Remembering Timmy – early signs of schizophrenia

Four years ago today my little brother took his own life, at the age of 23. We knew he was depressed and anxious for several years. These things run in the family quite pervasively so it didn’t seem that unusual or dire of a situation. He had gotten counseling, therapy, and psychiatric help, though he was never satisfied with the treatments that he tried.

We had no clues to how seriously ill he was until 6 or 7 months before his death, and it took a few months after that for it truly sink in. He was finally diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder (kind of a combo of schizophrenia and a mood disorder) a few months later. After various attempts at rehab, stays at jail and a few different mental hospitals, and two earlier unsuccessful suicide attempts, he ended his own pain and fear and madness on 6/11/11.

By the time he was 20 I think it should have been obvious that something more serious was going on. He was ‘farting around’ with school, despite being extremely intelligent. He was taking dead-end job after dead-end job, and getting fired. He became obsessed with becoming a poker dealer and talked somebody into paying for him to go to poker dealer school, and moved away temporarily to work at a casino. He developed a major gambling problem and ended up filing for bankruptcy. He started doing drugs, which he had actually never even experimented with as a teenager. He would buy or get gifted cool things, and then a couple weeks later he’d be selling everything. He was clearly a train wreck. I feel like I just thought he was Timmy being Timmy, and did not take these issues seriously, until it was too late.

Maybe we could have helped him. There are so many things I would do differently now. But the biggest, most important one is this: if only we had known the early warning signs of this kind of illness. If we had recognized some of these signs at age 16, 18, even 20 when he was doing things that just made us shake our heads and ask, “What are you thinking? What are you doing?” It wasn’t until he was basically in constant torment from the voices in his head that he admitted them to us. That was the first time I realized, “Wow, this kid is really mentally ill.” Duh. Early treatment is a huge part of successful schizo-affective or schizophrenia treatment. But you can’t treat what you don’t know about!

For a full list of early symptoms (often starting as early as 15 in males), see this article: http://schizophrenia.com/earlysigns.htm
I will comment on some of them below.

Please remember that only a qualified psychologist, psychiatrist (or in some areas a social worker) can properly diagnose schizophrenia, or any other brain disorder. A psychologist or psychiatrist will use the clinical history of the person, as well as the symptoms and criteria in the DSM-IV (in the United States) to make a diagnosis.

Examples of Physical Symptoms—-

–A blank, vacant facial expression. An inability to smile or express emotion through the face is so characteristic of the disease that it was given the name of affective flattening or a blunt affect.

Timmy definitely did smile, but I can easily picture his vacant expression also, thinking back. I attributed this to depression.
Other than that, the physical symptoms don’t jump out as applicable to me.

Examples of Feelings/Emotions—-

–The inability to experience joy or pleasure from activities (called anhedonia)
–Sometimes feeling nothing at all
–Appearing desireless- seeking nothing, wanting nothing
–Feeling indifferent to important events

All of the above definitely applied to Timmy at different times. Again, he was never able to satisfactorily treat his depression, which is what I assumed all of these were tied to.

Examples of Mood—-

–Depression- feeling discouraged and hopeless about the future
–Low motivation, energy, and little or no enthusiasm
–Suicidal thoughts or suicidal ideation
–Severe Anxiety

Timmy definitely had depression and severe anxiety. The suicidal thoughts didn’t come about until the very end, as far as I know.

Changes in Behavior associated with schizophrenia —-

–Dropping out of activities and life in general
–Lack of goal-directed behavior. Not being able to engage in purposeful activity
–Deterioration of academic or job-related performance

Timmy was extremely bright, but had a really hard time completing a semester of school or staying in a job for any length of time. He got fired from many jobs, for really dumb reasons, or for not showing up.

–Inability to form or keep relationships
–Social isolation- few close friends if any. Little interaction outside of immediate family.
–Increased withdrawal, spending most of the days alone.
–Functional impairment in interpersonal relationships, work, education, or self-care

He definitely had some friends, but over the last few years of his life became more and more isolated. I attributed this to his depression, anxiety, and drug use.

–Neglect in self-care- i.e. hygiene, clothing, or appearance

Timmy was never super concerned with appearances, but this didn’t really become a noticeable issue until the last several months.

–Drug or alcohol abuse
–Smoke or have the desire to want to smoke (70-90% do smoke) – note: this is a very normal behavior for people who do not have schizophrenia also!

Yep. Looking back, when he started doing drugs I think it was to try to mask the symptoms he was starting to notice.

Examples of Cognitive Problems Associated with Schizophrenia —-

–Ruminating thoughts- these are the same thoughts that go around and round your head but get you nowhere. Often about past disappointments, missed opportunities, failed relationships.
–Obsessive compulsive tendencies- with thoughts or actions

Timmy definitely had this going on for awhile. As a teenager he was constantly overly focused on ways to ‘get rich quick’. This changed over to a focus on atheism, and then a focus on finding the exact right drugs to ‘fix’ himself. He actually did a ton of study and research on mental illness, various medications, and drugs, and tried most of them.

–Lack of insight (called anosognosia). Those who are developing schizophrenia are unaware that they are becoming sick. The part of their brain that should recognize that something is wrong is damaged by the disease.

This is why it is so important for friends and family members to be knowledgeable and pay attention!

–Trouble with social cues- i.e. not being able to interpret body language, eye contact, voice tone, and gestures appropriately. –Often not responding appropriately and thus coming off as cold, distant, or detached.
–Difficulty expressing thoughts verbally. Or not having much to say about anything.
–Speaking in an abstract or tangential way. Odd use of words or language structure

I noticed some of these things, but since there are plenty of odd ducks in our family it didn’t stand out too much.

Examples of Delusions—-

The most common type of delusion or false beliefs are paranoid delusions. These are persecutory in nature and take many forms:

–Overpowering, intense feeling that people are talking about you, looking at you
–Overpowering, intense feeling you are being watched, followed, and spied on (tracking devices, implants, hidden cameras)
–Thinking that someone is trying to poison your food
–Thinking people are working together to harass you
–Thinking that something is controlling you- i.e. an electronic implant
–Thinking that people can read your mind/ or control your thoughts
–Thinking that your thoughts are being broadcast over the radio or tv
–Delusions of reference- thinking that random events convey a special meaning to you. An example is that a newspaper headline or a license plate has a hidden meaning for you to figure out. That they are signs trying to tell you something.
–Religious delusions- that you are Jesus, God, a prophet, or the antichrist.
–Delusions of grandeur- the belief that you have an important mission, special purpose, or are an unrecognized genius, or famous person.
–Delusions that someone, often a famous person, is in love with you when in reality they aren’t. Also called erotomania or de Clerembault syndrome.

Examples of Hallucinations—-

–Hallucinations are as real as any other experience to the person with schizophrenia. As many as 70% hear voices, while a lesser number have visual hallucinations.
–Auditory hallucinations can be either inside the person’s head or externally. When external, they sound as real as an actual voice. Sometimes they come from no apparent source, other times they come from real people who don’t actually say anything, other times a person will hallucinate sounds.
–When people hear voices inside their heads, it is as if their inner thoughts are no longer alone. The new voices can talk to each other, talk to themselves, or comment on the person’s actions. The majority of the time the voices are negative.
–Visual hallucinations operate on a spectrum. They start with the overacuteness of the senses, then in the middle are illusions, and on the far end are actual hallucinations.

These symptoms are kind of smacks in the head with a 2×4 once you know about them. Unfortunately, I have no idea when this started for Timmy, as he didn’t feel comfortable telling me about them until it had gotten very, very bad. He was tormented night and day with some truly horrible voices and accusations in his head all the time. In November of 2010 when he got arrested for screaming and ranting on the side of the road (trying to exorcise them, he said) and while in jail he beat his head against the wall hard enough to fracture his skull and require brain surgery – again, trying to get the voices out of his head – That’s when he told us about the voices. I am sure that he had started experiencing minor instances of delusions and hallucinations way before it got to that point! People need to feel safe talking to those they love when they first start to experience some of these symptoms.

Please refer to the full list of symptoms if there is someone in your life that you are worried about. The classic trajectory for young men getting schizophrenia is: depressed and withdrawn as a teen, start doing drugs, going to jail, etc., ‘become’ schizophrenic, parents blame the drugs. Obviously there are tons of drug addicts and criminals who are not schizophrenic, but please, please keep your eyes open, keep the dialogue open with the person in question, and do your research!

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What Ben thinks of me

Again, I saw this prompt on Facebook. I interviewed Ben and Kevan the same night so neither had seen each others’ answers ahead of time. Never interviewed William because he wasn’t home at the time.

WITHOUT ANY prompting, ask your child these questions and write down EXACTLY what they say. It is a great way to find out what they really think. When you re-post put your Child’s age
Ben, 16
1. What is something mom always says to you? She calls me a fart knocker, and it’s really embarrassing if other people are here.
I totally do not remember saying this, much less ‘always’ saying it. Guess I’ll have to pay more attention…
2. What makes mom happy? Um, not being late for school
3. What makes mom sad? Being late for school.
4. How does your mom do that makes you laugh? Nothing, just kidding. Um, What are you typing? Um. She tells me funny stuff about my dad.
5. What was your mom like as a child? A rebel. Druggy.
Clearly my kids have terrible views of me as a child. I am pretty sure I was not a druggy as a *child* kids!!! Sheesh!
6. How old is your mom? 39
7. How tall is your mom? 5’9”
Nope, just 5’8″.
8. What is her favorite thing to do? Work. Crochet. And write.
9. What does your mom do when you’re not around? How would I know. Um, probably works.
10. If your mom becomes famous, what will it be for? Writing. Or an amazing Smath curriculum.
11. What is your mom really good at? Writing and her job.
12. What is your mom not very good at? Avoiding arguments.
Nobody in this household is good at that, lol!
13. What does your mom do for a job? Instructionally design.
14. What is your mom’s favorite food? chocolates
15. What makes you proud of your mom? Her being a workaholic. And her amazing burping skills. And being able to become a great person after her druggy years.
In my defense, my ‘druggy years’ ended before I was 19!
16. If your mom were a character, who would she be? Cersei Lanister. Just kidding. Um. Hm. You would be I would say Catelyn Stark but I gotta move to something else, that’s too obvious. How about the character in your story, the girl, Aine.
17. What do you and your mom do together? Go to school. Get driven to school. Um, eat. Used to do lots of homeschooling stuff.
18. How are you and your mom the same? Muy inteligente.
19. How are you and your mom different? Um, she’s a bit loco. Just kidding. Hm, She liked more of the literature stuff when she was younger and I like more of the smathy stuff.
20. How do you know your mom loves you? Um, giving me rides everywhere. And always comforting me whenever I storm off.
21. What does your mom like most about your dad? Does she like anything? Um, his quirkiness. His amazing children. For real though, uh, when he’s in his good moods he’s the awesomest guy ever.
22. Where is your mom’s favorite place to go? Hawaii.

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What Kevan thinks of me

WITHOUT ANY prompting, ask your child these questions and write down EXACTLY what they say. It is a great way to find out what they really think. When you re-post put your child’s age.

Kevan, 20
1. What is something mom always says to you? Were you born in a barn?
2. What makes mom happy? Food?
3. What makes mom sad? Dirty house
4. How does your mom do that makes you laugh? Uh… that weird dorky dance you do when you want us to go somewhere or do something.
5. What was your mom like as a child? Um, should we call grandpa Roger? She was a problem child.
Ok, I was thinking more like *childhood* here… I wasn’t a problem child, I was a problem teenager! lol
6. How old is your mom? 39
7. How tall is your mom? Short. 5’8”?
8. What is her favorite thing to do? Buy Apple products.
9. What does your mom do when you’re not around? How am I supposed to know. Work?
10. If your mom becomes famous, what will it be for? Writing.
11. What is your mom really good at? Work? Curriculum designing.
12. What is your mom not very good at? Hm. Training poodles.
13. What does your mom do for a job? Design curriculum.
14. What is your mom’s favorite food? Dark chocolate.
15. What makes you proud of your mom? Uh, she made me. Obviously.
16. If your mom were a character, who would she be? Roseanne.
Rosanne!?!?!? Seriously?!?!?! When questioned further he said it was because she is sarcastic and it was the first thing he thought of. Hmph.
17. What do you and your mom do together? Watch TV.
18. How are you and your mom the same? We read a lot.
19. How are you and your mom different? Hm… I like different music.
20. How do you know your mom loves you? She got me awesome poodles.
21. What does your mom like most about your dad? Uh, his personality. Either that or his cooking.
22. Where is your mom’s favorite place to go? Roadhouse grill? Grandpa’s house? Home.

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Writing is hard

I’m really, really trying to write a blog post once a week. I am failing. But at least I’ve done a few. The thing is, it is really easy for me to write certain things. I can explain things pretty well. I can write some darn good math content at this point. But writing things that are just entertaining/interesting/nobody is being FORCED to read? That is a bit more pressure!!

Today on a Facebook writers group I joined, someone mentioned that they blog every single day – movie reviews, book reviews, whatever. That was a bit awe inspiring. I get stuck between wanting to get a bunch of stuff written and out there so that eventually something will be interesting and someone will want to read it vs. writing very few things that are very interesting so I don’t scare away the 3 followers I have.

So I do neither. Ha!

I’m not sure if I will ever finish my novel. I am pretty sure I *will* finish some educational writing I’m working on, and some that I just have planned. Someday I might write something about my completely totally screwed up family (not the part of my family that I live with, they’re all very awesome…) although really I hope one of my aunts or cousins does that (maybe one from each side of the family, since both sides are nearly equally interesting). Maybe I’ll even write something memoir-ish at some point about my experiences with losing various family members in various terrible ways, some permanent and some not necessarily permanent.

Until I have something ready to send to a publisher though, I have no audience, so my blog has no audience. This is terribly frustrating. That’s why I keep talking about it lol. So instead of writing, I complain about how I don’t know what to write. Now this is exciting content!!

Ok, this is me convincing myself to write, even if I don’t want to. I am going to aim to write something every day or two or three, with permission for myself to bore my 3 followers to death if necessary. Sorry guys!

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It works for me – Yogi Kava Stress Relief tea

Since I am way too distracted to work on any writing at the moment, and haven’t for various reasons for weeks (bronchitis, busy-ness, and just plain laziness), I had to at least think of something to say here.

Since I’m not an expert at anything (except, arguably, teaching math and curriculum design), I don’t claim to be right about anything. But, I can tell you what works for me. So without further ado, here’s the first thing that works for me, at the moment.

Yogi Kava Stress Relief tea

This is 100% just my own opinion and nobody paid me or gave me anything free for saying it.

This tea is the absolute best. It seriously takes any anxiety or stress I am experiencing down a huge notch. I am not a ‘natural remedies only’ type person, and am definitely not against ‘real’ medication. I’ve never had positive results from chamomile, or valerian, or any other type of ‘calming’ herbs. But this tea really seems to have an effect, and I love it.

They sell it at Target, but I’ve found the cheapest place to buy it is online; depending on what coupons they’ve sent me, I’ve used drugstore.com, thevitaminshoppe.com, or most recently luckyvitamin.com.

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What do I write?

At a recent writers conference, the first question people asked when meeting for the first time was, “What do you write?”

This was a weird question to answer. I was there because I was writing a book and thought I was almost finished with it. It’s pretty much a fantasy book, but whenever I answered, ‘Fantasy,’ it just didn’t feel right. I don’t even consider myself a fan of fantasy, which is kind of ridiculous because my very favorite authors are George R.R. Martin and Anne Rice, both fantasy writers and I have spent many hours playing fantasy roleplaying games.

I have written a lot in my life, many short stories, poems, essays, blog posts, journal entries, emails, letters, etc. Not to mention a lot of curriculum – lesson plans, workbooks, tests, online lessons, etc. One time I wrote most of a fantasy book, too. Does that make me a fantasy writer?

So, my blog is supposed to draw the audience that will want to read my book. I have no idea who will want to read my book.

My blog is supposed to reflect my area of expertise. But my areas of expertise, assuming I have them, have nothing to do with my book. I think I have some areas of expertise, or at least experience: education, math instruction, science instruction, online teaching and learning, homeschooling, curriculum, parenting, mental illness, recovery… I have lots of areas of interest as well – piano, music, reading, politics, religion and spirituality, female empowerment in third world countries, gardening, poodles, crocheting, simple healthy eating (as in healthy but lazy eating), lifting weights (may be a temporary interest…), the list goes on.

None of which have any connection whatsoever to the story I may tell one day. I am supposed to keep writing no matter what, even when nobody is paying attention. So that’s what I’m going to do. I figure if I keep writing long enough, somebody will find something interesting in it, and may want to hear more. And if not, at least I tried! There’s no telling what I will write about, but it will be something.

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[Failing at] Meeting with an agent at a writer’s conference

[chart by Susan J. Morris at http://www.susanjmorris.com/]

I did *some* research before I went to the TMCC writer’s conference last weekend.

I thought I was fairly prepared for the experience. I had read through the little paragraph summaries of each person you could meet with, picked the one that seemed to most fit with my project, and  signed up for a $35 10-minute meeting with an agent.

I read that I should bring a few copies of my synopsis of my book; that I should print out chapters 1-3 in case someone asked for it; that I should have a query letter ready. I did the first two of those ahead of time, and wrote out a query letter during the conference as one of the speakers guided us through the process.

The meeting was almost completely unhelpful. Here’s what I did wrong (and hopefully can help someone else to do right!)

  • I didn’t research the agent very well. Yes, I did read the paragraph blurbs on the conference website but AFTER I had paid the $35, I went to his agency’s website and read more about him. Turns out he doesn’t like fantasy, which is my genre. Oops! That’s ok, I thought. I’ll just find out from him what I should do *next time* I meet with an agent. There was another agent there I wish I had met with instead.
  • I had no idea what sub-genre my book was. My query letter called it ‘fantasy’, but apparently that was not nearly specific enough. We wasted like 4 of the 10 minutes with him listing off sub-genres of fantasy without describing what any of them actually are and asking me if my book fit into any of them. Since I didn’t know what any of them were, I had no idea.  Turns out it’s a ‘portal fantasy’, which I dismissed immediately when he said it because it sounds silly. It also is not on any of the ‘Fantasy sub-genre’ images I found. Did my research after the fact to find out what all the subgenres were.
  • My book was way too short. I had read on some website somewhere that 40,000-65,000 was a good word count for a young adult book. That may be true, but apparently young adult *fantasy* is running about 100,000 words these days. Whatever!
  • I only had time to ask 1 question, which was, “How’s this query letter, and what should I change?” Did not get an answer.

So there you have it. It was a totally lame experience. The conference itself gave me all kinds of good tips though, and I am really looking forward to the local one here in September!

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What’s with the J.T.?

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All of my many fans are clamoring to know, “Sarah, what is with the J.T. in your name?”
If you are observant you may have noticed that a couple of years ago I added the J. middle initial to my name on Facebook, and then just this week I changed it to J.T.

Well, there’s a few important reasons for that!

  1.  George R.R. Martin – need I say more? Two middle initials are just cool.
  2. Sarah Bruce was too generic, and the domain was taken. So I switched to Sarah J. Bruce for my writing name a couple years ago. J is for Jo-Nell, my middle name. I was named after my maternal grandmother, a prolific writer who never got around to publishing any of her stories, but she had some amazing ones and she entertained us all with them. Her  dad, Lyman Gentry Barrett, was a reporter and newspaper editor.
  3. Though I nabbed the domain a couple years ago, SarahJBruce was not available for gmail or twitter. So I added the T – for Thoman, my maiden name. After not-that-much discussion with Will when we were engaged, I went along with giving up my maiden name and going with his. But there are a number of amazing Thomans that I am proud to be related to:
    • Roger Thoman, my dad; a missionary and minister, and writer, and all around great guy
    • Evelyn B. Thoman, my dad’s mom; a published author of books and articles in peer-reviewed journals in her field of Psychology; also a former professor at University of Connecticut and Stanford University (among others)
    • My aunts and uncles:
      • Lila Thoman Nissen, former VP at Houghton Mifflin, with her name in probably more math textbooks than can be counted
      • Lynda Thoman, who appears to be completely missing from the internet but is a professor of economics at Purdue
      • Kim Thoman, artist extraordinaire and retired art teacher
      • Marta Thoma(n) Hall – an artist, author of an art textbook, and President of Velodyne
      • Eric Thoman, retired lawyer and current business owner running a charter boat in Alaska during the summer
    • My great-uncle, Richard S. Thoman, retired geography professor and author of geography textbooks. When I was at Cal Poly, my geography teacher actually recognized my last name and informed me there was a famous geographer by that name. He was talking about “Uncle Dick”.

So there you have it. The origin story for Sarah J.T. Bruce. Someday, someone somewhere will care! 🙂

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They told me to build a platform

Apparently writing a book is the easy part. I thought I was almost done writing my novel (more on that another day), so I went to a writer’s conference this weekend with my good friend to find out more about what to do next.

Turns out, writing a book is not the hard part. I am also supposed to be writing tons of other things and sending them off to various places to be published, somehow enticing lots of fans without having given them anything to be a fan of yet, and also getting my novel ready to send off to be rejected 9,000 times.

Without having writing published in various other places and  thousands of fans waiting with bated breath for my story to come out, agents and publishers are apparently not interested.

In case you’re interested and missed the memo, I took notes on Brooke Warner’s (of SheWrites Press and Warner Coaching) conference talk about what a platform is.

Publishers and agents want you to come in with readers, and to act as a business partner. Here are some of the components of your platform:

  • Social media is not a platform, but it is a component. Pick one or two social media outlets and do them well. Build followers.
  • You need to have your own website.
  • Your expertise – why should people listen to you?
  • Connections you have and people you know
  • Articles, blog posts, ebooks, etc. that you have published somewhere

The goal is to ‘figure out who your readers are and draw them in.’ All of the above information should be included in your contacts with a publisher or agent, apparently.

Brooke also said that blogging is an important part of building your platform. Keep talking even when nobody is listening, and eventually someone might come along. Hence the photo of the empty theater (The Opera Theatre de Metz, in France).

Of course, I couldn’t find any tips on *what* exactly to blog about, since my area of expertise and my novel topic are not exactly the same! So bear with me while I figure it out by blogging about everything.

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