An interview with He Came In With It author Miriam Feldman about the immense fallout of her son’s schizophrenia.
The schizophrenia diagnosis of Miriam Feldman’s teenage son, Nick, was the catalyst for an avalanche of turbulence, pitching her family wildly and permanently off course for over a decade, and unraveling any concept of a ‘normal’ family life.
Miriam and I have shared many a yoga room at YogaWorks (Center for Yoga) on Larchmont Blvd for at least a decade. In my capacity as a yoga teacher, I observed her fierce, dedicated, unshakable practice. She was always determined, always focused, fully present, and always wonderfully friendly. In those frequent, but brief, path-crossings before and after class, we’d often share pleasantries and greetings. It was only recently, in the past couple years, when we found we had a mutual friend in author Jennifer Pastiloff, whose writing workshop Miriam had attended, did I learn she was writing a book. And then I learned about the book’s contents…
He Came In With It is Feldman’s captivating and complicated memoir of motherhood inextricably interwoven with unimaginable tragedy: violence, evictions, arrests, drugs, a suicide attempt, a near-drowning, cancer, and a brain tumor. It unapologetically chronicles her struggles with the complexities of her son Nick’s mental illness; and it unflinchingly recounts stories of breakdowns and failures countered with admirably persistent resilience. She illustrates the reverberating familial impact, depicts her discovery of yoga, and ultimately, portrays her journey to acceptance.
Miriam, from the moment I read the book description on the back jacket until I put it down, I was engrossed. At times, I had to remind myself it was someone’s real story. What inspired the writing of this book?
I was leading the typical, busy, working-mother lifestyle in Los Angeles when things started to go terribly wrong. What first seemed like normal teenage behavior ended in a schizophrenia diagnosis for my son, Nick. If you know anything about serious mental illness (which I didn’t) a diagnosis brings no closure. There is no clear path to treatment or recovery. It just delivers chaos and fear and helplessness. Feelings that a Type A control freak like myself did not know how to handle. I had yet to come up against a problem I couldn’t solve, and I was sure I could somehow “fix” this as well. But schizophrenia is like a tornado that rips through your life, leaving everything in shambles, broken or upside down. There was no fixing it. After three years of trying to help my son, take care of his sisters, maintain my marriage, and run my business, I was exhausted, angry, and filled with grief.
In He Came In With It you describe the stress Nick’s schizophrenia was heaping on you and your family. For example:
“I was terrified all the time. I was no longer able to be a good mother, to make good decisions, because I was always in fight-or-flight mode, just trying to keep things from blowing up. Strategies evaporated; promises to my husband to be tougher just melted away.”
It feels hopeless. How did you come back from such a fragile place?
It was a result of a couple things. There came a point where I had to look up at the night sky and make friends with the possibility that Nick might not survive. That there was a chance he’d end up dead. I guess I didn’t exactly “make friends” with the idea, but I made space for it. I came to terms with it. That was a hard reckoning, but it released me from the terror. And while I was looking at that night sky, I also decided to start trusting the universe. This dovetailed with my yoga education. All the ideas brought to me by the teachers started to play an actual part in my life. I changed my relationship with the world. I changed the way I moved through my life. It was a revelation.
Was writing this book cathartic? I wonder about the feelings that the process of writing the book might have brought up?
When I wrote the first iteration it was a pouring out. I just let it all come, all the memories, all the details I thought I’d forgotten. Once I got them out on the paper, I began to organize them. It was all very practical, like building a house, this goes here, this will hold this up. Every so often, it would hit me that this was real, this was my true story. I relived the whole thing, I came to terms with a lot of things in my marriage, I had to face mistakes and bad judgments. One of the most difficult things was realizing how awful it had been for my daughters, the damage done. The feelings this process has brought up are enormous, crushing sometimes. But it’s good, it’s good to be crushed, to really, really feel these things. It hasn’t been cathartic in the sense that it resolved the feeling, they are living things, they continue. But writing the book has made my life known to me in a way it wasn’t before. I had to take this giant pile of experiences and emotions and sort it out. I can see it from outer space now. It has a pattern. It is knowable.
Your strength and resilience were so impactful. I can’t even begin to imagine the experiences you shouldered. I was also touched by your vulnerability in speaking candidly of the challenges this brought on you and your family. Can you talk about your choices around that vulnerability?
When I started this book, I decided that the only way it was going to work was for me to be honest. I made a specific decision to put it all out there because I really wanted others to know they weren’t alone. The isolation of the first few years, when I was trying to keep up a front, almost destroyed me. One of the things I always say about having a son with schizophrenia is that you become officially “embarrassment-proof.” There just isn’t time for it. That being said, I did have concerns about the other members of the family and their privacy. I gave the book to each of them to read and said if there was anything they didn’t want in there, I would remove it. Surprisingly, everyone was fine with it. My youngest daughter said that there were some things she remembered differently, but that it was my telling of the story and she respected that. Nick knows about the book but hasn’t read it. He is quite proud that they used his painting for the cover.
The book cover is Nick’s painting?
It is a self-portrait Nick did when he was sixteen. I’ve always found it beautiful, and prescient, and I was thrilled when the publisher wanted to use it for the cover.
You and your family have been through so much. Can you speak about trauma? And do you have a sense of how yoga helped with that trauma?
You know, for the better part of my life I’ve been of the “buck-up and deal with it” school. I didn’t give too much thought to trauma. I used to tell my kids to “rub some dirt on it and walk it off.” But now that I am in my sixties, and I have seen some things, I’m much more respectful of the implications and long-lasting effects of trauma. I see my daughters, all adults now, still processing and contending with the damage all this heaped on the family. I see myself blindsided at the most inopportune moments by what a smell or a glimpse of something brings up. The yoga has taught me to stand in the fire without fear, to allow the grief and the memories because they are part of the whole. Without them the love and the joy would not be as deep. It’s kind of an obvious metaphor, but I have always loved mountain pose, it speaks to me. Standing with your feet firmly planted and you heart open, palms facing the future, that is where I feel most at home. Ready and open.
In the book you talk about your inclination to “fix” everything. How did that shift? What did that look like?
This has always been a theme for me. I like to say I’m “pathologically functional” which actually is not a good thing. In even the worst situations, I usually get up, get dressed, and go to work. The problem with that is you are so busy trying to control everything that you make it worse. Coming up against an adversary like schizophrenia made me stop and re-imagine my problem solving and reactivity. I realized that I was wasting a lot of energy trying to fix things that were unfixable, or maybe even didn’t need fixing. It became clear that I needed to adjust myself to the reality, not try and change the reality.
Did yoga inform that shift?
Yes, absolutely. I’d always thought of surrender as a weakness, giving in, giving up. Through the yoga teaching I learned the concept of surrender as acceptance, not “losing”. I realized it took great strength and intelligence to allow for things that aren’t particularly your choice, or pleasant, but that are inevitable. The folly of throwing myself up against brick walls was clear. I had to start operating from a place of understanding, and yoga was the path to that.
What was your introduction to yoga?
I was a shell of my former self. Everything I had previously held as true was in question, nothing made sense anymore. But I had a lot of empty space inside, now that my hardline ideas and opinions had been decimated. I started practicing yoga a couple years into all of it because I decided I needed to get exercise and the yoga center was very close to home. I had never been particularly interested in yoga, it seemed a little slow and woo-woo for me. And then it saved me. One day, I found myself doing a balance pose that had previously been impossible. I swelled with contentment and thought, “I can’t save Nick, but I can do this. Right now, I am balancing on one leg, and that’s not nothing.”
I stopped thinking about it and just stood there. A profound lesson.
This wasn’t about exercise. When schizophrenia turned my life upside down, yoga taught me how to hold my balance.
You describe yourself as a Type A person. What rituals or structures make you feel grounded?
The people who know me would scoff at this, but I don’t describe myself as a Type A anymore. I suppose I still look like what a Type A is, but inside my head I am different. I can let go of things; I am at peace with things. My head isn’t an anthill anymore, so even though I move around a lot, I am different in relation to the world. I have a strong daily meditation practice; I also practice yoga daily. These two things ground me in a life that is manageable, with beauty and joy.
Would you say your yoga practice changed from when you started to now?
I was almost fifty when I started, surrounded my young, practiced yogis in every class. And in retrospect I spent too much energy proving to myself that I could “keep up.” I just loved the exhilaration of a fast-paced asana practice and being able to do new things every day pleased me. A few years in, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor and I had to have serious spinal surgery, and that brought it all to a halt. After two surgeries and recovery, I returned to yoga class to find all my strength gone. I lowered myself into chaturanga and fell to the ground. I couldn’t even hold my own weight. I wept to my teacher who told me the classic, “Come to your mat every day without expectation.” I had to let go of all my pride and accomplishment and start over. And that was the day I really began to practice yoga.
In the book, you outline some of the challenges of the mental health system. If you had the ability to make some immediate changes, what would they be?
I fully realize this answer could likely be its own book. The mental health system needs a complete overhaul. There was a well-intentioned but disastrous movement in the sixties to eliminate the institutions and replace them with more community-based treatment centers. They achieved the de-institutionalization, but it was never replaced with anything. The prisons and the streets have become our de facto mental health system, and it has to change. We need good treatment, good facilities, and family-involved care. With serious mental illness, there is no other way.
I also believe that we, as a society, need to change our attitude about people with mental illness. One percent of the population is diagnosed with schizophrenia; that is a substantial portion of the population. One in four people will deal with some sort of mental illness in their lifetime. That means it touches pretty much everyone. These people are of us, they are part of our society. What right do we have to marginalize them and look away? They have a right to a place in our world, how dare we look away? Creating a viable place in society for those with mental illness is the obligation of a civilized culture. This is their world too.
Would you consider it accurate in describing this book as your third act? That of artist, mother, and now you embark on the journey of writer. After reading all you’ve been through, it feels like you’ve lived lifetimes!
Yes, I do. Since I could hold something in my hand, it was a brush. I have been painting since the beginning of my awareness of myself. To have switched mediums, from paint to the written word, is enormous. I have never been so on fire creatively in my life. I have so many ideas, for painting and writing; at this point I’m going to have to live a long life to get them all done. I’d better take care of myself!
Tell me more about your art.
It’s interesting, until the book, art making was something I really never talked about. It was just what I did, and I felt talking about it was pretentious, or silly. I think that came from my art school days when the people doing the most talk did the least art making. When I was doing my final workshopping of the book with Lidia Yuknavitch in Portland, she called me on that. She said, “Mimi, I know you’ve spent your entire life painting, and that everyone in your family is an artist, but there is no attention to that in the book. You never talk about it.” Somehow, this observation gave me license to really explore the place art making has in my life and the dynamic of my family. It was a revelation, and a relief to actually give it words. My painting is changing right now, it is more simple. I am not worrying about what things mean, or what statement I’m making, I’m simply exploring images that interest me. Nick has started painting again this last year, after many years of coloring in children’s coloring books. It’s very exciting. I do know this, every time I sit back down at the easel after being away for a while it is the same. I take a deep breath and I think: Oh right, this is who I am.
How has your definition of family changed throughout this trajectory with Nick?
Really not at all. The experience of Nick and his schizophrenia has reinforced what I’ve always felt…family is the most important thing. At the beginning I decided that this wasn’t going to destroy my family. I wouldn’t let it. But now I know it wasn’t about my controlling it, it was the fierce love of the members of this family that saved us.
Has your concept of relationship evolved?
I’m fiercely devoted to those I love; it is a lifelong commitment. I have learned to have acceptance in my relationships the same way I do in life, now. I don’t spend a lot of time trying to change people.
What do you want people to take away from the book?
I would like them to remember Nick O’Rourke. It’s a simple intention for I book, I suppose, but when you watch your child basically disappear in front of you, priorities emerge. I had a fundamental fear that no one would know who he was, is, I wanted to document this. In addition to that, I wanted to document this extraordinary experience. And I choose my words carefully here, I don’t say “tragic’ or “horrible” on purpose. Of course, I never would have signed up for this, and I would do anything to relieve Nick of his schizophrenia, but it has been extraordinary. It has revealed depths of emotion and understanding of the human condition that I never imagined. I want this story out there in the world to illustrate the condition of the margins, a place where so many people feel isolated and alone. I believe that the margins are well populated, and we need to share our experiences.
Joe Kara enjoys a double life working in music and teaching Yoga in Hollywood and the Valley. He plays a little bass, too. @JoeKaraYoga