parents' experience

Fatherhood and schizophrenia

“ There was a little voice in my head egging me on to do things that I knew weren't right. I started hearing it when I was 22, just after my son was born.”

Russell Hine, from Bedford, UK, talked to Shanta Everington about being diagnosed with schizophrenia after the birth of his son. He describes how his mental health affected his role as a father, and how he managed to create a new path and build a positive relationship with his son.

It was four years ago when I first realised that something was wrong. There was a little voice in my head egging me on to do things that I knew weren't right. I started hearing it when I was 22, just after my son was born.

Overwhelmed

I was so overwhelmed by becoming a dad that it broke down all the barriers that I had carefully constructed as a way of protecting myself against unwanted emotion. I started getting angry all the time. My partner, who I've been with since I was 19, said to me “There's something wrong with you. You need to see a doctor”.

I saw a counsellor at my local doctors' surgery and was referred to a psychiatric centre for review. I was diagnosed as schizophrenic and put on a waiting list for psychotherapy. I knew I would have to wait between six months and a year for treatment and it was a very difficult time.

It was as though my son was born in the midst of a hurricane. He witnessed things that he never should have seen. I was always so angry and I took it out on my partner. Our relationship was volatile and we split up several times. There was so much shouting and screaming but I was never physically violent to either of them.

Sometimes my partner got scared that I would hurt her and she asked me to leave the house if I felt myself getting angry. I would return covered in bruises with no idea where I'd been or what had happened. It was very frightening. My psychotherapist later explained that I got so angry that the conscious part of my brain shut down and didn't want to acknowledge what I was doing.

Effect of mistrust

For the first two or three years of my son's life, we didn't get on. There was a lot of mistrust and he wouldn't come near me. One minute I'd be playing with him and the next minute I'd be shouting at him. We had no bond.

His behaviour was affected by the way I was. He was naughty a lot of the time. He had a dad who didn't bother, a dad who shut himself away, who wasn't really there. I felt so guilty that I spoilt him with lavish presents. It was like I was trying to buy his love but I know it doesn't work like that. He didn't benefit from having lots of toys; what he really needed was me.

I started psychotherapy when my son was about two. I was given medication but it was the talking that had the biggest impact. I had to learn how to process feelings for the first time. It was difficult to begin with as I had all these emotions that I didn't know what to do with. It was all new to me. I was crying and asking my partner what to do.

I found the therapy hard and I was about to give it up. I didn't want to accept what was wrong with me. My partner gave me an ultimatum: “Buck up or push off and get out”. If it wasn't for her, I'd still be an absolute wreck. She told me “You have a choice. You carry on with the psychotherapy or you will never see your child again”.

She told me that if I gave up on the therapy, when our son was older she would tell him that his dad had a mental health problem and he was given the chance to get better but he didn't want to change. That was a big turning point for me. I had to take responsibility. I saw the therapist alone — we didn't have relationship counselling or family therapy — but it had a big impact on my relationship with my partner and my son, and slowly things started to improve.

My childhood

During therapy sessions, I talked about my own family — my mum, dad, brothers and sister. I never felt accepted by my family. I always felt different. I was beaten by my parents and later abandoned by my mum. I learned that my mental health problems started way before I became a father. The roots of my problems were in my own childhood.

As a child I didn't fit in with my family or the people around me. I never belonged to any particular social circle. I shut the door on my feelings because it hurt too much. Instead, I became the class clown. When we moved house and I started a new school, I hoped things would be different. I felt that I was being given a new chance. But it was just the same.

My granddad died when I was 13 and I wasn't able to grieve. I expressed my anger by throwing things. This was the first time my anger got out of control and then things started to snowball from there. I became the victim of bullying at school and the anger increased but it was easier to bury everything and lock it away.

As the therapy progressed, the anger started going away. The voice got smaller and eventually stopped. I still get angry sometimes but I have learned different ways of coping. My psychotherapist explained that the brain is like a jungle, it has a well worn path that you always go down that's the easiest route to take. He told me that to create a new path I had to beat down a lot of obstacles.

A new path

The last two years have been great. My son and I get on really well now and we have established a good relationship. As I got less angry, we started playing together more. At first, he kept testing me. He would be naughty and expect me to blow. He'd see that I wasn't responding like that any more and he'd push me a bit more. He wouldn't get the reaction he was expecting when daddy shouts and mummy gets angry at daddy.

It took time but after about six months our bond blossomed and developed as we gradually built up trust. Before, when we used to go to the park, my son just wanted to get away from me. I'd see the way he would give his mum a hug and then go back to his mates but he never did that with me. Then, over time, as our relationship improved, he started coming over and giving me a hug too.

Then he started to tell me he loved me without me saying it first. He'd tell me I was a great dad. Now we have boys' nights and he'll tell his mum she's not allowed in the living room! Now he's happy playing with his dad. We go on the trampoline together, even though it makes me feel a bit queasy!

When I was little, no-one ever asked me how I was feeling. In my family, you didn't talk about emotion. Boys don't cry. That was how my father was. I don't want that for my son. I don't want my son to be that kind of man. I always encourage him to talk. If he's throwing things around, I ask him how he's feeling. I don't want history to repeat itself.


DPPI Journal
65: Spring 2009