Have you ever feared you might go insane? Perhaps you had a relative it happened to? Perhaps you worried about genetics?
In my case, it was an aunt of mine. I’ll call her Helga. When I was young, we’d see her for family holidays. She was fine then, married to a man she adored. She was an artist, a good one, who sold her paintings and taught art students on the side. I was impressed because she had a career at a time when that was extremely unusual. She had a daughter I liked and a chihuahua I hated (probably the only dog I’ve ever met I didn’t like).
Then I grew up and moved east and didn’t see her for almost three decades. Some time after her husband died in 1985, Helga became paranoid. She started thinking the neighbors were talking about her. Soon she was convinced they were shooting at her.
By the time I saw her again, 10 years later, Helga believed she was under constant attack by a “them” she never saw. She had bedtime rituals, e.g. wrapping towels around her head and setting up tin foil, to try to protect herself enough to get at least a tiny bit of sleep. Her neighbors in the senior apartment where she lived the last 10 years of her life reported middle-of-the-night screams from her. She lived with this mental agony for 15 years.
My mother died a few years after Helga, and when I was clearing out mom’s house — I found a big stack of journals written by Helga. From 1937 – 1997, she wrote down her thoughts. I read them because I wanted to see how it happened. How mental illness slowly moved into her mind. Perhaps I wanted to find early warning signs so I could watch out for them in myself.
Instead I found the most amazing thing: Helga was sane until age 78, then suddenly she wasn’t.
What you may not know about schizophrenia
Your risk of getting schizophrenia increases based on how many family members have it and how close (genetically) they are to you. For example, a niece of someone who has it has a 4% chance of getting it herself. (Gulp!) If a sibling has it, your risk is 9%, while if it’s one of your parents your risk is 13%.
However… the good news for readers of this blog is your risk factor(s) may not matter much if you’re already 55+ and haven’t experienced it. Your risk at this age is very close to zero.
The average age of onset for schizophrenia is 18 in men and 25 in women. According to Schizophrenia.com, “Schizophrenia onset is quite rare for people over 40 years of age.” If you look at their chart of onset by age, you will see it is almost impossible for a 78-year-old woman to suddenly get it.
Sadness at her husband’s death started a parade of prescriptions
From 1937 until March 1985, Helga’s journals covered her happiness in the small pleasures of life. She wrote about food, her painting, her painting students, TV programs she liked, and especially her family.
Her beloved husband died in March 1985, so for the next several months she occasionally mentioned crying herself to sleep at night from missing him. It also signaled a new problem with money. She found herself with debts as well as a social security income that was reduced to $388/month (all she had to live on). She sold the car, which left her even more socially isolated. When her color TV broke, she made do with her old B&W one.
I doubt anyone would be surprised that she began complaining of headaches, some dizziness, and heart pain. But these problems surprised her. She started seeing a doctor and had a stress test to check her heart. The results were fine, but the headaches and heart pain continued.
Starting the middle of the 1985, there are diary entries about her drug prescriptions. After years of never mentioning more than an aspirin, she was soon regularly taking:
- Nitroglycerin capsules (for angina). Side effects, per WebMD, include headaches and dizziness.
- Theo-Dur (for asthma or COPD(?!). Side effects, per WebMD, include headache, trouble sleeping, irritability, restlessness, nervousness and shaking.
- Isosorbide Mononitrate (for angina). Side effects, per WebMD, include headache, dizziness, and lightheadedness.
- Triaminic (for sinus pain and bronchitis!?). Side effects, per WebMD, include trouble sleeping, dizziness, headache, and nervousness. “Serious” side effects for this drug include fast/irregular/pounding heartbeat and mental/mood changes (such as confusion, hallucinations, nervousness).
Did these drugs cause her mental anguish?
A 78-year-old woman, in distress from losing her soulmate/husband, started taking these four medications that were prescribed for her by a physician. Taking these medications did not alleviate the headaches and chest pain she reported.
At the end of 1985, her journal entries still reflected the person she had always been, but with additional reporting of these symptoms and her faithful taking of these medications.
Unfortunately, there are no journals from December 1985 until January 1990. Below are two typical journal entries from 1990:
“February 13 1990 – 1 PM
“Was working on my expenses when I felt the “tip-toeing pain” on my head but ignored it. Getting stronger and as they got to a particular place on my head I lost consciousness — came to with a jerk before I dropped to the floor off of my chair! My God — can they be trying to kill me? Why? They think I’m so smart that I may catch on to how and why they are doing this? Yes, they are trying to. Why is organized crime in [this small town]? Are we a test area for their stun guns, hi-frequency sound machines and other modern terrorist weapons? We had all better flee!”
“March 6th, 1990 – 11:50 PM
“I guess they want me to call the police again so they can say, “nutty old lady.” The reason I phoned them on Monday evening — I was awakened in the middle of the night with a new loud bang. I came off that bed and out here thinking someone tried a window or banged on the side of the house. Decided to phone the police and let them check it out which they did and said everything was OK. So now I don’t dare phone them again and they know it so they can do anything to me!! So be it — no-one wants to believe I am being tortured with these various things because then they would have an obligation to rescue me so they pretend I am making them up.”
If you’re questioning whether dementia might play a part in this story, I would disagree. I was able to visit with her for several hours on two occasions during this time. Helga was mentally alert, could completely follow and participate in conversations, and could add interesting comments showing insight and understanding. It’s just that in the middle of a wonderful conversation, she would suddenly mention how “they” tried to get her the previous night and what she had done to try to protect herself. Then she’d be right back to “normal” conversation.
3 Takeaways from this terrible story
- I can’t prove it was the medications, but it seems to me the most likely answer. Do you agree or disagree?
- Note: I may be biased about the drugs as an answer, after watching my practicing-attorney father start chasing imaginary butterflies within a week of being given a drug to “calm him” at a nursing home where he was supposed to recover. (See Never Go Into A Nursing Home to Recover — You may never escape!)
- Hopefully today a physician would be more alert to side effects to medications prescribed.
- If you or a loved one (especially of senior-citizen status) starts seeing things that aren’t there — please check all the medications you/they are taking.
My biggest regret is that I didn’t know the changes in her were so unlikely to happen naturally, nor did I think to question the how or why. Mother, who spent a life looking up to her big sister, wasn’t any better at helping her than I was. Mother seemed to think she could talk her out of it. “There weren’t REALLY any people in your room last night, were there? How could they have gotten in?”
Maybe if mental illness wasn’t something you hid under the rug (as it was in those days). Maybe if we were better educated about it. Maybe, maybe, maybe. I’m just left with a lot of regrets.
Marlene Jensen is a 71-year-old full-time marketing professor. Previously she was a VP at CBS and ABC and spent decades as an entrepreneur and pricing author/consultant. Sadly, none of these prepared her for the onslaught of marketers who now think her daily interests/needs consist solely of hearing aids, wheel chairs, adult diapers, medi-alert buttons, medications, and bath tubs you walk into.