Two of my brothers suffered from schizophrenia.
Fouad, my eldest brother, was the most severely afflicted by the disease. My parents noticed a difference in his behaviour around the age of 14. He went from a kid who loved to fix bikes to someone whose mind wandered into an abyss of thoughts. My father recalled a time when Fouad was found standing rigid staring up at the sky. He believed that he was about to be flown into the heavens. Perhaps like the Prophet Muhammad’s flight to heaven from the Dome of the Rock. He stood like this for hours in anticipation.
Youssef, who was younger than Fouad but older than me, also suffered from a tepid form of schizophrenia. For the most part he functioned like everyone else. He even married and had a son. Yet he still suffered. He was hospitalised a number of times during the two years leading up to his death. Once for trying to take his own life. Youssef never believed he would experience old age. He would say things like. ‘I have had enough of this place’ and ‘I am ready’. After years of medication that made him drowsy and dull, he passed away in 2015 from bronchopneumonia. He was just shy of 37.
It is not uncommon for families to have more than one schizophrenic diagnosis. Genetics play a causative role but it is not the only factor. The aetiology of schizophrenia is complex. Having a sibling with schizophrenia increases the chance of developing the disease by up to 10 per cent. Other research has implicated migrant status as a high-risk factor for developing the disease. This is especially the case for second generation migrants such as my brothers. As to why such a risk exists there have been mixed explanations. Some research links it to social adversity faced by migrants and other research highlights the association between psychosis and perceived discrimination.
My parents emigrated to Australia from Lebanon’s Tripoli in the 1970’s during the Whitlam years. It was a time when the word ‘wog’ was more pejorative than it is today. Dad told us stories of being called a ‘f###ing dirty wog’ in the 1980s when he and my uncles ran restaurants and cafes in Kings Cross. My brothers and I were all born in Sydney. We grew up in the inner west suburb of Marrickville back when it wasn’t so hipster. Marrickville was a suburb of migrants. Illawarra Road was lined up with Greek milk bars, yeeros take away, and Chinese bakeries. There was also a Lebanese grocery store that sold Middle Eastern goods like zaatar and zeytoun. We were only one of a handful of Lebanese families in the area. We attended Ferncourt Public and Youssef and Fouad attended Tempe High before my parents decided to move back to Lebanon after the civil war ended in 1992.
I was eight years old when we moved to Lebanon. Fouad was 14 and Youssef was 13. We lived in an Alawite enclave called Jabel Mohsen. It was a small village that suffered from a serious rat problem. It was densely populated with the scars of war still visible. Bullet holes riddled the building façades and staircases were falling apart. Electricity was limited to a few hours a day which was frustrating because I couldn’t watch cartoons after school as I was accustomed to in Australia. There was a sense of community there however. People knew each other and everyone was known as a beit – a house. We were Beit Sleiman. The village community seemed like one big extended family. Neighbours would invite you for a mate tea or a game of sheshbesh. You could see people on their veranda with their mate and argyle pipe listening to George Wassouf or Nawal Al Zughbe or playing a card game called Bent al Sbeet. Relatives and neighbours would send each other dishes of kibe or kousa and uncles would drop in with fresh knafe.
My brothers and I attended a Christian school in Zgharta which was run by a pere who had it in for Muslim kids. We lasted one year before my father enrolled us in a secular school where a large number of students had Australian, American and Canadian backgrounds. There were even a few kids that came from Latin American countries such as Venezuela and Argentina.
It wasn’t before long that Youssef returned to Australia to work for my uncles, who had a bar and restaurant in Kings Cross. Soon after, Fouad also returned to Australia to work with Youssef. They both lived in Kings Cross on Darlinghurst Road near the old Bourbon and Beefsteak, a bar that US marines used to visit when they docked in at Woolloomooloo.
My parents and I stayed in Lebanon but we talked with Youssef and Fouad over the phone regularly and they would send us photos. They seemed like happy teenagers. Yet the back and forth, the cultural and religious fluidity, the uprootedness can all affect the mind and one’s sense of identity. At times Fouad seemed unable to differentiate his geographical settings and lived in his own head. He would often wander off for hours and not know where he had gone, eventually returning on his own. Youssef felt like he didn’t belong despite his tendency to be for all public appearances cosmopolitan: he wore designer branded clothing, had long hair which he could tie and sported a well-kept goatee. In public, he was your typical colloquial Aussie but in private he was a ruminating spiritual guy who held a misbaha in his hand.
Fouad got worse in Australia and my father had to return to bring him back to Lebanon. My parents tried all the medical treatment available in the hopes of curing him. When science failed they turned to religion and superstition. Every sheik or healer that claimed he could remove a jinn was brought to the house. There is no cure for schizophrenia.
Many years after the death of Fouad I had read that schizophrenics like the feeling of weightlessness or floating. I recalled how often I would find Fouad lying on a ledge somewhere, catatonic, staring up into the sky. He felt free on those ledges. Fouad fell to his death from a seven-story building. He was only 20 years old. Losing a son is devastating to any parent let alone losing two. But my parents are believers in God. In Islam there is a saying that goes,‘We are from God, and to Him we shall return.’
There are framed photos of both my brothers in my parents’ living room. Every time I think of my brothers I wonder how two seemingly happy lives could be so debilitatingly interrupted by mental illness and end in such tragedy. I remember the darkness of Fouad’s features – his dark eyes and his black hair –which mirror mine. I notice the greenness in Youssef’s eyes that his son Aiden inherited.
After losing Fouad, my mum had a baby girl 15 years after giving birth to me. It was my parents’ way of dealing with the loss of their first born. Lydia is almost 20 now. When she was born, it was Youssef who suggested she be named Lydia and it was Fouad who told my parents to name me Daniel.
For me, having lost two brothers, the world has become a much lonelier place. As kids you don’t need friends if you have brothers. I remember riding our spray-painted dragster bikes around Sydney’s Marrickville, swimming in the neighbour’s pool, and playing cricket in the middle of Carey Street. This was in the 1990s when ABC’s Rage played New Jack Swing, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was on TV and Sega Master System II was the hottest game console around.
Fouad owned cassette tapes of NWA, Ice T, Run DMC, Mc Hammer and Salt n Pepa. He even had a Public Enemy t-shirt and a Raiders cap like the one Ice Cube wore. He would often play music for us and rap along to some of the songs or superimpose his own narrative to the lyrics. He taught me the running man, a dance move which I have yet to master. Youssef used to beatbox along and we called him ‘Busta’ or ‘Bus’ for short. He was the more rebellious type, having joined the Marrickville Boys, a group of kids playing gangster, whilst Fouad played the big brother. Youssef smoked cigarettes, jigged school and flirted with girls. Fouad was shy and more reserved, often spending time drawing sketches about a character he created called Boyyy who was a super flea that could travel great distances. Fouad displayed the hallmarks of an artist whilst Youssef was street smart.
Fouad had taken a little to Islam in his teenage years. He would always recite Surat Al Nas, the Surah on mankind which seeks refuge with God against shaytan (satan). The Surah reads,‘I seek refuge in the Lord of Men, the King of Men, the God of men, from the mischief of the slinking prompter who whispers in the hearts of men; from jinn and men.’
Today I try to piece together a history of my brothers from the photos that my parents have taken over the years. I look at the face of Fouad and find a gentle glint in his eyes, a deep sense of connection, a heart on display which was fitting because his name means heart in Arabic. I notice a darker complexion than that of Youssef’s. I see how his once full body thinned over the years and how his eyes became vacant as schizophrenia took hold.
I look at Youssef and notice his curious smile, his knowing confidence, my mother’s green eyes, and my grandmother’s sense of frivolity. I see how the rebel in him matured into a family man, a person who spent hours talking to, and listening to, his grandmother Khadijah. I see struggle but acceptance, a fighter who fought his whole life.
I see these things because Fouad and Youssef are not just characters of a story I can put away. They are part of my story, and my story continues. My struggle against memory continues. My need to understand their lives continues. And yet it may all be a fruitless pursuit because we never really know of someone’s experience. What appears as madness almost invariably seems like the most logical and apt behaviour to its actor. As the Irish writer and Nobel laureate, Samuel Beckett, once said, ‘All are born mad. Some remain so.’
Daniel is a freelance writer, producer, and journalist. He is currently working on his first novel.
Mental health support services:
Lifeline - 13 11 14
Carers Australia 1800 242 636 - Short-term counselling and emotional and psychological support services for carers and their families in each state and territory.
Headspace 1800 650 890 - a free online and telephone service that supports young people aged between 12 and 25 and their families going through a tough time.
Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 - A free, private and confidential, telephone and online counselling service specifically for young people aged between 5 and 25.
Mindspot Clinic 1800 61 44 34 - An online and telephone clinic providing free assessment and treatment services for Australian adults with anxiety or depression.
QLife 1800 184 527 - QLife is Australia’s first nationally-oriented counselling and referral service for LGBTI people.
Relationships Australia 1300 364 277- A provider of relationship support services for individuals, families and communities.
SANE Australia 1800 18 7263 - Information about mental illness, treatments, where to go for support and help carers.
Source: Beyond Blue
This article is part of a collaborative series by SBS Life and Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement which is devoted to empowering groups and individuals from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds through training and employment in creative and critical writing initiatives. Sweatshop is directed by Michael Mohammed Ahmad. The Big Black Thing Chapter. 2 alongside other SWEATSHOP publications can be purchased from the website.
The new SBS series 'How 'Mad' Are You?' takes a unique look at mental health. Episode two will be broadcast on SBS at 8:30pm on October 18, and SBS On Demand.