Q&A with Michael Schofield, Author of January First

At six years old, his daughter was diagnosed with schizophrenia. This is their family's story.

At six years old, January Schofield, “Jani,” to her family, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, one of the worst mental illnesses known to man. What’s more, schizophrenia is 20 to 30 times more severe in children than in adults and in January’s case, doctors say, she is hallucinating 95 percent of the time that she is awake. Potent psychiatric drugs that would level most adults barely faze her.

January First captures Michael and his family’s remarkable story in a narrative that forges new territory within books about mental illness. In the beginning, readers see Jani’s incredible early potential: her brilliance, and savant-like ability to learn extremely abstract concepts. Next, they witnesses early warning signs that something is not right, Michael’s attempts to rationalize what’s happening, and his descent alongside his daughter into the abyss of schizophrenia.

Their battle has included a two-year search for answers, countless medications and hospitalizations, allegations of abuse, despair that almost broke their family apart and, finally, victories against the illness and a new faith that they can create a life for Jani filled with moments of happiness.

Read It Forward: At the age of early infancy, it was clear that your daughter January Schofield was unique and brilliant (even testing with an IQ of 146 at the age of four). When did you begin to think that Jani’s differences might be related to an illness?

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Michael Schofield: Other parents would suggest that something was wrong with Jani. To their face, I ignored them but inside their suggestions made me angry. To me, Jani was a genius and throughout history most geniuses have been misunderstood.

It wasn’t until the violence began around the time Bodhi was born that I had to face that there was something wrong. During those moments of sudden, intense violence, like what I describe in Chapter 5, I would hold Jani down to keep her from going after Bodhi and I would try to get her to make eye contact with me, trying to calm her down. And when she would look into my eyes, I didn’t see my daughter there. I saw something else.

But even then I still clung to the belief that this violence was coming from being a genius trapped in the body of a small child. For me, the moment that I finally had to accept there was an illness was the first time I went to visit Jani at BHC Alhambra. Jani had never been away from either of us and I fully expected her to be terrified. But she wasn’t. She was happy, happier than I’d seen her since she was a toddler. It was like she had finally found the friends she’d always wanted, only she found them in a psych ward.

RIF: How has your marriage to Susan evolved since Jani’s birth? How have you learned to cope as a couple in the face of Jani’s schizophrenia?

MS: We almost didn’t make it. Because Jani needed constant stimulation and we had no family or friends who could provide the level of stimulation she needed, Susan and I began to see each other as the “relief shift.” We either worked or we had Jani. There was nothing else. And taking Jani was much harder than working so whichever parent had Jani would get increasingly resentful.

When the violence and hospitalizations began, we turned on each other constantly, dragging up and throwing in each other’s faces every mistake we had ever made with Jani. I think that when you feel like you are losing your child to something you can’t identify and doctors have no answers, you start turning on everyone around you.

What saved our marriage was the realization that whatever Jani had was not just her “misbehaving” and that she needed both of us to fight for her. I think it was fighting the school district that really made me feel like Susan and I were a team again, both focused on the goal of making sure Jani was happy. So the irony is that while the stress of Jani’s still-unnamed illness nearly destroyed our marriage, it was also the very thing that saved it. We held together for Jani and Bodhi and because of that our marriage transcended the normal relationship.

We are both totally committed to the cause of childhood mental illness. We have both sacrificed our own needs for the good of the children and will continue to do so.

Do I love Susan? Absolutely. She is more than my wife. She is my partner and my friend. And there is nobody else I would have wanted to go through this with. I could never feel about another woman the way I feel about Susan. She fought and continues to fight a war with me against Jani’s schizophrenia. We are bound by something far deeper than a wedding ring.

Read It Forward: You have encountered many different treatments for mental illness through your experience with Jani. In your opinion, what are some of the strengths and failings of how we treat mental illness in the United States?

MS: Without question, the biggest problem is the social perception that we have in America that all negative behavior is caused by a moral failure, be it children, adults, or parents and other family members. Nobody questions a physical illness because the symptoms are clear. But because the primary symptoms of mental illness are behavior, it is easier to dismiss them as a moral failure of the child, laziness on the part of adult sufferers (who are the homeless you see everyday), or bad parenting on the part of the parents.

Mentally ill kids, especially those who are bipolar and schizophrenic, experience discrimination because they can react with impulsive and unpredictable violence at times. People need to know that this illness is very real. It is like witnessing a child going into a seizure where he or she is not in control of his/her physical movements. So the biggest problem is that mental illness and those who have it are not treated the same as those with a chronic physical illnesses.

Despite “parity” laws, insurance companies and Medicaid still deny care to kids and adults in need of mental health care. Mental illness needs to be treated as a chronic illness that can be managed, like diabetes. Kicking kids and adults out of acute psychiatric centers because insurance won’t pay and not having any community resources to help those who suffer from psychosis will only lead to more tragic cases like Virginia Tech and the Tucson shooting.

As a society, we must understand that those with mental illness are no different than those with cancer. Any violence is a symptom of their disease. Treat the disease and you treat the violence.

RIF: What are some of the difficulties that you’ve come across while trying to tell your story, especially as some critics you’ve encountered have questioned Jani’s diagnosis?

MS: I was frankly surprised at the number of “armchair diagnosticians” who would diagnose Jani based purely on what they’ve seen of us on TV. I don’t think it comes from a malicious place. I think the idea that a little girl could have schizophrenia, the worst mental illness known to mankind, is frightening. If Jani could get it, anyone could. So people try to come up with any other possibility because they want to believe that Jani can be “cured,” whether that cure is exorcism, gluten-free diet, giving Jani marijuana or LSD, psychic help to communicate with trans-dimensional beings, or even our failings as parents.

I am very honest in my blogs JanisJourney.org, so I give these people a lot of fodder to come up with alternate reasons for why Jani is the way she is. And I get where they are coming from. Believe me, I have spent many long nights wrestling over the things I did and if I caused this. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Jani has schizophrenia. Regardless of what caused it, there is no going back in time to change it. We can only go forward and help her find happiness and fulfillment in this world.

It’s hard to accept that there are things in this world we cannot fix, particularly when it comes to a child. I get that. But what we need to be focusing on is how we can improve the quality of life for mentally ill children and adults, not chasing empty cures because we don’t want to face our limitations as humans.

RIF: How has Jani’s illness already changed over time? What are some differences (other than age) in her behavior from her diagnosis to the present day?

MS: She is learning to make peace with it and what she needs to keep it under control. She can better recognize her external triggers. She knows what will set her off and will tell us if she can’t do something. She will also work with herself to get over irrational fears. We are very careful not to push her because stress is a trigger for her psychosis. She still hates taking meds, but knows the reality if she does not.

We have shown her the connection between homeless mentally ill people who cannot afford insurance and the schizophrenia that has taken complete control over their lives. We also show her the positives of her medication. Thanks to her medication, she now walks up to other kids and asks them their names and how old they are. She still sees all of her hallucinations but she is capable of talking about other things, which is critical for her to be able to interact with neurotypical children.

RIF: What are some of the struggles you’ve faced in regards to how people perceive and interact with Jani? What has surprised you the most about how others engage with her?

MS: What has surprised us most are psychologists/therapists who are “afraid” to work with her. We got so many offers after the Oprah show from people wanting to help. But as soon as they were confronted with Jani’s occasional violence (which has vastly improved) they ran for the hills. But for us, this just sorts out the people who should be in this field and those who can’t hack it.

If you want to work with kids who suffer from psychotic illnesses, you can’t expect to just sit on your office couch and “talk.” You have to earn their trust and the only way to do that is to be a constant part of their lives. People who are not afraid HAVE made a huge positive impact in Jani’s life. They are the true “Anne Sullivans,” (re: “The Miracle Worker”).

However, one misconception is when people come in thinking they can change things overnight or even within a year. It doesn’t happen that way. It’s a long-term commitment, but that has shown the most positive results. Miracles do happen, but they happen slowly, and in the case of the mentally ill, they happen over a lifetime.

If you are going to get into the field of working with severely mentally ill children (and there is a HUGE shortage of psychiatrists and therapists willing to work with these kids), you have to understand that you represent “our world” to them. You are an “ambassador” from our world to their world. Their chances of a happy life depend on your commitment to stick with them through the worst the psychosis can throw at you. Because that is what the psychosis wants. It wants to isolate its victims. You have to let them know you will not abandon them.

RIF: What do you see in store for Jani’s future? Do you know how her treatment and medication will change over time?

We stopped thinking about the future during the worst of Jani’s acute stage, both because we needed to get through the day and because the prognosis was not that great. Schizophrenia is worse the younger it strikes because the child has not had time to develop social and cognitive skills. The medications are less effective in children than they are in adults.

So for Jani to have come as far as she has is in fact a medical miracle. It doesn’t happen very often. To go from such a severe case to the level of functioning she now has is a testament to all the people, including us, who refused to give up on her.

I see Jani continuing to get better. Do I think she will ever be completely “free?” No. That’s not what I see in adults with schizophrenia, even those on medication. Life will always be a struggle for Jani, even as new medications become available, but we will continue to do what we have to do to keep her alive and give her as many opportunities for happiness that we can. Everything else that might happen is just gravy.

 

View JanisJourney.org for videos and photos of Jani and her family’s journey and learn more about the Jani Foundation on Facebook and YouTube and about Susan’s LA Talk Radio show “Bipolar Nation.”


Featured image: Mont Poll/Shutterstock.com

 

MICHAEL SCHOFIELD teaches writing courses at California State University, Northridge. He keeps a blog of his family's journey through Janni's schizophrenia at Janisjourney.org.

About Kira Walton

Kira Walton

KIRA WALTON has been stalking books all her life as a college English teacher, bookseller, book club consultant, author, and editor.

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