In June 1980, Ricky left for the navy. I was happy for my big brother, but I was really going to miss the times we hung out together. Ricky, Charlie, Bruce and I, the youngest of eight siblings, were all close as kids and did everything together. We supported each other through sports, school and family crises. We wouldn’t even open up Christmas presents without one another.
To see Ricky start a whole new adventure without us was sad but exciting, and it was something we knew he desperately needed. He was always full of adventure, vibrant and enthusiastic and had a hunger to see and do new things. Little did I know that I would never view him in this light again.
Not quite a year and a half later, it was a warm fall day in Colorado, and the leaves were turning yellow, orange and red. Our family was doing well: My brother Jim lived in Seattle and worked at a bank. My brother Gene was finishing up a master’s degree in Tennessee. My sister Theresa was happily married and living in Littleton, CO. My brother Jeff was working on helicopters in Louisiana. My brother Charlie was attending a technical school in Denver. My brother Bruce was working construction in Littleton, and Ricky served on the USS Blue Ridge command ship in Japan.
I was 15 and had started my sophomore year at Heritage High School, where I was meeting new friends, checking out boys and looking forward to a range of new experiences. There were parties to go to and football games to attend. Life was good.
Then one day, Mom and Dad received a very odd letter from Ricky. He had written with a thick, black marker, and his sentences were barely comprehensible. He said that things were not balanced: The devil was taking over the world, and there was a major war going on between good and evil. One weird thought followed another.
The whole family was upset and did not know what to think about what was happening with Ricky. I just prayed to God that he was okay.
By November, my parents were really concerned, because they had not heard from Ricky for several weeks. Mom went down to talk to the navy chaplin, who got a telegram through to the Blue Ridge, asking about Ricky’s status. All they said was that he had been honorably discharged. We were in shock. We tried to find out what had happened but couldn’t get answers from anyone. We had no idea where Ricky was.
The Sunday before Thanksgiving, he called.
“I’m at the bus station in downtown Denver. Can you come get me?” he asked Mom, a strange urgency in his voice.
“I’ll be right there,” she told him.
When she saw him at the station, she was stunned by his gaunt appearance. She helped him get his bags in the car. At first they drove in silence, and then Mom said, “Ricky, you could have come home anytime.”
“I couldn’t,” he told her. “The demons have followed me from Japan, and I didn’t want to bring them home. I am afraid they’re following us now.”
Mom got very upset. Her child looked so sick, and she couldn’t understand why he was saying such odd things. She tried to reassure him: “I’m taking you home to get some food and rest. Everything will be better tomorrow.”
When they walked through the front door, I was in disbelief. He didn’t look like the brother I knew and loved. He was pale with dark circles under his eyes, and I could tell he was exhausted. He didn’t say much.
Instead, he stared at us, each of us asking him, “Are you okay? Do you want some food? Do you want a blanket? What can we do to help?”
He would just nod yes, but I could tell that something was terribly wrong. He wouldn’t let go of his crucifix, rosary or prayer book. He was afraid to go into his bedroom. He would only lay down on the floor in the living room next to the fireplace, zoning in and out of trancelike states. Occasionally, he would blurt out bizarre ideas about God and demons, which kept all of us on edge.
“The God from Japan is going to come destroy the God here,” he said emphatically. He would ramble about demons and aliens from outer space.
My siblings and I were deeply saddened that we didn’t know how to help him. He was so terrified that it was heartbreaking to watch. I kept telling him, “It’s okay, Rick. We will protect you. Nothing’s going to hurt you. Get some rest.”
He didn’t want to be alone, so my brothers and I offered to stay with him. He wanted to lie in front of the fireplace, so Bruce lay on one side of him on the floor. I was on the other, and Charlie took the couch. We gathered blankets around Ricky to make him feel protected. We kept the fire going all night long.
He would doze off for a little while and then awaken in a panic, yelling, “They’re after me! The demons are outside!”
Bruce and I would lightly pat the side of his arm and say it’s okay until he settled down. Tears filled my eyes as I wondered what happened to my brother and felt so sorry that his life had taken this difficult turn.
I felt tremendous guilt for thinking negative thoughts about him. He wasn’t the brother I remembered, and I saw no light burning in his eyes. I had a weird feeling that Ricky’s return was going to change our lives forever.
The next few days we all started to realize that Ricky was mentally ill. He kept holding his stomach tightly, convinced his insides were falling out. “The demons are coming out of my eyes! Please help me!”
Mom and Dad were dumbfounded. “What do you mean, Rick?” Mom asked. “What’s wrong with your eyes?”
“God is in my right eye, and Satan is in my left,” he told her.
“How is God in your right eye?” Dad asked.
“The light is in my right, and the dark is in my left! It hurts!” he yelled back.
Mom grabbed a cold cloth to put on his eyes to see if that would help. It did calm Ricky a bit, but he remained convinced that there was a war going on between good and evil. He also believed that monsters had invaded his mind. Added to that, he was hearing evil voices that he would answer as he stared at the wall or ceiling. It was chilling to watch. I thought maybe if I could hug him, I could communicate that everything would be all right, but Ricky would not allow anyone to touch him.
He would not leave the house and hardly ate, which concerned Dad, who thought Ricky could benefit from some fresh air. Dad tried to take Ricky for a walk up the street, but they didn’t get far, because Ricky said the sun was excruciating to his eyes. He said he felt blinded and couldn’t see where he was going. He panicked to the point of crying, so they turned around and came home.
After a few days, Ricky told our parents, “A couple of women at a bar in Japan put an evil curse on me, and that’s why I’m sick.”
He believed these women cursed him because his friend told the women to take a hike when they weren’t interested in hooking up. “One of the women was pointing her finger at me, saying weird things,” Ricky said. “I felt a sharp pain in my head. I know that’s when it happened! The evil spirits were all around me.” He looked so certain. “They have been following me ever since. I can’t get away from them.”
Our parents knew Ricky desperately needed a doctor. For days, they tried to get him to go to the hospital, but he refused. He worried that if he left the house, demons would get him. After much persuasion, they finally got him to go to Veterans Hospital in Denver. But after they arrived, they still had to sit in the car for over an hour, convincing Ricky to go in the building. “They can help
you,” Mom pleaded.
“We won’t leave you,” Dad told him, “but you need to go in.” Finally, Ricky agreed.
At the veterans hospital, my brother was very impatient and kept making bizarre comments. It took hours to get through the paperwork and the process of admitting him to the hospital. Once Ricky was in, our parents spoke with a doctor about the paranoia, physical pain, hallucinations and delusions. One doctor who observed my brother told our parents, “I’m sorry, but Ricky has schizophrenia.”
My dad knew he had a family history of the condition and figured Ricky had inherited the gene. Schizophrenia is a neurological brain disease that interferes with a person’s ability to think clearly, manage emotions, make decisions and relate to others. Some specific abnormalities are delusions, hallucinations, hearing voices, and experiencing physical sensations. It can be triggered by drug use, which was what we figured had happened to Ricky.
“There is no cure for schizophrenia,” the doctors told Dad. “Only medications to try to normalize the behaviors.” We all tried to stay positive and supportive as Ricky got the help he needed.
He stayed at the veterans hospital for two months, as doctors tried different prescriptions to help him. However, most of the medications gave him bad side effects or made him feel like a zombie. When our parents went to see him, he was usually zoned out, which shortened their visits. Occasionally, doctors let Ricky come home for the weekend.
We were all happy to see him, and had high hopes, but Ricky was distant and his conversations were short, owing to the effects of the medication. It was painful and confusing to see this young man, who had once been so handsome, smart and active, transformed into a person I couldn’t understand. None of it made sense to me. No words were said, but I think we all felt empty. He would never be the same, nor would our family dynamic. But at least he was home and had the benefit of being around his folks.
Unfortunately, Ricky was not good about taking his meds, and after about 48 hours without them, his hallucinations would kick in again. Over the course of a couple of years, his illness progressed to where his behavior was menacing and our parents urged him to leave.
After staying away one night, Ricky came back early the next day. He kept knocking on the front door, saying, “Mom, let me in. I want to get something to eat and get my clothes.” But Mom wouldn’t budge. “Sorry, Rick, you can’t come in,” she told him, “unless you’re willing to go to the hospital.”
“No, I can’t go to the hospital. They will take my brain. It’s the spirits, Mom.” He continued to make incomprehensible comments like “I’m being hypnotized. My brain cells are being taken away. Your food and water are poisoned.”
Ricky also believed that Jim was not real. He kept yelling outside the door, “Mom, Jim is not real! You need to fingerprint him. He’s an impostor!”
Mom sensed danger.
Ricky walked away from the door and started pacing back and forth in the front yard as Mom got ready for work. When Bruce left for his first day at a new construction job, Mom asked him to go out the back way. But it turned out Ricky had come around the back of the house and surprised Bruce at the door. Ricky pushed his way in.
Bruce was smart not to fight back. He could sense Ricky was angry and distraught. As Ricky ate and gathered his clothes, Mom said nothing to him, even as he made more disturbed comments about aliens invading her body.
Mom did not respond. She just kept an eye on him as she continued getting ready for work. But I could tell Ricky was nervous. He paced the kitchen floor and his hands were shaking.
Before Mom left, she knocked on my door. “Debbie, I don’t think you should stay here,” she said.
“I know, I’m leaving too,” I told her. I arrived at school early and just sat in the parking lot. But Jim and Charlie were still downstairs sleeping when I left.
All morning, Ricky packed, and then he went out in the backyard. Jim watched out of the kitchen window as Ricky continued to pace and yell at the sky, “They’re not real! They’re trying to make me crazy! Stop telling me!”
By the time Mom came home for lunch around 11:15, Ricky’s anger had escalated further. She entered the house, not knowing what to expect. Ricky yelled at her, “Give me money! I want to leave. You’re making me sick!”
Mom gave Ricky money and told him, “You cannot live in this house anymore unless you get back on medication.”
“No! The doctors are crazy!” He started backing away from Mom, pointing at her and yelling, “There are scorpions crawling all around you!”
“Rick, it’s part of your illness. Please let me take you to the hospital to get help.”
“No! You’re turning black!” he screamed. She told Ricky she had to get back to work and that he needed to leave. “Good luck,” she said. “I hope you get help.”
She hated to kick him out, but she had other children to protect.
Learn more about the book Silent Voices by visiting author Debbie Nau Redmond