’s incapacity, they could not reestablish a simple peer relationship. Our daughter managed well in her Lord, but Mike’s little brother, Ben, struggled.
A year into our new reality, Ben headed off to Ouachita Baptist—the small school from which his sister had graduated and where I teach in the Frisco extension. Michael had also attended, but returned partway through his freshman year because of the terror he felt at the uncontrollable thoughts in his head. Confused and frustrated, Ben played the fool, employing sin as a desperate dulling agent. Though he excelled academically, he fell apart spiritually.
Our mind-set as parents proved the hardest blockade. We didn’t, and possibly couldn’t, grasp the amount of care our son would need. About one year into this journey, a turning point came while vacationing with my parents in England. Having left Mike with his sister and brother-in-law, we received a panicked call describing an amazingly difficult obsession episode that had them all at wit’s end. Mike actually fled for a bit, perilously close to joining the large population of mentally ill homeless people. Thankfully, he came back.
Upon returning home from that trip, we decided to have Mike come live with us. He resigned from all his jobs, and we set full-time to the task of managing his illness. Slowly, the medicines started to work well. He eliminated the self-medication that his brain falsely desired. His siblings soon better understood the situation. Ben transferred colleges and got on track with his Lord. In fact, he graduated with honors last May. We found a new normal that seemed as stable as chronic crises can be.
All Into Battle
Of course, each day is a serious battle. Michael has to fight for his sanity every day. The medicines are great, as is prayer. The environmental changes to our home—including an outdoor covered retreat for Mike to decompress—are very helpful. The strategies we have learned to guide him through paranoid and obsessive episodes prove important. Yet none of it makes a difference if the mentally ill person himself doesn’t fight the good fight. He must let the Lord empower him and then put his all into the battle.
Mike realizes this. In fact, his capacity to “gird his mental loins” for daily battle amazes me. I first saw his determination about two years after the diagnosis. He felt angry, sitting outside fuming over some part real, part imagined slight. I came out and sat with him, saying nothing. I only sat with him. After a long silence, he said, “I am not going to be a statistic.” Bewildered with no context, I said, “Pardon?” He replied after a bit, “A statistic. I am not going to be one of the 70 percent that doesn’t make it.”
Determination is not all I have learned from my son. Probably the most significant lesson is the command to take every thought captive (2 Cor 10:5). If Michael doesn’t obey—taking each thought captive—it can spell death for him. He must continually guard his thoughts and use his trusted caregivers as a filter, since the consequences for him are truly life and death.
Watching and helping him in this work, I have felt ashamed to realize that I treated God’s command as a suggestion. Instead of an imperative, I viewed thought-capturing as an exercise only for “important” matters. Of course, the truth is that the stakes are no lower for me. More eternal than temporal, probably, but no less important.
As a lifetime reader, Mike cannot focus well on books anymore. This saddens him greatly, but we have met the human need for story through video games. He saved up and purchased many systems along with hundreds of games. Role-playing games have proved particularly useful, as his mind can get off of his ache and engage in the joy of gaming.
Michael still reads a bit, as a bunch of grade-school girls whose parents are family friends come to our house weekly for twenty minutes of Mr. Mike reading The Chronicles of Narnia (which exhausts him), followed by copious snacks and games with me. Our psychiatrist predicted that little kids, especially girls, would be the only people the paranoid-schizophrenic brain would not view as a threat. This is true for Mike, making me think that Boo Radley of To Kill a Mockingbird was schizophrenic. In fact, I once titled a painful memo to my fellow elders “I am Boo Radley’s father.”
Music also evolved into a critically important tool. Mike, a gifted orchestrator, has recorded over three hundred albums of music during the past four years. The early ones express his pain, screamed through a heavy metal sound. Hard to listen to, the lyrics reveal the mind of a mentally ill family member. Many families who seek to understand have listened to his music.
(Note: these “screamer” albums have also received airplay in Russia, where a few stations picked up Mike Braudrick as “a dark-metal genius.”)
Mostly instrumental, his later albums reveal beauty and sometimes his brilliance. Mike felt especially gratified when a few local moviemakers used his pieces for scenes and when the Southland Athletic Conference played his tunes for “bumper” music on ESPN broadcasts.
One of the most important shifts came about three years into our journey. My sweetheart and I figured out we felt inappropriately grumpy with Mike sometimes because we had little opportunity to decompress together, away from his continuous needs. A man in our church, who has dealt with mental illness in his own family, formed “Mike’s guys.” He recruited three other men from the small circle of people with whom Mike feels very comfortable.
On rotation, they come over every Tuesday night to talk and play games with him, giving Michael needed interaction. My wife and I go eat, see a movie, double-date with the other kids, or read a book aloud together in the park. It is life-giving.
All the Difference
About four years in, Michael’s obsession struggles swelled. Four or more times a week, he would latch onto a game he had to have immediately. Amazing and lifesaving, he corrals the obsessive aspect of his illness, turning his focus away from destructive things (like self-harm) to video games instead. Nonetheless, it grew exhausting. Systems and games purchased and then sold at huge loss churned emotions and pocketbook alike. The situation developed into something so marked that our concern about our ability to keep him safe grew.
Frightened, Mike asked to go to a facility. A precious few still exist in this age with the “Cuckoo’s Nest” overreaction of the twentieth century having shuttered most state facilities. (For more information, see the Wall Street Journal essay “The Case to Bring Back the Asylum” from May 18, 2018.) We did find one not too far away that specializes in schizophrenia.
Managed caringly, the residents were all severely low-functioning. Michael’s crisis times seemed more severe than most of them, but his chronic state proved more normal. Nonetheless, he demanded we move him there. On Easter week, of course, the most stressful week of the year for a teaching pastor whose church holds special services, we moved him there. And this fell immediately after the completion of a successful but exhausting capital campaign!
It was a total disaster. Four hours in, Mike realized this was a horrible fit and he would feel safer at home. In tears of frustration, we bundled all the stuff we had settled into his room back to the cars. We brought him home nearly at wit’s end. Nonetheless, the message of the Resurrection did not stay completely lost on us. In our fear, in the face of losing our son, the power of eternal life truly made all the difference.
The blessing of our church helped as well. I have never known the particulars of my salary, only that it is more than adequate. Yet in light of the need for help, our elders dramatically raised it, doing so by faith during a year of church financial tightness. They instructed we use the largess to hire an in-home caregiver for a few days a week.
None of the services we researched had people that fit perfectly, but the three-day-a-week respite for us felt incredible. After a few weeks, I spoke to Dr. George Hillman’s class at DTS. At the end, George said, “Wayne, tell them a bit about your son.” I did so, and two wonderful doctoral students contacted me, desiring to care for Mike. We chose one, and he spent most of the next year bonding with and blessing Mike. We even left them for a full week in order to teach in Russia—our first journey away since the horrible phone call in England.
Strong and Courageous
Now, Mike is so strong that he doesn’t need a caregiver. We leave him alone during the daytime three days per week. Every day is still hard, and some are wretched. Nonetheless, he continues to succeed. We all notice more and more the positive changes in our souls God has wrought through this scenario. Most significant, Mike recently formed a nonprofit foundation to help others in his situation.
The Fundamental Arts Foundation builds on Mike’s experience with music, reasoning that artistic creation is a main tool God has employed to keep him alive. With our help, Michael established a board of wonderful people, the chair of which is a DTS grad. The IRS approved the 501(c)3 designation in less than a month, and the first supporters have given. The foundation exists to help the adult mentally disabled in two ways:
- Give them a voice. The mentally disabled understandably feel marginalized and hidden. By placing their music or fine art on the Foundation website, Mike hopes to grant them presence in line with their import to the Lord.
- Give them materials. Many of the mentally disabled don’t have the resources Mike enjoys. Art supplies are costly. Even in the age of computerized orchestration, recording equipment can prove expensive.
“Of course,” the psychiatrist has reminded us more than once, “those who make it to thirty years old face a completely flipped situation. Seventy percent of them end up living
semi-independently—many of them married.” There is no guarantee Mike, now twenty-five years old, will see thirty. God doesn’t promise he will live in the positive majority if he does survive.
Yet the Lord does promise to stay with us always, and that is enough.
For more information on the Fundamental Arts Foundation or to suggest an artist, please go to fundamentalartsfoundation.com or write to email@example.com. To listen to Mike’s music, visit Band Camp at mikebraudrick.bandcamp.com.