Editor’s note: This story is the seventh in an 8-part series of feature stories written in conjunction with the ongoing “Inside Out” community campaign to normalize mental illness. The subject of this story, Kyle Larson, is featured in Leighton Broadcasting’s “Inside Out” video about schizophrenia. He agreed to be featured in this newspaper article as well, but due to the state of his illness at the time, declined a separate interview with the paper. Comments attributed to him here are taken from the video.
The voices in Kyle Larson’s head are relentless. There are usually three of them - each one distinct, with its own sound and personality. Each one terrible and frightening in its own way.
“They’re not good people,” Kyle says of the voices. “There’s no right or reasoning with them, and they talk to me all the time. I can wake up in the middle of the night, and they’re there. I don’t know what they’re doing, or what their objective or agenda is, but it’s always bad, always threatening.”
Sometimes the voices try to make Kyle hurt himself, like when they urge him to “go, go, go, go” while he’s sitting at a red light. Other times, they try to convince him that horrible things are going to happen to his family, and they spare no graphic details. They reverberate around the echo chambers of his mind, and also come at him unexpectedly through the TV, or radio, or even through other people, including his children. No matter how hard he tries to quiet them, they just won’t be shushed.
“There’s nothing that I can do,” he says. “It’ll go like that day after day after day, and I go into a psychosis and there’s nothing that I can do. There’s nothing anybody can do.”
He’s tried different doctors, different therapies, different medications, stronger medications, but the voices never go away. Sometimes the meds will ease his external symptoms for awhile - uncontrollable muscle movements, head twitching, pacing, and visual problems like going cross eyed - but the voices inside never cease.
“There’s no good in those three voices at all,” says Kyle’s grandmother, Marcia Norstebon Davis. “To have to deal with that every day of your life, every waking hour… They’re trying to convince him he’s an evil person.”
Up until a few years ago, Kyle’s life looked very different. The now-33-year-old was in a long-term relationship, was generally well-liked and well-adjusted, and was a loving, involved father to his four children. He had been working at the same turkey plant since he was a teenager, and was respected in his role there as a quality inspector. Marcia says people used to approach him on the street and compliment him on his work.
Then, in his late 20s, Kyle began exhibiting some unusual behaviors. He started talking to himself a lot, and expressed paranoid thoughts. One day, out of the blue, he up and quit his longtime job. He got another job, then another, only to abruptly quit again each time. He stopped taking care of himself like he used to, and needed to be reminded to shower and brush his teeth.
Marcia says it was her daughter, Kyle’s mother, who first recognized the signs for what they were. Her suspicions were confirmed when Kyle was formally diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
Described as a “severe mental disorder” by the National Institute of Mental Health, schizophrenia produces symptoms that can be disabling and difficult to manage, and there’s no known cure. The illness has the potential to dramatically change a person’s life and personality, and it has done so for Kyle.
“When he was well, he was very kind, outgoing, charismatic,” says Marcia. “Now he’s still a kind person - he’s always thinking of other people in the family - but his ability to do anything else is a real challenge.”
“I think the old Kyle, who had a life, who had structure, who made money, who took care of his family, his children... that person is gone - I’m going to say 95 percent gone,” she adds sadly. “The ordinary person...is gone. Now it’s a person who will sit...and look off in some other direction.”
Often distracted and unfocused, the Kyle of today has trouble completing tasks that would once have been simple for him. He still adores his children and sees them as much as he can, but now that means only about once a week. He and his significant other are no longer together, and he’s unemployed. He lives in group homes when he can, and the rest of the time he stays with his mother in a one-bedroom apartment in Thief River Falls, Minn. He’ll occasionally spend a few days with Marcia and her husband at their home in Dent.
Despite the disturbing voices in his head, Kyle is still a good person at heart, Marcia says. He’s taken on a protective, watchdog kind of role against the voices, and when the things they say get bad enough, he checks himself into inpatient therapy centers to keep himself and others safe. Kyle’s primary concern is always for his family’s safety, she adds, so she doesn’t worry about him hurting her or anyone else. What she does worry about is how schizophrenia is hurting him; how the symptoms might be taking their toll.
“He tries so hard to overcome this, but it’s a very powerful illness,” she says. “Paranoid schizophrenia can overcome people. And how he’s managed this far, I’m amazed… He’s challenged every day, every moment he’s awake.”
Kyle is managing his symptoms as best he can through weekly visits with his doctor and monthly injections of medication, and he says being around people, his kids in particular, helps keep his spirits up. Things like exercise and a healthy diet help, as well. The voices are always there, but through therapy, Kyle is learning how to separate them from his own voice, and how to best cope with them.
He acknowledges his diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and is actively treating it, yet at the same time he believes his symptoms are really due to something else - “psychotronics,” or artificial telepathy. There’s a subculture of people, mainly conspiracy theorists online, who believe that the government, or some other anonymous underground entity, has the ability to transmit thoughts and sounds (such as voices) into people’s minds, and does so for sinister purposes. Experts say there’s no evidence to support the theory, but Kyle believes the technology is real, and that he’s a victim of it.
“I think it’s something that a lot of paranoid schizophrenics believe,” says Marcia.
Kyle has the love and support of his family - especially his kids, his mother and grandmother - but resources are limited, and schizophrenia is a lifelong condition. Since Kyle can’t work, Marcia worries about what’s in store for him down the road. He does well in structured environments like group homes, she says, but there are time limits on how long a person can stay in those. He applied for disability benefits three years ago, but “not much has happened” with that yet, she says.
“There’s nowhere for people with problems like his to go,” she says. “There’s no representation for people like him. It’s no wonder we have people roaming the streets.”
She wants to raise awareness of schizophrenia in order to help her grandson and others like him. She’d like to see more research into the disorder, so scientists can determine its causes and find more effective ways to treat it - or better yet, cure it.
Kyle would like that, too. His ultimate wish is for the voices to go away. He’d like his symptoms to ease up enough that he can go back to work and take care of his family again.
“I guess I just want to live a normal life and watch my kids grow up,” he says. “Like everyone else.”
MORE ABOUT SCHIZOPHRENIA
What is it?
Schizophrenia is a chronic and severe mental illness that affects how a person thinks, feels and behaves. People with schizophrenia may seem like they have lost touch with reality, and the symptoms can be very disabling.
How common is it?
Less common than many other mental disorders. In the Leighton Broadcasting “Inside Out” video on schizophrenia, Dr. Jonathan Aligada, a psychologist at Sanford Health, says between 0.3 and 0.7 percent of the population have schizophrenia. Men and women have similar prevalence of the disorder, but female onset is typically later than in males. Men tend to develop schizophrenia between 16 and 25 years old, while most females develop symptoms several years later.
What are the signs and symptoms?
Symptoms - and how severe they are - vary from person to person, but may include auditory or visual hallucinations, delusions, agitated body movements, a significant decline in self care, withdrawal from friends and family, disorganized thinking, trouble focusing, reduced speaking, difficulty sustaining activities, changes in body language and emotions, and others. Paranoid schizophrenia, the most common type, makes a person unusually suspicious of everyone around them.
What causes it?
That’s not well understood, though there are several factors that appear to increase a person’s risk of developing schizophrenia. Genes (family history of the illness) seem to play a role, especially when those genes interact with certain aspects of a person’s environment. Environmental factors include exposure to viruses, malnutrition before birth, problems during birth, and psychosocial factors. Scientists think schizophrenia may have something to do with an imbalance in the chemical reactions of the brain that allow brain cells to communicate with each other. Some experts also believe problems during brain development before birth may lead to faulty connections. When the brain undergoes major changes during puberty, these changes might trigger psychotic symptoms in people who are vulnerable to schizophrenia due to genetics or brain differences.
Can it be treated?
Since the causes of schizophrenia are unknown, treatments focus on reducing symptoms and improving quality of life. Treatments typically include antipsychotic medications, psychotherapy (such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps a patient learn to separate what’s real from what’s a symptom), and also a mix of case management, family involvement, and supported education and employment services.
“The challenge is always just making headway on the ability to function,” says Aligada. “I think that there is a lot of hope out there. The challenge, though...is that the treatment process happens in a social context, and there’s a lot of variables in that… A strong relationship (between doctor and patient) can be more predictive of success than medications and other treatment techniques.”
*Compiled from the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the “Inside Out” video on schizophrenia
HOW TO SUPPORT SOMEONE WITH SCHIZOPHRENIA
Although the symptoms of schizophrenia can be frightening for those who witness them, it’s important that friends and family not get scared away from the person who’s experiencing them.
As loved ones, “our challenge is to help model a relationship to those (negative or scary) thoughts,” Aligada explains. “Don’t let the thoughts scare you off… Acknowledge them and be compassionate.”
“Stigma is a thing that really complicates a person’s ability to pursue treatment, but then also how they think about themselves,” he adds. “If we are able to be more accepting...it communicates a lot to the person struggling with it, that, ‘This will be OK.’ I think just being able to be supportive of the experience, and not invalidating and not stigmatizing, I think that can go a long way.”
It can take time for a person with schizophrenia to find a treatment program that works for them, so it’s important for loved ones to help keep the person engaged in their treatment, throughout the entire process.
At the end of the day, the best thing a loved one can do for someone with schizophrenia is be caring, respectful, supportive, and “a warm presence,” says Aligada.
As Kyle’s grandmother, Marcia, says, “All you can do is try to do the best you can for them - in this case, my grandson - which is occasionally having him here, and talking to him, and being kind.”
MORE ABOUT THE 'INSIDE OUT' CAMPAIGN
"Inside Out: A Step Inside Mental Illness" is a Detroit Lakes area project to raise awareness of mental illness and erase the stigmas surrounding it. A community partnership between local media and regional healthcare and crisis organizations, the campaign consists of a series of online videos, newspaper articles and radio discussions that shed light on some common mental health disorders, putting local faces to those disorders. Topics covered include depression, PTSD, anxiety, ADHD, suicide and others.
Videos are being released once a week for eight weeks (the campaign started the week of Feb. 25), and are available to watch free on Becker County Energize's website, beckercountyenergize.com. There will also be a program airing each week on lakestv3.com. Newspaper articles are being published in the Wednesday print editions of the Detroit Lakes Tribune over the same time span, as well as on the newspaper's website, www.dl-online.com. Participating radio stations include Leighton Broadcasting's local stations, Wave 104.1 FM, KDLM 1340 AM and 93.1 FM, and KRCQ 102.3 FM.