Growing Up Afraid Of My Uncle’s Mental Illness
I thought he was a monster. Then I learned the truth.
I hated my mom’s brother growing up. He was my adolescent definition of a bum: an unemployed adult still living at home, murmuring under his breath. On visits to my grandparents’ house, he’d storm into the living room and turn off Nickelodeon. TV can’t be trusted, he’d say. What a monster, I thought.
Other times he’d eye me suspiciously and call me an evil brat. But I wasn’t. I was a shy 9-year-old who kept to myself, reading Archie comics and making art projects modeled after what I saw on “Zoom.” So why was he was always so angry at me?
Eventually, I stopped going to my grandparents’ for summer break because he was mean and unpredictable. I sat as far away from him as possible at family gatherings, afraid he’d detonate and I’d be collateral damage.
I finally asked my mom what his problem was.
“He’s sick,” she said.
“Sick with what?”
She turned her back and dodged the question.
“Well, he doesn’t look sick to me,” I snapped.
I was deeply hurt. She was supposed to have my back. Why was my mom making excuses for a man who treated her daughter horribly?
When I was 13-years-old, I finally learned the truth. My mom explained that when my uncle was in college, someone drugged him at a party—whatever that drug was triggered the gene that carries schizophrenia. Since that night, he’s suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, a mental illness that warps reality and makes him believe others are secretly plotting against him. He hears voices and sees hallucinations, which makes it hard for him to be in large groups.
My family remembers a different side to my uncle: a practical jokester and a 6'10"-tall basketball player offered contracts from NBA teams when he was still in high school. The whole town of Newport News, Virginia knew him fondly.
I never got to know this version of my uncle, but sometimes I see glimpses. When he’s having a good day or when his medication is working, he’ll ask what the weather’s like in Chicago and offer to send me warmer pants. But there’s also bad days—really bad days—like the time he drove my grandpa’s Lincoln Town Car to get groceries and ended up at the hospital instead.
Now he lives in an assisted-living home, where each meal is chosen for him, where he sits in a room listening to old records. 800 miles away, I freely walk the city and look to the future, wishing I could go back and gently tell 9-year-old me that my uncle is a man who’s both alone and never alone at the same time, and that doesn’t make him a monster.