Character Interview by Terri Morgan
with Ayla-Ava Swarthout/Caitlin Kane
the fictional author of Playing the Genetic Lottery
TM: Your story of growing up with two schizophrenic parents is a very personal tale of an unconventional childhood. In addition, many people are ashamed to admit there is anyone in their family who is mentally ill. Why did you decide to tell your story?
Caitlin: I did for a couple of reasons. First off, I was trying to come to terms with my life. Obviously, my childhood was pretty traumatic. Even without the house fire and the car crash, there was a lot of drama and dysfunction in my childhood. As a mother raising two children of my own, I wanted to process my life so I could put a lot of the baggage behind me and become the best mother possible.
Secondly, I think it's time for mental illness to come out of the closet, so to speak. My parents didn't ask for the disease. They didn't want to get sick, and it's not fair that they are. Life is a struggle for them. Despite their illnesses and challenges, they're my parents and I love them. It makes me angry when I see people ignore them, or worse, make fun of them. I wanted people to know that mentally ill people deserve to be respected, like anyone else.
TM: Speaking of angry, you were an angry kid.
Caitlin: You're darn right I was. Moving constantly, always switching schools, having parents who acted weirdly, being afraid to make friends because they might want to come to my house. Not to mention the turmoil of never knowing what kind of mood my folks would be in. You'd be angry too.
TM: How did you stop being so angry?
Caitlin: Who says I did? (Laughs). I eventually came to terms with it. I had a lot of good people in my life who helped me recognize the roots of my anger and understand what was really upsetting me. Therapy helped too. So did the love and support of my husband Jason and my extended family. As I grew older I realized my grandparents, aunts and uncles were upset too, that their son, daughter, brother or sister was mentally ill. I saw how they coped and adapted and learned from their examples.
TM:You've come a long way since your childhood and learned a lot about schizophrenia, which as you point out, tends to run in families. Even though you know that the chances of developing the disease yourself is very slim because you're in your 30s, you are still afraid. Why?
Caitlin: I think there are just some fears you can't recover from, or at least I can't. From my support group I've learned that a lot of other people who have schizophrenic parents share my fear. I think it's because children learn so much about the world and how to behave from their parents. When one or both of your parents is mentally ill, that's what you see at home. Even though I know that I'm past the age when schizophrenia tends to develop, it's a fear I just can't shake. Especially since I have children. I would hate for them to have to grow up with a schizophrenic mother. And I'm worried, since the disease has a hereditary component, that one or both of my kids may end up with it. That worry, I think, helps reinforce my own fears about getting sick myself.
TM: Now that your story is out, what's next for you? Are you going to be a spokeswoman for families of schizophrenics.
Caitlin: I don't know. I'm not comfortable being in the limelight, but I'm not going to turn my back on anyone who needs my help. I'm glad to share my story with people who are in the same situation. I hope my story helps validate their experiences. I also hope they take advantage of the help that is out there, like support groups and organizations like the National Alliance on Mentally Illness, which is also known as NAMI, that can assist them. There are local NAMI chapters all across the country. People can find one near them, and learn a lot about the resources available for families by going to www.nami.org.
Terri Morgan is a freelance journalist from Soquel, California. She is the author or co-author of eight books, including many for young adults. Playing the Genetic Lottery is her first novel. When not working, she enjoys surfing, romping with her dog, and shooting the bb gun her husband bought her for her 50th birthday. She can be found on the web at http://terrimorgan.net. (Where you can also read excerpts from her novel.)
As always, find interviews, writing samples, videos, contests and more on my website.