An Interview with Rebecca Schaper: The Light in His Soul
This interview is part of a series featuring individuals that have been impacted by mental illness. Each individual featured on the Not Alone Series has a valuable mental health story to tell. I hope that people will read these stories, find strength in them, and realize that they are not alone.
I recently conducted an interview with Rebecca Schaper; author, filmmaker, philanthropist, and mental health advocate. During our interview Rebecca and I discussed her recent memoir; The Light in His Soul: Lessons from My Brother’s Schizophrenia, which is based on the award-winning documentary; A Sister’s Call. In this intimate memoir, Rebecca discusses her brother, Call, and her journey to help him come back from the depths of homelessness and paranoid schizophrenia. Rebecca also discusses how Call’s journey helped both of them bring light to the dark shadows of their past. Rebecca also provided an excerpt from her book. Continue reading for the full interview and excerpt:
EB: Elizabeth Banks (Interviewer)
RS: Rebecca Schaper (Interviewee)
EB: The primary focus of The Light in His Soul: Lessons from My Brother’s Schizophrenia is on your brother, but you also discuss many other facets of yourself and your family’s history. The story that you share is very intimate. What made you want to share this story with people?
RS: It started when Call and I reunited. I saw into his soul and not his disease. There was something different about Call, but I was not sure at the time what would unfold. I asked him if he wanted me to tell his story about his life. And I started taking photographs. Then my husband Jim and I discussed this out by the pool. I asked him what he thought of my doing a video, and he encouraged me to buy a camcorder and get to it!
I wanted to show our audience that Call was a human being who had compassion, love, and patience. I felt him, and he felt me. We had this unconscious bond that was unspoken. He was the initiator for me to open the wounds in my family in order to heal them. The purpose of the film and the book is to help others go through extremely challenging situations and know there are lessons to learn. The lessons provided us compassion, forgiveness, and love for one another without judgment. Blaming and staying in the victim role only exacerbates self-sabotage. There is such freedom and wholeness when a person can embrace the depths of the lessons in our life.
EB: Early in your book, you talk about how social image was important to your family. You explain that your family would often put up a front to create the illusion of perfection, and that you had a rule of total secrecy. Did this secrecy contribute to the worsening of mental illness within your family?
RS: Absolutely! Both Call and my mother had schizophrenia – but does that label describe them? Not at all. Sometimes I try to speak for others with mental challenges, because they can’t always express themselves in terms we understand. I think they perceive a great deal of information about the interior of other people’s lives. At a basic level, they tend to be highly aware of feelings.
As to secrecy in the family, keeping secrets magnifies the anxiety and depression. Closing off communication and sharing leads to self-destructive behavior because the family members don’t have the tools to cope. I truly believe this is why my brother left for 20 years and my mother died by suicide. I do believe Call left to find solace and peace within himself. He had lost this sense of self when he was young, but he found it again. Unfortunately, my mother could not take the pain anymore.
EB: Many people who struggle with mental illness fear being publicly transparent because of the negative stigma placed on mental illness. What advice do you have for people in that situation?
RS: I would just say, remember you are not alone. Try to find a community for support like the National Association on Mental Illness (NAMI). Find someone whom you trust that understands and listens to you without judgment. And that’s probably not just one person. You’ll need help on several levels – professional (for treatment plan and meds), social (for logistics of living and integrating with the community), and personal (someone, perhaps a non-professional, who knows how to listen). In my case, amazingly, besides my husband Jim, my close personally supporter was my afflicted brother! His wisdom and his comforting presence got me and my family through some tough times.
EB: For those who aren’t acquainted with your story, would you please tell me a little about Call, his disappearance, and your search for him?
RS: Call was 21 years old and had one semester left in college when he left home. Shortly after my mother died by suicide in 1977, Call left and rode freight trains all over the U.S. During the 20 years he was missing, I always knew he was alive. I knew in my heart I had to find him. We found each other through a miracle. He was broken, homeless, and had already been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. From time to time, he’d been in shelters, which is how he got some medical attention and the diagnosis. But most of the time, he was all on his own, sleeping in parks, doorways, graveyards, and culverts.
EB: What was it was like to reunite with Call after all those years?
RS: I was elated and full of joy! Finally I had my brother back into my life. I saw into his soul, which was serene and wise, and not the outward appearance of this demented, tortured person. He was a human being full of love and with a deep compassion for others. And, as I said, his emotional generosity and compassion helped me as much – or more? – than I helped him.
EB: From the time Call came home you stood by him, and you became an amazing support system for him. In your opinion, what is the importance of a support system?
RS: Without a doubt, having the loving and consistent support of family or a caregiver/support person (or both) is key. Primary caregivers need someone who loves them and understands their needs with compassion – and who listens! And in their listening, it’s fine to get their suggestions. But you don’t want someone who is criticizing or finding fault all the time. Nurturing, nonjudgmental support – that’s the best medicine.
EB: What advice do you have for the friends and loved ones of individuals living with mental illness?
RS: To have compassion and patience are vital. There’s no quick fix. It’s a continual effort to achieve balance and sustained coping. As we’d discussed here, support is a key component as well. If you are working with a social worker, make sure the person who is the caregiver communicates with the social worker – and on a regular basis. There needs to be close collaboration to understand the best care for the mentally ill person. Another key component is good nutrition and proper medication. I believe there can be a complementary balance between good nutrition, appropriate medication, and being in nature. I truly believe many people like my brother are extremely creative and sensitive to other people’s feelings. One more comment I would like to add: Whoever the caregiver is, it is vital to take care of yourself and get support for you personally! Call expressed how much he truly appreciated our family’s support and our loving him, both during the good times and when things got rough.
EB: What was the most significant challenge that you and Call faced throughout his treatment?
RS: A major challenge in Call’s treatment plan was finding proper medication for his long-term well-being. He was over-medicated at times, which made his mood flat and unmotivated. And when he was like that, it was difficult for me to understand his needs. When he was like that, he wouldn’t or couldn’t communicate to me what he wanted or even express what he was feeling. Other challenges were his personal hygiene, along with keeping his apartment clean. At times he would go off his medication because he thought he could function without it.
EB: Do you have a particular success story that you would like to share?
RS: This could be a whole separate interview, but my brother Call played a role in helping me help my daughter Kim through some huge life challenges. It wasn’t until she was in college that it came out in her therapy that she’d been sexually abused by my father when she was a child. As a result, she suffered through a range of eating disorders. Kim was in and out of therapy and various treatment plans. But Call’s love for her and what I have to say was his extrasensory awareness of her feelings – contacting her on the phone when he knew she was low, for example – helped get us all through it. Today Kim is a confident and accomplished entrepreneur. She helps other women empower themselves physically and mentally.
EB: Supporting someone with a mental illness can be overwhelming at times. How did you cope with the overwhelming moments?
RS: Running on nature trails with nobody around was my coping skill. I always found being in nature was very therapeutic for me. I had to get away and process everything in my mind. I made sure I did things that brought me joy. I needed to feed my soul as well.
EB: Are there any resources you would like to recommend for individuals with mental illness and their support systems?
RS: NAMI is a great resource for family support. And depending on the type of illness or life challenge, it’s crucial to find a professional who can provide personalized, compassionate, and expert care. For example, a psychotherapist not only listens to you talk but can also challenge and advise. In clinical terms, that might be someone who specializes on cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).
EB: Is there anything else you would like to share?
RS: Be on the lookout for activities the mentally ill person likes to do, such as small projects that involve self-expression. Writing, painting, or just being out in nature – focusing on a task can bring calmness to the person. And particularly if they can manage the attention span to meditate, the sense of calm could really be beneficial.
An Excerpt from The Light in His Soul: Lessons from My Brother’s Schizophrenia
Rebecca remembers a holiday when she was beginning to see her brother Call showing encouraging signs of beginning to maintain a stable lifestyle despite his schizophrenia.
Thanksgiving of 2005 was a momentous event for us, but not because of these kinds of family issues. No, it was simply because as we sailed through life, here was a becalmed day on otherwise stormy seas. This was the time—the very special time—when Call came to visit and everything seemed storybook perfect. After he’d reentered our lives eight years before, I may have underestimated the challenges. Despite repeated discouragements, I persisted in the hope that he could eventually make do. More than make do—lead something like a normal and happy life.
[Our daughter] Kim was still in treatment for the eating disorder, but we were seeing progress, and she was able to join us at the table. Lauren was home, too, and she and her sister seemed to be getting along.
This holiday feast was the fulfillment of a dream.
I’d invited everyone to our home in Atlanta, and I planned and prepared almost as much as if it were a wedding reception. I cleaned and I decorated and I cooked. [My younger brother] David and his family drove in from Memphis.
What made it special in my mind was welcoming Call, not only to our dinner table but also into the family circle. He was finally in a stable phase of his treatment plan. He’d been living alone in an apartment. He’d been taking his medication, a combination of several drugs that seemed to balance him. For the better part of a year, he’d been running his errands to the grocery store, walking to his local Wendy’s for some of his meals, and coping generally. His social worker checked in on him from time to time, but he was, for the most part, an independent fellow. This had been my fond wish for him all along.
This time, there wasn’t a debate in the Schaper household with misgivings about hosting Call. I didn’t need to take time away from the family to drive up to Greenville to fetch him. We hit on the plan—which he eagerly approved—of sending him a round-trip Greyhound bus ticket. There was no nervousness about his staying under our roof because he informed me he’d prefer to have his own room in a hotel. The reason he gave was entirely practical—Call wanted to feel free to smoke as much as he pleased, and he knew I didn’t want that in the house. Whether this was entirely his reason or he was concerned about our sensitivities, I don’t know, even now. I do know that both riding the bus unaccompanied and having his very own room at the nearby hotel increased his sense of independence and self-confidence. And he brought that mood with him into our home.
We all sat down to dinner at my house around the holiday table. Jim was at the head and there, opposite him at the other end—in the traditional place for the honored guest—was Call. He was dressed in a freshly laundered tee shirt and slacks, complete with socks and leather shoes. This was his way of dressing up from his usual wardrobe of not-so-fresh tee shirt, khaki shorts, and sandals. He’d run clippers over his beard to neaten it up, and he’d combed his hair. His cheeks were rosy, and it seemed he couldn’t stop smiling. Every now and then he’d come out with his characteristic cackle, a sure sign he was enjoying himself.
David and his wife Shari brought their kids Andrew, Amanda, Allyson, and Alan. This wasn’t the first time Call had met David’s children, but they’d grown a lot since the last time, and they’d never truly known him as “Uncle Call.”
“I’m so thankful all of us are here together, and to share this,” I said as I stood and we toasted with water, iced tea, and Coca-Cola. “And we’re thankful that Call, you finally made it.” I admit my speech wasn’t original, but it was sincere. The look he gave me confirmed he felt and appreciated the emotion in my voice.
I had everyone serve themselves buffet-style, and Call piled it on with obvious enthusiasm. (With his new set of dentures, I think he was enjoying food more than ever.) He’d taken not just slabs of turkey but heaps of mashed potatoes, green beans, and cranberry sauce. Plus three dinner rolls. Jim teased him, “Call, have you got enough food on that plate?”
“I’d say so,” he replied. But Call went back for seconds—a couple of times.
After the meal, he and Kim engaged in horseplay like rambunctious ten-year-olds as they fought over possession of a dish towel. Call cackled with delight.
Jim remarked later, “For a long time it was very awkward. Call looks different, he acts different. But over the years, he truly has just become part of our family. And if people are uncomfortable with that, or they don’t like it, that’s just too damn bad.”
At the end of his visit, as I sent Call off to the bus station, we hugged outside my house. All I could think to say was “It was great seeing you,” and he said, “Great seeing you.” I thought I saw a tear in his eye. He hugged back, careful he didn’t crush his still-burning cigarette into my back.
I was so choked up, all I could manage to say was “Love ya.”
About Rebecca Schaper:
Rebecca Schaper is an author, filmmaker, philanthropist, and mental health advocate. With Kyle Tekiela, she co-produced and directed the award-winning documentary A Sister’s Call. The film chronicles her mission to bring her brother Call Richmond Jr. back from the depths of homelessness and schizophrenia, all while seeking ways to heal herself and her family from the past. Her memoir The Light in His Soul: Lessons from My Brother’s Schizophrenia recounts the events in the film, supplemented by her intimate personal reflections on recovering from trauma and developing spiritual insight. You can learn more about Rebecca’s memoir on her website, and you can also purchase her memoir online.
Thank you to Rebecca Schaper for sharing her story with me. I sincerely appreciate it.