A family credits recovery from schizoaffective disorder to relatively early intervention, the right medication, never losing hope and a great therapist
From The Quarterly, Spring 2013
Recalling her son’s last year in high school, Stamatia Pappas can still, ten years later, feel her eyes fill with tears. What might have seemed at first to be simply a high school senior’s bad case of "senioritis,” turned out to be the early rumblings of an approaching cataclysm. She watched as her son, the boy who loved books, suddenly could not concentrate on reading. Until then always an able student, he came close to failing his courses. A passionate music lover, when given a senior-year “dream internship” with a music company, he sat, paralyzed, on the curb outside the company building or hid himself in the men’s room.
Stamatia supported her son as best she could, even while she didn’t understand what was happening. Her son somehow managed to complete the credits needed to graduate from high school and went off to college, but the following fall, two weeks before Thanksgiving, the family received a call to come and get their son. He was failing his classes and wandering the streets and needed to be taken home. By New Year’s Eve of that year, he ended up in an acute care unit.
Overt psychotic symptoms typically appear in late adolescence or early adulthood. As a child spirals out of control, distraught parents often find it difficult to find appropriate help or even to get a definitive diagnosis, as happened here.
Says Stamatia: “He was discharged from the hospital with medication that clearly wasn’t working and told he should just follow up with a psychiatrist. We were told that he wasn’t psychotic, that the problem was his relationship with his parents. It wasn’t that long ago and we were still getting this type of explanation.”
The next episode was unambiguous—and terrifying. Home alone, with her husband off on a business trip, Stamatia tells about how her son went off to a friend’s house “and spent the weekend smoking pot. When I finally reached him, he begged me, ‘Mom, you have to come get me right away.’ While we were driving home he was pounding his body against the dashboard.”
Taking their son to be hospitalized was an excruciating choice, but there didn’t seem to be any other options. Over a course of three months, the Pappas family painfully watched as their son got treatment in the hospital, but went through a number of antipsychotic drugs that failed to help him get better and in some cases made him considerably worse. He was finally stabilized on clozapine (Clozaril®); a second-generation antipsychotic pioneered for treatment of patients with resistant schizophrenia by Herbert Meltzer, M.D., with the support of a NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Grant. Once stabilized, their son was able to go home.
Right around when her son was released from the hospital, they also finally found the right therapist. "I knew she was the right one when we met and she said to me, 'Mrs. Pappas, we’re all going to dance at your son’s wedding,'” recounted Stamatia.
In September of 2012, when Stamatia Pappas was invited to tell her story at the Women’s Mental Health Conference hosted by the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, she was able to open her presentation with the news that her son, now 27 years old, is “well into recovery.”
The recovery was slow and not always steady, but eventually her son was able to go back to college, not far from the family’s home, beginning as a part-time student and then completing the program and earning his bachelor’s degree. He completed a certificate program in art therapy, is working at an organization where he is helping two young men with autism spectrum disorder, and hopes to eventually earn a master’s degree in music therapy.
Stamatia has also found support for herself as she continues to support her son’s recovery. She is a member of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, where she is currently President of a chapter and an instructor in its Family-to-Family program. The conference session in which Stamatia shared her story was titled “Early Intervention, Rehabilitation and Reintegration.” The NARSAD Grant-supported scientists who spoke on the panel with her described what researchers are now learning about the crucial importance of treatment early on in the course of mental illness for preventing or minimizing the progression of disease.
While the process of dealing with her son’s illness has been painful and perplexing, rife with setbacks early on, Stamatia considers her family lucky. They were able to find the right treatments relatively soon after the onset of illness and she believes this has been crucial to the whole family’s recovery. She has heard so many stories of other, less fortunate families. “What has helped our son is a combination of things,” says Stamatia. “He is on the right medication, he is determined to stay well, has a family that never gave up hope and a great therapist. I look forward to dancing at his wedding!”
The Pappas family supports the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation because of the work funded to better understand what causes mental illness and to develop effective early intervention and diagnostic techniques.