Miriam Feldman’s memoir, He Came in With It, was published to great acclaim right in the middle of the pandemic, precluding any in-person book events. We are excited to announce that she is returning to the neighborhood to discuss mental health and parenting in a way that will resonate for everyone. Chevalier’s Books, Peake Ranch Winery and The Larchmont Buzz are sponsoring The Zen of Schizophrenia, an evening of important talk, wine reception and book signing at The Wilshire Ebell, on Monday February 6, 2023, 7 pm.
In anticipation of the event we are republishing the following article Feldman wrote exclusively for the Larchmont Buzz prior to the book’s 2020 publication.
Miriam Feldman is a former Windsor Square resident. Her memoir, He Came in With It, was published on July 21, 2020 by Turner Publishing. The book is available from Chevalier’s Books and other national booksellers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Chevalier’s Books launched the book virtually with an online conversation with Miriam and Janet Fitch, LA based author of the #1 national bestseller, “White Oleander,” an Oprah Bookclub selection and the basis of a feature film, “Paint it Black.” Janet is a childhood friend of Miriam’s. Click here to watch the recording of the conversation. Feldman shared this essay with the Buzz prior to the publication of her book.
I imagine that I am about as much of a hometown girl as you’ll find in Larchmont Village. I went to Wilshire Crest, John Burroughs, and Fairfax High. I raised my own family on Ridgewood Place for seven years and then Norton for twenty. I’ve always said that it was like living in a small town in the middle of a big city. Everybody knew each other, looked out for each other, it was a great life. Moving to my venerable craftsman home on Norton had been a dream come true. I’d walked that street on Halloween with my kids for years and always thought “if only I lived here, I’d never ask for anything else.” There is something magic about that street. Truly, every time I walked up the aggregate steps toward our solid oak front door, I was conscious of my good fortune. And grateful.
I mention the door because while it is, of course, a portal, a door can be many things. It can also be a barrier, a bulwark. When closed, it obscures the contents inside, allowing only the façade to inform passersby. If one stood on the sidewalk in front of my house the year my son turned sixteen, everything would have looked fine. The trees my husband planted had grown in well, we had an SUV in the driveway, skateboards on the porch. But behind solid oak something was going terribly wrong.
I mean, we all had the usual problems with our kids. The smaller ones still rode their bikes and ran around, but the older ones were beginning to run a little wilder. We moms kept our eyes peeled and didn’t hesitate to drop a dime on someone else’s kid if we saw something suspect. Our intelligence collecting rivaled Interpol, so for a while I figured all was well.
The thing is this: if you make the list of serious red-flags for mental illness and you make the list of normal teenage behavior, you have virtually the same list.
They all act nuts. They are all unpredictable, mercurial, secretive. How in the world was I supposed to know my son was developing serious mental illness? He was a straight A student for god’s sake. He had a lovely girlfriend, a million buddies, he was gregarious, funny and, excuse the expression, crazy talented. He was a painter, had been accepted into prestigious and choice art programs. I thought I could see the future penned neatly against a blue, blue sky.
Motherhood, in any circumstance, holds so much mystery and requires such trust. I remember thinking: is there really a baby in my belly? Then: will this baby continue to breathe through the night? Is everything okay inside his body, the things I can’t see? Will cars avoid hitting him and will he avoid dangerous strangers? Who will he be when he’s grown? How will I ever protect him?
We are able to move forward by trusting in the good. But sometimes, we are blindsided. I spent so much time worrying about accidents, abductions and cancer I didn’t see the red arrow aimed straight at my son’s head.
For years, even as the nascent fact of Nick’s mental illness became impossible to ignore, I tried to hide it. There was an unfolding, to be certain. At first, we thought we were dealing with drug issues, then anxiety, then depression…you see, the path to a diagnosis is like a snake, moving all the time. I had never spent much time thinking about mental illness, but when it arrived at my door, I felt a swell of a shame I didn’t understand. This was an illness, after all. Would I feel embarrassed if my son had diabetes? I’m well-read, college educated person, and yet the current of shame attached to mental illness ran right from the culture into my body.
I felt like I was the only one in the world dealing with this. No one talked about it. I remember sitting on my couch looking out my front window, its hundred-year-old glass making everything look soft and slightly wavy and feeling as though my beloved home had become an island. Outside, everyone else had clean, normal lives. Behind my now perpetually closed front door lived a dark, dirty secret. And it was tearing up the whole family.
I began to educate myself. I opened up to a few friends. I was directed to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and took a twelve-week educational course. This was the single most important thing I did, it changed everything. Armed with information about the intricacies of the illnesses, medication and the abysmal condition of the mental health system, I finally had some tools to work with. They taught us about the stigma attached to mental illness and how detrimental it is to those needing treatment and their families. By then, my life had become such a three-ring circus (I still had to run my business, raise my other kids, be a wife/mother/friend/artist) that the idea of stigma just wasn’t practical. I didn’t have time to try and make everything look shiny and nice. Rome was burning and there was no way to hide it. I just decided to let go of stigma and get down to the business of fire extinguishing.
When he was about eighteen, the doctors settled on “bipolar” and tried various medications. Sometimes he took them, sometimes he didn’t. The doctor assured me that with the right medication he would be able to live a good life. I went on the computer and googled all the famous people with bipolar and was heartened.
But it didn’t end there. Things got better, things got worse, our lives were at the mercy of this elusive diagnosis and the constant tumult it brought. Every time the phone rang my heart lurched, I slept like a fireman, I sat on the edge of my seat at all times. After about two years of this Nick was finally diagnosed with schizophrenia. The worst one. The one at the far end of the spectrum. The doctors stopped talking about the “good life” he could still lead.
Schizophrenia. Talk about a mystery. The scientists don’t even understand it. The impossible structure of the mental health system makes inpatient treatment unattainable to most. In so many cases Mom is the default system, left to somehow fathom, mitigate and protect her sick child. I do believe that the once real, now metaphoric, umbilical cord helped. It bound me to him, a channel for information, compassion. But how like an astronaut tethered in space I was: floating, turning, snapping back if I drifted too far away. I couldn’t really get inside. I could only read his face, his small movements, the made-up words, to try and be in his world. It remained that way for many years.
I didn’t write this article to break everybody’s heart, I promise. So, I am going to jump to the present time, and then tell you why I did write it.
Nick is 34 now. He still has schizophrenia, that is not going to change. We sold our dear house on Norton and moved up to five glorious acres in rural Washington where my husband built us a house. Nick lives in the town nearby in a supported apartment community. He has wonderful caregivers who come twice a day to give him his meds, cook for him, keep him company. He doesn’t really have friends, but he has his parents and he has three sisters who adore him. He recently started painting again. This is certainly not the life I saw written in the blue sky when he was a boy, but I’ve learned a lot since then. I’ve learned that there are some things I just can’t fix. I’ve learned that there are a lot of definitions of a “good” life, the same way there are many iterations of “normal.” There is space in this world for all of us. I’ve learned to be an advocate and an activist in the fight for mental health reform. That’s my job now.
Recently, on a podcast, I was asked what I was most proud of. The implication being that I had done this amazing thing by never giving up on my son with schizophrenia. Well, I have a couple of thoughts about that. The first being that the very least you can do as a mother is be a good one, that’s the baseline as far as I’m concerned. The second is that the pride I feel has nothing to do with me and everything to do with Nick. Schizophrenia is arguably one of, if not the worst, of the mental illnesses. It manifests so often with ugliness, horror, monstrous behavior. It can devour a person and leave them unrecognizable. My boy is a human being of such intrinsic goodness, with such capacity for love and art, that even schizophrenia couldn’t touch it. It was no match for his goodness. That is what I am proud of.
Okay, I promised I would tell you why I wrote this essay. I tell our story because I believe that in the telling we break free from the prison of stigma and fear. Sitting on my couch on Norton so many years ago, I felt a loneliness I had never imagined in my life. If just one person had been around to say, “Oh, I get it, this is what happened to me…” my world would have changed in an instant. It would have been like a blood transfusion.
According to NAMI, one in five Americans experience mental illness each year. That means that virtually every single one of us has some connection to this experience. I am asking you to talk about it. I’m asking you to tell your stories. The tradition of storytelling is as old as language, as art. Stories connect the past to the present and can change the future. You don’t have to get on television and do it, but let’s stop hiding! Each time you tell your story, and someone bears witness, there is the potential for healing and change. I intend to change the way the world views mental illness and I’ve started by telling my own story. Please join me.