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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin MacShane

Life and Death of a Young Schizophrenic

December 23rd, 2021

The day Joan Didion passed away I saw an outpouring of social media tributes; people all over praised her way of writing about grief. I haven’t read any of her books but perhaps now I will. My cousin died the same day. I was on the way to Sheffield, to spend Christmas with most of my family. It’s only a short walk from the station to my sister’s house. I entered cheerfully and saw pain wrought across my sisters’ and mother’s faces. They announced that my cousin had committed suicide and been found washed up on a riverbank near St Nazaire in France. He was born on the 29th March 1997. He was dead by December 23rd 2021. He had been released from the medical centre that tended to those with psychiatric disorders.

In some ways, being diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2018, aged barely 21, was a relief for me and my family. Until then he was perceived as the delinquent cousin. He suffered the consequences of being raised the child of divorced parents on a Caribbean Island with a carefree life, easy access to good weed and good sun. In an attempt to change his prospects, he had been sent to France to finish his high schooling with his 90-year-old grandfather. Angry, violent outbursts, joyriding, more weed and misanthropy all seemed to be symptoms of a wayward adolescence in which his choices were his own – his agency had brought him to where he was.

When my grandfather died some in my family felt my cousin’s actions had drained the last of his energy. My cousin moved to the nearby port city of St Nazaire, once famous for being the main producer of Nazi U-boats during the Second World War. He joined the army to pursue a mechanic course but ran away. Eventually, he took a job as a security guard and was living on social security in a bare, pokey apartment, his mental health deteriorating all the while.

The soundest medical wisdom has, in the past few decades, dropped the prefix of ‘paranoid’ when talking about schizophrenia. The reality is that we still know scant little about precisely what, how, when or why some minds go from ‘normal’ to ‘schizophrenic.’ The most comforting explanation I received was that a lack of sociality could lead to voices appearing in one’s head to compensate. A lack of love and frequent drugs often play a role. The trail of events of my cousin’s life carried with them this theme of being unloved, of being shunned by family and community. Daily smoking heavy skunk also contributing.

So, for my cousin the voices were little birds in his head which began to tell him what to do. At times they gave, ostensibly, sound advice – giving up meat, for instance. So, he went vegetarian. The next week the advice was the throw out all his material possessions out of the window. When the police came to investigate the clothes and pillowcases strewn in the street, they found my cousin sleeping on a mattress shivering under his last threadbare sheet, the apartment otherwise empty.

He was committed to a local medical centre for the mentally unwell and was placed on heavy medication. Part of the issue for young schizophrenics like my cousin is that they have an enormous amount of energy. Directed in the wrong way during a mood swing and schizophrenics can be dangerous to themselves and others. My cousin’s diagnosis put into new relief the years of his delinquency. Here was some explanation for his earlier violence, his aggression. Were the voices in his head then?

But with his diagnosis also came the medication; a cocktail of various pills and an industrial chemical liquid mixed with water to accompany one meal a day. With the medication came a metamorphosis. Where once he was athletic, good looking, a raconteur of funny stories he became slow-witted and put on weight. He would need to sleep for hours, lying in bed with his hands stuck still like a comatose T-rex.

I first saw him after his diagnosis the day of my sister’s wedding. I went with my aunt to pick him up from the medical centre which had been his home for the past three months. For those marginalised, on the fringes of society there are never neat categorisations. If you are young, you don’t get to bunk with your peers. No, you are bungled all in the same pot and labelled mad. In the first of three psychiatric wards, my cousin was sharing a room with a fifty-two-year-old man. A lady, banging her head on the corridor wall, stopped to stare at me as I waited for my cousin to emerge. The misanthropic, aggressive teenager had been replaced by a docile and dumb man. Before arriving to the wedding, he meekly asked us to buy him a burger which he ate noisily and messily and after requested a pack of cigarettes.

During the wedding dinner he pleaded with me to allow him a proper drink. There was the same wildness gleaming in his eyes as though, even semi-stupefied on his medicine, he still felt that thrill of transgression, of breaking the rules.

My cousin was eventually moved to a more appropriate facility. There the patients were taken out on little excursions and taught woodwork and masonry. The process of rehabilitation was slow, but for a while it felt steady. There was reassurance that the state system was now in charge of my cousin’s wellbeing. By the start of the pandemic, my cousin had been given his own large apartment in St Nazaire. He was dumped back into society in a similar position to where he had been before his diagnosis. He had no close friends, no job, no interests. His hobbies extended to tattoos, rollerblading, and gaming. Gradually he resumed smoking weed.

I can only imagine just how lonely it got for him during the pandemic. The dull repetition of everyday, doing his best to continue his medication but noticing how he was sharper, fitter and quicker the less he took the drugs.

The crescendo came in the summer of 2021 by which point he had picked up all his old habits. My family were back in the seaside town near St Nazaire for the holidays. An argument with his father and his father’s new fiancée sent my cousin in a rage. He would no longer return my calls, the only constant I had had with him. My mother and sister went round to see him, and no one answered the door. Fearing the worst, the fire brigade and police were called. Just before knocking down his door, my cousin arrived back from the supermarket laden with groceries. He was shocked as the police barraged him with questions. His anger was directed to my mother and sister. They were to blame for the sudden interrogation by the authorities. He insisted he was fine and didn’t need anybody.

Four months later, on Thursday December 23rd, my cousin’s body was found dead. He had left the extended family WhatsApp group ten days prior and escaped from the psychiatric ward at Heinlex Hospital six days before. He was 24 and his name was Martin Duong. His death brings with it tragedy tinged with bittersweet relief. The tragic series of events that made up his life; carefree childhood leading to delinquent adolescence; diagnosis and being subsumed into the state medical apparatus; chewed and spat out, left to fend for himself; unloved, unwanted. Now, it’s over. My grief is my own. So are my memories. And they will always remember the sunny days climbing trees with my dear sweet little cousin. Rest in Peace, Martin.

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