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Brotherly bond clouded by schizophrenia

Dell May, at age 7, holds his new-born brother Ben
Zoe Cooley
Dell May, at age 7, holds his new-born brother Ben

Some of the longest relationships are the life-long ties between siblings. But that connection can get complicated when one sibling suffers from a mental illness.

Many support programs don’t focus much on the sibling relationships. Northwest News Network reporter Jessica Robinson recorded the story of two brothers: one in Moscow, Idaho, the other in Anchorage, Alaska. One has schizophrenia. The other grew up in the shadow of it.

Growing up together

Ben May: I’m Ben May. I’m a resident of Anchorage, Alaska for about 20 years now.

Dell May: My name is Dell. Last name M-A-Y. May.

Ben May: Dell is my brother with schizophrenia.

Dell May: Ben, yeah, May. M-A-Y, Ben. That is my brother. He’s a friendly person, I don’t seem him very often.

Ben May: Just to ask someone with schizophrenia, How are you feeling? Are you frustrated, are you mad? I was hoping you’d do the dishes. Why won’t you do them? -- If he doesn’t want to he’s probably not going to be able to tell me why or what’s going on.

Ben May: As a 6-year-old, I definitely looked up to my older brother Dell. He was into rock at the time. He was a drummer, he had a trap set.

Dell May: Yeah, when I was real young, I was in a band.

Ben May: I thought that was very cool. But I think I was a little mystified by him at times and what he was about.

Dell May: I always had the idea of putting posters on my wall.

Ben May: He kind of started to go into his own world a little bit and probably wasn’t able to communicate that world.

Dell May: I don’t remember very well. We played board games. I remember doing that sometimes, you know.

Ben May: And then …

Problems appear for Dell

Dell May: I had some difficulties with drug related problems.

Ben May: And there was big fights between my parents and Dell about what he was doing. He spent a lot of time smoking cigarettes. I was in many ways an only child at that time.

Dell May: I don’t think that’s when I was aware of having the problem. I may very well have had the problem.

Ben May: Later on when I was probably 15 or 16, he was in Colfax in a facility that was pretty awful. It felt like a warehouse now that I look back on it. It was the classic brick house up on the hill, run down. There were people shambling down the halls, and I remember him sitting in his room and drawing on a tablet of graph paper.

Dell May: Graphic? Or, drawing huh?

Ben May: He had gone through most of the tablet and drawn stair steps across.

Dell May: I don’t know what that would have been.

Ben May: I couldn’t get it. I was wanting to connect and at the same time being like, What’s going on here? This is messed up.

Noticing the signs and offering support

Ben May: I don’t know it must have been 15 years ago and we had traveled together and he had stopped where I was living in Illinois, and I was doing all the dishes and all that. And I got tired and frustrated with that, and so I was pushing on him to do more. I think I felt like his brother wanting him to step up, help out. And my style at the time was very, “What’s going on with you? This is what’s going on with me.”

Dell May: Maybe that’s what he said, I don’t know.

Ben May: And it’s too abrupt and it’s too raw. And it just didn’t work. It doesn’t work. If you’re hearing voices or you’re having a hard time getting in touch with yourself, how could that work?

Ben May: I think it was on that same visit where …

Dell May: Oh yeah!

Ben May: We went to a parking lot, I got him in the driver’s seat of my van and …

Dell May: In a parking lot, yeah.

Ben May: I got him to drive it a little.

Dell May: I didn’t have a license, I said, “Aw, I’d better not.” And he said, “Oh, come on, get behind there.”

Ben May: He was scared but he did it for a little while. And … a year later he had his driver’s license. And he’d been driving and he’d done driver’s ed. And I was really happy for him. And happy that I’d been able to give it a little jolt, like yeah you can do this. And, for once I didn’t push it too much.

Living on his own

Ben May: Dell lives on his own in Moscow, Idaho.

Dell May: They’re doing remodeling.

Ben May: He’s independent, he’s got a truck.

Dell May: I do, yeah. It’s a Chevy, ‘79 Chevy.

Ben May: He votes.

Dell May: I was trying to figure out that school levy thing.

Ben May: He takes trips.

Dell May: June 19 I went to Pocatello.

Ben May: He’s worked at times.

Dell May: I worked at McDonalds restaurant for a while. You’ve been to McDonalds.

Ben May: So it’s at a sibling in another state kind of level.

Dell May: I don’t see much of him, but of course that’s quite a way’s away. Anchorage, that’s quite a way’s away.

Ben May: Did I want Dell to not have this problem? Sure. Do I also want to take him as he is? Yeah. So there’s a tension between those two.

Dell May: I don’t expect anyone to have to understand.

Ben May: I want to treat him like my brother and not coddle, but I also want to respect Dell for who he is.

Dell May: They’re doing all they can for me, so … which is good.


Special thanks to the Alaska Public Radio Network.

Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network

Inland Northwest Correspondent Jessica Robinson reports from the Northwest News Network's bureau in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. From the politics of wolves to mining regulation to small town gay rights movements, Jessica covers the economic, demographic and environmental trends that are shaping places east of the Cascades.