Senior opens up about her father’s battle with mental illness

January 30, 2019 — by Andrew Li and Elaine Toh

Senior Leena Elzeiny listened to her father mutter about an invisible force trying to get him, curtly accusing her for betraying him due to her small accidental actions — like leaving a small pile of trash on the floor while she was sweeping the floor at her house recently. Immediately, Elzeiny felt uncomfortable, but then an immense sadness washed over her as she realized, from her father’s perspective, he could depend on no one — not even family.

Her father’s reaction, however, was not new to her. For Elzeiny, these interactions with her father have become regular experiences since her father was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia by  several psychologists around 2012. He continues to be especially paranoid that the CIA and FBI are watching over him and working against him.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, schizophrenia is typically diagnosed from a patient's late teens to early 30s, and in the U.S., 0.25 to 0.64 percent of the population has schizophrenia or related psychotic disorders. They bear symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, thought disorders and cognitive impairment.

In fact, when Elzeiny’s father was informed of his schizophrenia, the delusions he was experiencing led him to believe that the doctors were “paid to give him that diagnosis.”

Elzeiny’s family moved to Saratoga approximately one and a half years before her father’s symptoms began to emerge in 2011. During this time, the family would occasionally hear about the injustices of the CIA or FBI.

Her father, who was in his 40s, started to exhibit symptoms that suggested paranoid schizophrenia — his constant fear and anxiety muddled his ability to decipher reality from his delusional thoughts. For example, he would become skeptical if Elzeiny and her siblings sang songs in front of him, thinking that the lyrics were directed at him; he would become suspicious of his surroundings if he saw the furniture in their house was moved around and he would hesitate when he was served food, thinking it was an indication of malicious intent.

At the time, Elzeiny believed her father’s claims, taking everything that came out of her father’s mouth “as the truth.”

Despite his formal diagnosis, Elzeiny was never informed of his situation and only vaguely knew that her father was sick. Elzeiny said she also didn't have a reason to not believe her father.

“He would say things about the CIA and FBI,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s pretty interesting.’ It occurs to me that I still believed him in seventh grade.”

However, by the time Elzeiny reached eighth grade, her trust in her father’s theories started to crumble.

One day, while she was in the car with her siblings, Elzeiny finally connected the dots when he repeated a phrase he commonly told her:  “When the devil speaks to you, you shouldn’t listen to him.”

Elzeiny realized that he really meant to say, “When the CIA talks to you, don’t listen to their orders.” His words, Elzeiny said, indirectly accused her of siding against her father by “working” with the CIA.

“From then on, I took everything with a grain of salt,” Elzeiny said. “Before, if my dad said something purely ridiculous, such as ‘this knocked down trash can is a result of [the CIA],’ I didn’t believe that. But, I believed almost everything else.”


Effects on family life

As her father’s symptoms started becoming more apparent, Elzeiny said that her family’s everyday life became severely impacted.

As a result of his condition, her father, who had worked as a nuclear engineer for approximately 15 years, lost his job. Her father started relying on medications and antidepressants to combat his symptoms. But his medications, which Elzeiny said barely help his mental state, keep him in bed a minimum of 14 hours a day; however, during his waking hours, he still remains self-sufficient.

As a result of this financial blow, the family had to turn to Social Security and insurance for survival. Elzeiny’s mother took on the role of the household’s breadwinner, despite not having a high-paying job.  

According to Elzeiny, her father has regular schizophrenic episodes, but the severity of each one differs from month to month. In the moments when he becomes occupied with his thoughts, he views his surroundings as viable evidence of the CIA’s corruption, even something as seemingly insignificant as “a knocked over chair.”

Furthermore, if a family member ever tries to disprove his statements with substantiated evidence, her father comes up with an excuse, claiming that the proof was falsely created.

Some of Elzeiny’s three older siblings still sometimes try to reason with their father with logical evidence. Elzeiny’s eldest brother, who is 10 years older than her, especially tries to change his viewpoints, even though his efforts are often futile.

Elzeiny said that because her brother was in college when her father began to demonstrate increasingly severe symptoms, the family decided to not inform him, on the theory that it was the last thing he needed to worry about while in college. Because of this, Elzeiny said he still hasn’t fully come to terms with their father’s medical state.

Unlike her brother, Elzeiny has mostly adjusted to her father’s condition; for example, when he experiences an episode, Elzeiny now knows how to appropriately react by quickly shifting the conversation topic.

“It is important above all else that he knows that he is not alone, so I don’t want to get aggressive and get mad at him,” Elzeiny said.

Despite her father’s condition, Elzeiny said she still loves him dearly. After all, his schizophrenia does not consume her family’s entire daily life — it only constitutes an important aspect of it.

“He’s still my dad and someone I communicate with regularly, such as at the dinner table,” she said. “He is still a parental figure. The difference is that I don’t trust any of his opinions anymore. As a consequence of that, I have learned to think independently.”


Moving forward

In early January of last year, Elzeiny listened to an episode of “This American Life,” a weekly radio program and podcast. This one “Chip in My Brain,” caused her to re-evaluate her experiences.

In this particular episode, a young man named Cody Treybig recounts his experiences with his childhood basketball coach, AJ, who became something of a cult leader in his life. Though Treybig’s parents remained unaware, their son started to adapt and learn the coach’s extreme and bizarre ideologies. Now, as an adult, Treybig said that he took all of his coach’s teachings for granted, and no one realized.

“How he said it made me look back and be like, ‘Wait, that’s exactly what happened to me. I took everything, no matter how absurd, that my dad said as truth,’” Elzeiny said. “I had no reason to do otherwise.”

In addition to the podcast that helped her reconsider her experience, Elzeiny, under the pressure of writing her college and scholarship applications, began to reflect on her life with her father. Upon encountering a question about her home life, Elzeiny’s thoughts were twofold.

“I was like, ‘If you really want to go into [my home life], there are two aspects,” Elzeiny said. “I live in a rich society and my dad is unemployed, and the reason he is unemployed is because of [his condition].”

Elzeiny then had to come to terms that her father’s condition was a mental illness, and in her quest to write about her experiences she eventually discovered the formal name of her father’s condition.

“That was when I figured out the word was paranoid schizophrenia, and that made me realize I had this entire private life that I don’t even talk about,” she said.

After one of her father’s frequent episodes and being inspired by several YouTube videos, Elzeiny let out all her emotions on a document, which organized her thoughts for college applications as well as helped draft a speech.

“That was when I started to write things out and make my first draft, and I was constantly seeking [to tell my story],” Elzeiny said.

As a result, Elzeiny tried to apply as a speaker at TedX, but was denied due to her story not matching its theme, “Write Your Own Story.” She also wanted to speak at Breaking Down Barriers until she found out it did not have any speakers.

Finally, when Speak Up For Change was announced, Elzeiny was ecstatic.

“When I saw the post that there was Speak Up For Change, I was like, ‘Yes, finally, this is it,’ and then from there, it’s all been very surreal because it’s all experiences that I’ve not really talked about,” Elzeiny said.

On Jan. 22, Elzeiny told her story at the schoolwide event in the assembly. For her, she said that her reason for being a speaker was not for herself, but rather for others.

“I essentially wanted to prove people wrong that a lot of people just took me for a normal kid in Saratoga, but, in reality, I deal with a lot of other things,” Elzeiny said. “I wanted to challenge people's assumptions because assumptions aren't safe.”

However, after her speech, for  reasons she couldn’t explain, Elzeiny began to cry.

“Maybe it was relief from the stress from publicly speaking about [my father’s condition],” Elzeiny said. “What I do know is that I did cry, and it was over pretty fast.”

As of now, as Elzeiny plans to go to college this coming fall, she worries about her mother being all alone. For Elzeiny, as her three siblings all ended up leaving the house for college, she could still depend on her mother for support. But it won’t be the same after Elzeiny leaves.

However, Elzeiny said that as she leaves for college, her relationship with her father will stay constant, as even during high school it never depended on them interacting daily.

“There would be no reason why our relationship would falter especially because our relationship right now doesn't depend on us seeing one another,” Elzeiny said. “It's just like, ‘Hey dad, I love you.’"

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