17: The Skateboarder and Schizophrenia

17: The Skateboarder and Schizophrenia

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

The Skateboarder and Schizophrenia

I consider skateboarding an art form, a lifestyle and a sport.

~Tony Hawk

I knew a boy once who traveled by skateboard. He would glide effortlessly through life over rough terrain. He had the ability to hover for seconds at a time over stationary objects before crashing down on them. He always surprised me when he landed on his feet. The wind would blow through his sun-bleached hair and cool off his sweat-soaked neck on most summer days. He lived on macaroni and cheese and swilled Gatorade with his ragtag group of skater boys.

Our local newspaper captured him in a photograph one day. It depicted him in midair, his skateboard a foot below him beside a sign that said “One Way” as he faced the opposite direction. His 15 minutes of fame garnered much criticism from local townsfolk. Comments appeared in the same publication and spoke of the youth who were defacing town property as a result of grinding their skateboards on park benches and curbing. He didn’t mean to harm the world around him. His only crime against nature was to be out and enjoying it the only way he knew. He loved to get on his skateboard and ride.

It was amazing to watch him flying high in those youthful, carefree days. He dreamed of slinging a backpack over his shoulder and skating his way across the country like a modern-day Jack Kerouac after high school graduation—not knowing his carefree days would end well before graduation commenced.

Throughout the late summer days of 2002, his skateboard began to spend more time parked in our back hallway. At the age of 17, storm clouds had begun to gather in his mind. Secretly, he harbored increasing doubts about the world as he knew it. Common gathering spots and trusted friends began to present themselves as strangers. The country he had dreamed about exploring for so long became something to fear. His skateboard held no more magic or adventure for him. The faces of his family and friends held no more warmth or familiarity. The school he had attended for well over three years became foreign territory, a new frontier that he could not conquer.

As the months wore on, he became a shadow person—a shell of the boy we used to know. His eyes were too wide and held such fear. His mouth had all but ceased to move except when he pushed down food at another’s insistence. As parents, we wished desperately that he would find his words again. His words, thoughts and ideas had been buried under the storm clouds that continued to gather in his mind.

Finally, in the fall, the storm broke. His words gushed forth and forced their way into our lives. They were hard to control and gather up. They swirled around us like autumn leaves pushing and forcing their way into our home every time the door was opened. He would open his mouth, and they would tumble out. They didn’t make any sense to us. “If only he would pick up the skateboard again and go flying,” I thought.

I wished for him to sail through this turbulent time and sea of emotions. I wanted him so badly to just be himself again—to beat whatever was pressing down on him like a freight train. Why couldn’t he outskate this thing? Stay ahead of it? Some engines are just too fast. It was never a fair match to begin with—a freight train versus a boy on a skateboard. Luckily, we caught him just before he gave up. We stopped and really listened to his words. We heard his fears, saw his pain, and let go of our own.

Sweeping away the dead leaves and broken thoughts, we lifted him up off the train tracks. His father and I wept as we entered the facility that would help him sort out his disordered thinking. We left him there, even as he begged us not to, but we had no choice as parents. The dam had broken, and he was being swept away from us. That is what happens to a young man as schizophrenia slowly begins to splinter his reality. There is nothing left that is familiar. There is no safe haven in the mind of someone who is slowly descending into unreality.

His skateboard remained in the back hallway like a soldier standing at attention. It seemed as though it were waiting to be called into service. I never dared to move it for fear it would send my son the message that he would never get back to “normal” again. As the first year blended into the second year, Andrew began to make sense of his illness. His remarkable intelligence afforded him the ability to understand the disorder. He accepted it for what it was and never questioned why this happened to him or felt sorry for himself. He just trusted the people around him who loved him unconditionally to seek out the best possible care. Andrew complied with treatment and endured many drug trials and physical discomfort during those early years.

As he entered the third year of his illness, he noticed the skate-board, covered with a thick coating of dust. It still stood, like a sentinel, guarding the memories of his carefree youth. That day, he ran his hand along the top of it and wiped the dust off on his pants leg. Then, without warning, he hoisted it up and slung it across his shoulder. I winced, knowing that was where the backpack of his dreams should have been.

A man now, he turned to no one in particular and asked, “Hey, do you think I should give this skateboard to Michael? He skateboards, doesn’t he?”

“I think so,” I heard myself answer.

I watched as he shoved the skateboard into the backseat of our car as if it were of no more importance than a sack of potatoes. I stifled the desire to scream, “Be careful with that!” as if that would change anything. Eventually, we arrived at my sister Susan’s house. She is the grandmother of Andrew’s young cousin, Michael. Andrew made no motion to get out of the car. He had done the very hardest part already, I reasoned to myself. It was only fair that someone else finish it for him. I opened the back door and reached in for the skateboard. I repeated to myself over and over, “It’s only wood. It’s only wood.” As I passed the board to my sister, I desperately tried to find the words to tell her what this meant to our family. How could I tell her that I felt as though I were passing on an Olympic torch of sorts from a retired champion? It seemed to me that in the game of life, my son had met his match and held his ground. He didn’t crash down on it anymore the way he used to when he came out of a kick flip in the glory days before schizophrenia, but he had achieved firm footing again.

Before I had a chance to say anything, I heard the car door open behind me. My son emerged with a big grin on his face. He gave his aunt a big bear hug and said, “I hope Michael likes this old skate-board. It’s still good, and I used to have a lot of fun on that thing.” Understanding the significance of the event, Susan squeezed my hand long and hard. Our brimming eyes met finally when she said, “Andrew, Michael will be so happy to have it. Thank you so much for thinking of him.”

“No problem, Aunt Sue. I love you. You’re my favorite aunt,” he stated, unabashedly.

“It’s nice to see some things never change, because you are my favorite nephew,” she replied.

Andrew’s illness has taught our family that nothing can stop love. Illness can make things difficult and messy, but it cannot change the core of a person at the spirit level. Andrew has battled many symptoms of schizophrenia, and it has impacted his quality of life, but it has not taken away the heart of him. His immense capacity to experience love and think outside of himself is amazing. He will forever be our hero, a champion and beloved son.

~Yvette Moreau

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