“We needed help ourselves to deal with this because we felt like it was our fault.”
Age: Brandon, 44; Shari: 71
Founders of the Staglin Family Vineyard and IMHRO/One Mind Institute
Currently living in Rutherford, CA
The Staglin family is a recipient of the 2016 SAMHSA Voice Awards. When Shari and Garen Staglin’s son, Brandon was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1990, they realized that advancements in scientific research were vital to understanding mental illness. Rather than wait for a miracle, they started a non-profit organization to raise funds for mental health research. With treatment and family support, Brandon was able to recover and since 1995 the Staglin family has been “changing the landscape from the Napa Valley to Washington, D.C. with sensational fundraisers on behalf of national mental health research.” (LuxLife, November/December 2008)
This year, the theme of the Voice Awards was "Strengthening Families Through Hope and Help." In celebration, SoberRecovery will be releasing an exclusive interview with each of the winners every Friday for six weeks.
Below is our interview with Brandon and Shari.
At what point did you first get diagnosed?
BRANDON: So it was in 1990. I just finished my freshman year in Dartmouth College, and I was back at my parents’ home for the summer in LaFayette, CA. I had just recently broken up with my first serious girlfriend in college and was thinking a lot about what that meant about my worth as a human being. I was also trying to find my first summer job at the time, and was unsuccessful at that for several weeks when I thought it would be easier. So all the stress of thinking about those things kind of compounded in my head for a while. My parents happened to be away on a trip in France—which they had planned before things started to develop this way for me—and the stress compounded and I had a psychotic break while trying to fall asleep one night in 1990. Should I describe that?
Before you do that, did you experience any previous symptoms that gave any indication there might be something developing in your mental health?
BRANDON: Yes, so four years before, when I was 14, I had sort of a mini-psychotic episode revolving around my grandfather who had leukemia and we knew wouldn’t live much longer at that time. One night as I was trying to fall asleep, I was thinking about him and thinking, “What does it mean to die? What is consciousness?” Thinking these really deep, strange thoughts. I opened my eyes five minutes later, and I couldn’t recognize reality as reality. I thought, “Is this a dream?” It was really scary. And so I went to my parent’s room and knocked on their door. They let me in and they talked to me for a while until I calmed down and I was able to go back to bed. The next morning I felt fine, but after that I was scared that that sensation of everything not feeling real anymore would return, and that maybe I would go “crazy” at some point.
In the few weeks leading up to a psychotic break when I was 18, I had a few prodromal symptoms, which just means developing psychosis but not full psychosis yet. Kind of the early stages. And so I heard a few voices saying things like, “Baby Brandon” and “mixed-up kid.” It was very disconcerting to me to hear those voices and I thought, “Does this mean I have to listen to these voices? Are they saying something deep about me?”
I see. So Shari, as the mom, how did you feel when you first encountered him describing these things?
SHARI: Well, he didn’t describe them. He didn’t tell us about them. We had a call in Paris from Garen’s mother, Brandon’s grandmother, saying that Brandon was in a mental institution. And we didn’t have any idea anything was wrong with him. He had been normal when we’d left and he’d only been periodically angry because he couldn’t find a job, which was kind of not his temperament to be angry. He wouldn’t let us help him find a job because he wanted to do it on his own.
So then we went to France as we planned and our daughter was with us and we got the call that night in Paris. The reason my mother-in-law knew about it is that our neighbor had called her because Brandon had called an ambulance to pick him up to go to the hospital because he thought he was having psychological problems. So that’s how we found out and we got on the first plane home.
But both Garen and I were sure there was a mistake. We said, “There has to be some mistake.” But, at the same time, we were worried that it was true—because why else would he be there? I think I cried all the way home in the plane. I mean, I was just devastated. This could be reality and it was hard to explain this to Shannon, our daughter who was then 10.
We got home at 10:30 at night and got him out of the mental institution. He’d been on a 3-day hold. And then we took him home and he seemed fine. He was so relieved to see us, but he couldn’t sleep in his bottom bunk until we removed the top bunk off, which was never anything that bothered him before.
The next morning, Garen was talking to him outside in the backyard—I could see him through the kitchen window—and he was sort of jumping up and down with his hand waving around and I thought, “There’s definitely something wrong with him.” So, from that point on, we sought to find the right treatment for him.
We had a doctor right away who didn’t work for him—he didn’t like him. So we found another one. We just kept looking. You know, you never give up. And then we needed help ourselves to deal with this because we felt like it was our fault. That he had been pushed too hard to be a good student. We had allowed him to go too far away for college. Maybe I shouldn’t have worked. Maybe I shouldn’t have had a career. Plus, when I took psychology in junior college, I learned that it was almost always the mother’s fault if something went wrong and a child had a mental illness.
BRANDON: That was the thinking of the day. Not accurate, but that’s what people thought.
SHARI: One day a mutual good friend of me and Garen came over to our house and told us his own experience, that he’d had a friend who had schizophrenia and it was important for that friend to have a friend around all the time. That these things are genetic and that there is something environmentally that triggers them.
As soon as we sat and talked with him, we calmed down. I think it was important for us to feel okay. Then we could really feel good enough to help Brandon and not always be having a hard time ourselves. And so we did. But it was a journey. And you can never give up because there were difficulties finding the right meds and finding the right diagnosis. But we got to it right away. We had a friend in another organization whose son had been through it too, who wasn’t well at all then, but she gave me books to read. So that’s how we approached it—educating ourselves right away and trying to find the right help for him.
Brandon, what do you feel was the most instrumental to your recovery?
BRANDON: I’ll say a few things. Number one, the support of my family and my parents. Their resources, self-education and research in helping me find a good psychiatrist. The love that they showed me, making sure that I knew that they loved me. That was really important for me. It inspired me to want to get better.
Another thing that has helped is engaging with the community. So right when I had my first break, soon thereafter I recovered well enough to go audit classes at UC Berkeley. And then I also volunteered at the Oakland Zoo studying chimpanzees, which was an interest that I had from college through my Anthropology major. So I was able to get well enough doing all these things, go back to college after only one additional term off, get my degree and graduate on time with honors. Working and doing something constructive keeps me engaged and active—it gives me sense of purpose.
One other thing that has been a turning point in my recovery as well has been cognitive training, which is a form of treatment that uses digital technology to exercise the circuits in the brain to strengthen them. Through it, I was able to regain my social fluency with people. So that was a big help for me as well.
Would you like to be featured in our Recovery Hero of the Week series? Send in your story (500–1000 words) to [email protected] and you might just be selected as our next featured hero. Thank you for spreading the message!