Psychosis: The secret life of my family

For 20 years, Sara Kenney has kept silent about her two brothers' psychotic illness. But now she hopes her film, inspired by their story, will help to lift the stigma

If you saw me walking down the street, you would think I was a typical thirtysomething Londoner. But I have been carrying a secret with me for 20 years. I have been living a double life, witnessing extraordinary things.

For my day job, I work as a TV producer, making documentaries. But behind the scenes in my world, there are aliens, goblins and spies. These creatures have plagued my family for a long time and we have been desperately trying to make them go away.

They invade our lives because of a mental illness called psychosis.

I'm a middle child, with two brothers, and my family encountered our first aliens back in 1995. My parents had to bring my older brother home from university. He was emaciated – he's 6ft tall but only weighed six stone. He'd been watching famine reports on the TV and voices told him that it wasn't fair for him to eat. He thought our parents were aliens and was experiencing hallucinations – both visual and auditory. He was having a psychotic episode and was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia.

My older brother was the academic one, brilliant on computers and incredibly artistic. He would programme games on the ZX Spectrum and we'd all feature as characters. He loved to skateboard and was a proud geek. He was our hero. My younger brother – 16 at the time – was the smart, cool and practical one. He loved hip hop and electro and we'd all breakdance on the giant pieces of lino he'd drag into our back garden. I know he suffered more than me during our older brother's illness. I was at university so had some protection and distance from the daily battle to bring my brother back to sanity.

Psychosis is a medical term used to describe a range of symptoms, including hearing or seeing things, or holding unusual convictions. Examples range from the belief that people are out to get you in some way (paranoia) to the belief that you are a king or religious deity (euphoria). People who have a mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, postpartum psychosis and psychotic depression experience some or all of the symptoms of psychosis. But there are many other illnesses that can lead to a psychotic experience.

My parents never gave up on my brother and over the years, with medication and a lot of talking, he came back to us. It took 10 years to get him to a place where he could get a job and engage with the world again. That's enough time to lose a lot of friends and damage the potential you once had.

Psychosis affects 3 per cent of the population at some point in their lives. It's more common in young people than diabetes. So I am definitely not alone in my experience of this illness, although it can feel like it sometimes.

When someone you love changes in this way it can feel like bereavement, but it's a complicated experience, because the person is still standing there in front of you.

In 2009, something happened that we really weren't expecting. I got a call from my mother to say that my younger brother had been picked up by the police and taken to a psychiatric hospital. He was found walking the streets, trying to stop cars, with a cardboard plaque around his neck appealing for help. It was a total shock, because my younger brother was usually so together in the head.

I remember travelling home, feeling sick to my stomach. We'd been through this with my older brother. How could it be happening again? My younger brother's manifestation of the illness was different. He wasn't hallucinating, but experiencing what are known as "thought disturbances". He believed that people were trying to warp his brain via the computer and TV (some would say, not such a delusion) and he was being followed and monitored by strange forces.

There is no one single cause of psychosis, although scientists believe that genes, biological factors and environment all play a part. I tried to think what could have caused this. He was helping to look after my terminally ill father while studying for a degree in architecture. My father died during the second year of his degree, and then he graduated just after the financial crash. Getting a placement, let alone a job, was impossible.

The illness prevailed and I was at a loss as to how to help my brother battle the spies, evil Nazis and drug cartels that were after him. His experience was a bit like an action film, but without the fun bits and happy ending.

My younger brother always rejects the label of schizophrenia and I don't blame him.

Dr Emmanuelle Peters is an expert in psychosis at Kings College. "The term 'schizophrenia' can be stigmatising and scientifically it's not that meaningful, as there is so much overlap between different illnesses," she says. "However, for some people, especially carers, having a diagnosis can be helpful, as it means you know what you're dealing with."

My younger brother prefers to say that he has experienced psychosis – it frees him from a lifelong and unnecessary label.

In June 2012, my younger brother was sectioned for the fourth time. It felt as though we were trapped in a cycle that would never end. A yearly breakdown into psychosis, punctuated with periods of normality (whatever normal is). I decided it was time to stop hiding this part of my life and use what I had learnt to try to help other people. I don't have any useful skills such as nursing or teaching, so making a film was my only option.

The film tells the story of a girl who is trying to rescue her brothers from mental illness. I worked with the artist Graham Carter; animation studio Ticktock Robot and Oscar-nominated actress Samantha Morton.

I hope the film will communicate the importance of the role of a sibling and help destigmatise the illness.

More than 75 per cent of people who experience psychosis go on to recover completely, or the illness is episodic, but controllable. There is hope – both my brothers are doing well now, after years of the illness. I believe my mother played a big role in their recovery. She is a social worker who specialises in mental health.

She's an advocate of CBT and we often joke that she talked them back to health. The scientific evidence for the effectiveness of CBT has grown, but in spite of this research, the availability for patients is still low. This needs to change.

The strange creatures have left us in peace for now. I suddenly feel very nervous about people reading this and knowing my secret.

However, I am comforted by the fact that my brothers support me in writing about our experiences. If it can help just one person realise that they are not alone in their battle, then that has to be a good thing.

'Angels and Ghosts' is funded by the Wellcome Trust and screens at the ICA on Wednesday 15 January, as part of the London Short Film Festival. A trailer can be seen here: www.angelsandghosts.co.uk

facebook.com/angelsandghostsfilm

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

    £18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

    Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

    £40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

    £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

    £20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

    Day In a Page

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future