Tracing The Roots Of 'Irish Madness' For five generations, Patrick Tracey's family has been plagued by what he calls "a perfect storm of schizophrenia." In his new book, Stalking Irish Madness, he traces his family lineage — and the roots of the disease — all the way back to Ireland.
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Tracing The Roots Of 'Irish Madness'

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Patrick Tracey grew up knowing that his grandmother was unwell. On Sundays, his family would drive out to the hospital to visit. For a while, they sometimes went to another institution to visit his Uncle Robby. As a child, he heard stories that the madness came over from Ireland five generations before. Then, one after another, two of his sisters developed schizophrenia. The disease left them listening to voices and shattered his family. Patrick Tracey describes the awful consequences in a new book where he also describes tracing the root of his family's schizophrenia from Boston back to County Roscommon in Ireland.

If there's schizophrenia in your family, call and tell us how it's affected you. Tell us your story. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Later in the program we'll talk about the arrest of three men in Colorado and fears for the life of Barack Obama. But first, Patrick Tracey joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. His book is called, "Stalking Irish Madness, Searching for the Roots of My Family's Schizophrenia." And Patrick, thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. PATRICK TRACEY (Author, "Stalking Irish Madness, Searching for the Roots of My Family's Schizophrenia"): Oh, thanks for having me, Neal. Great to be here.

CONAN: And you write that you've heard that euphemism unwell far too often in your life.

Mr. TRACEY: I have. And as I wrote it, it seemed to be an odd barometer because with schizophrenia, there often appears to be no middle ground. You either often are schizophrenic or you're not. It's been compared to watching someone walk into an empty elevator shaft and just disappear. The rapid onset that comes in late teens or early adulthood. It's devastating.

CONAN: You've also described it in terms of Irish folklore - the fairies who were said to take people's minds and the fairies were also said, of course, to take people away and substitute someone else and in a way that describes schizophrenia pretty well.

Mr. TRACEY: It really does. It's really not far from the Irish folklore, with what happens medically. And I think there was a way to explain it especially to children within an earshot when other explanations would not suffice and they still really don't suffice, but yes, the Irish who said, to be away with the fairies, and so I went to Ireland and I think I discovered that the fairies were actually framed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: They got a bad rap?

Mr. TRACEY: They sure did. Yeah. I think so. We ought to let the fairies off the hook.

CONAN: Describe - I'm so interested by the story of what happened to your family, though. Your mother really questioned the whole idea of having children because of the history of madness in her family and eventually your father overcame her objections and five children came along. Then, when the second of them developed schizophrenia, your mother was shattered.

Mr. TRACEY: That's right, Neal. She'd not planned on having children because she suspected that it ran in families, and really any fool could see that it did run in families. But, that's right, her head was turned by my father. A handsome young Irishman set on having his own big brood and they consulted a couple of doctors and ended up taking their chances and having - having five of us and two of the five ended up following up my mother's mother and my mother's brother into schizophrenic onset. So, it was a bit alien to me even though it was all over my family tree. The condition itself was alien to me until it hit home when I was about 19, about three decades ago.

CONAN: And you also write that though two of your sisters, of course, were lost to schizophrenia, and we'll talk about it later, very different kinds of schizophrenia. You and another sister - the price to you was almost as bad.

Mr. TRACEY: Well, you know, that's a tough one to work out, Neal, because yes, my sister Shawna, who is here with me today - actually, she developed alcoholism and drug addiction and so did I. And whether or not it was affected by the schizophrenia, I'm not sure. The way I look at it, Neal, is that as goes schizophrenia were genetic near misses, I might have been behind the door when God was handing out the schizophrenic genes, but I was front and center for the alcy ones.

CONAN: But was the susceptibility of alcohol may have been there all along was the willingness to go along with it in any part due to the guilt over the fact that you didn't get it?

Mr. TRACEY: Oh, yes. I do think that there's sort of a self-laceration that ensues, you know, because, you know, any sibling feels I think, you know absolutely entrusted to look after a sibling's safety. And the loss that you feel, the helplessness that you feel - drinking I think, I did drink on it. That's for sure.

CONAN: There's a description in your book of the moment, I think it's at you mother's funeral - the wake. And you get incredibly angry at your sister, the one who is closest to you who has schizophrenia, and can't understand why she can't snap out of this.

Mr. TRACEY: Yes, yes. Yeah. I reached the end of my rope. There is that - why can't you just snap out of it moment. And Austine has catatonic schizophrenia and so there's a complete bleaching out of her personality. Her personality has really been destroyed. She used to be the life of the party. There was never anyone so effervescent and as well as my sister, Michelle. In fact, they were both Polaroid models as children. They were perfect, picture perfect children. Austine couldn't snap out of it and she'd gone away to - she was living in Florida and when she came home and we met her at the airport, it was clear as day that she had also gone schizophrenic in her early 20's following her sister, Michelle. They have quite different illnesses. Schizophrenia may be a term that describes many illnesses, we're not quite sure - it certainly has different effects on people. Mainly, it's the hearing of voices. But with Austine, it's total and severe and very, very, very sad. But with Michelle, it's - her illness is a bit more whimsical and theatrical even, and she hasn't lost her charm, her intelligence or sense of irony. She just simply hears voices that the rest of us don't.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on this conversation. Our guest is Patrick Tracey. We're talking about his book, "Stalking Irish Madness: Searching for the Roots of My Family's Schizophrenia," 800-989-8255. If there's schizophrenia in your family, call and describe what it's done to you. The email is talk@npr.org. Let's begin with Charlie. Charlie's with us from Lead in South Dakota.

CHARLIE (Caller): Hi. Can you hear me all right?

CONAN: Yes. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

Mr. TRACEY: Yes, Charlie.

CHARLIE: All right. Yes. I have the same situation only not from a five generations. This is actually my natural accent. I'm Scot-Irish and I'm also a Welsh in ancestry. My brother died at an - his early 50's with complications of full-blown schizophrenia. My father - on my - my father was paranoiac and schizophrenic and violent. And my grandmother, also was schizophrenic. And that's three in a row and so I never had children. It's a terrible toll upon the family and I've a medical background and frankly, such onset in the late - early 20's, in late teens is a very common thing for schizophrenia. It's unfortunate nowadays that they call that manic depressive a lot. But when you are hearing voices and you are not even in tangential touch with the universe that we know, that's schizophrenia. My brother was just, basically, came home after a few weeks out in the real world, totally out of control and totally the rest of his of life was just like that. And I have great sympathy for your situation and for the problems that you face in your life and I think that this is something that may well be genetically inherited within Celtic people in general. Not that everybody that you meet that's Irish and colorful is crazy, also, I have one other comment and that is an awful lot of people who drink are actually tight shading - self-(unintelligible) to medication for schizophrenia and I've met that a lot with my brother.

CONAN: Patrick, you write a lot about the history of madness and Irish and do you come away with the conclusion that the Celtic people are more susceptible to schizophrenia than others?

Mr. TRACEY: No I don't, Neal. I found that, and it's been proven, that the Celtic people are no more genetically prone to schizophrenia than anyone else any other people, however, it does bubble up in populations. Right now, actually, Caribbean immigrants to the U.K. have the highest rates of schizophrenia in the world, but the madness that swept out of Ireland was particularly pronounced and in the 1850s, in the historical record, you'll find everyone writing about it on both sides of the Atlantic, how the Irish were filling the asylums. What we know now is that there are things that do correlate with schizophrenia. Now correlation is not causation, but famine and late age of paternity are two big drivers and they were very, very pronounced in the Irish experience. And, yes, your caller is right, Charlie, alcoholism also raises risk -heightens risk of developing it in your late teens and early 20's. It appears to be - I call it my three-legged stool of schizophrenia - famine, unusually older fathers, because in old Ireland, you had to be 50 before you inherited the potato patch and became eligible to marry a parish girl. And there are mutations in the sperm of older men that have been linked to schizophrenia. So the three-legged stool would be famine, older fathers, and substance abuse, yes.

CONAN: But just to follow-up on another of Charlie's points, like him you never had children.

Mr. TRACEY: I didn't, no, Neal. Scared the devil out of me, to tell you the truth. My mother anguished over that decision. And when the second of her two daughters went, it literally killed her. She had a brain aneurysm and died literally at the feet of her second daughter, who had had her onset very recently, Austine who is a year older than me. We're quite close and we are all devastated by it, so I never - no. I never did marry. I never did have children and I did have a nephew. My nephew Chris, if he is listening out there I just want to holler out to him and all the boys in the bay, not sure if they're listening today.

CONAN: Charlie, thanks very much for the call and good luck to you.

CHARLIE: Thanks very much.

CONAN: We are talking with Patrick Tracey about his search for the root of his family's schizophrenia, and we'll take more of your calls if there's schizophrenia in your family, 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I am Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk Of The Nation. I am Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking today with Patrick Tracey about his book "Stalking Irish Madness: Searching for the Roots of My Family's Schizophrenia." You can read more about what he calls the perfect storm of schizophrenia and how it devastated his family in an excerpt on our website at npr.org/talk. If there's schizophrenia in your family, call and tell us how it's affected you, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And let's get Rudy on the line. Rudy with us from Des Moines in Iowa.

RUDY (Caller): Hello. I have a question and a comment for your guest, but I like for the people there to realize something. We're talking about hearing voices. I want your listeners to listen to your program, turn the TV on and have someone else to talk to them, and, as I am told by my son, who is schizophrenic, and everybody else I've talked to, that's the way it is. It isn't a far away voice, something weird. It's very real to them, extremely real. My son and the sons of two of my cousins, in other words, the same generation, they're all schizophrenic. And he's in his 30s now and it turns your lives - your life upside-down. And the part I wanted to ask your guest about is that they are laws on the book, for example, it's called out-patient committal, which means that if a judge says that a person has to follow what his doctor says, he is suppose to do it. However, they don't have to, at least in Iowa they don't have to.

CONAN: Not as adults, no.

RUDY: Pardon?

CONAN: Not as adults, no.

RUDY: But any other laws, if a judge tells you, you have to do such and such, you don't do it, they'll put you in jail. Here, if they don't take a medication, nothing happens. Until they hurt somebody or they are going to hurt themselves.

CONAN: This came up, this exact situation with your sister Austine, Patrick.

Mr. TRACEY: Yes, Rudy, that's right. And it's funny, because the law was the same back in 19th-century Ireland as it is here in America, and it's a bit of a catch-22. The law says, until someone is harmful to themselves or others, you cannot get them committed. Well, you know, often it's too late.

RUDY: My son is under out-patient committal and the judge has said, that as long as he - as long as two doctors say that he needs to take medication, he must take medication. However, when we go and prove to the court that he's not taking medication so well, that's too bad. And that only shows that he is not compliant. Any other thing, they would throw you in jail, put you in an institution and do something. But when it comes to schizophrenia, for some reason, they don't have to. And I would like to see that changed somehow.

Mr. TRACEY: Well, yes, Rudy. It's a bit of a controversial point forcing people to take medicine especially those who don't realize they need it. But the medication, although it works wonders for some people, the fact is, is that for most schizophrenics, it doesn't do much at all. They still hear their voices, as you explained. And often they hear several voices, disembodied voices. There is a group called the Hearing Voices Network that was started in Holland and they're doing great, great work. It's schizophrenics or voice hearers coming together to talk about their problems in their lives and the voices they hear and what they're telling them, and they're managing their voices, encouraging their good voices and, sort of discouraging the bullying, more badly mannered voices that tell them to do things that might harm their family or friends or whoever.

CONAN: And Rudy, we appreciate your situation and understand your point, but it's also very controversial to commit people to mental institutions against their will. That's obviously something that ...

RUDY: Oh, no, sir. There's another way around it. I am not rich but was able to afford it. You can become their guardians, which is what we did and since we became my son's guardian, it's not a 100 percent turnaround, but he has to take his medication because we are his guardians. He actually works now, not at a high position but he works. And so - but not everybody can afford to do that. Not anybody can fork out 4,000 or 5,000 dollars to do such a thing. There are ways to do it.

CONAN: Well, thanks for the suggestion and we wish you and son the best of luck.

RUDY: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call. You mentioned, Patrick Tracey, the Hearing Voices Network. And you cite them in your book as saying that maybe as many as 10 percent of the population has at some point perceived sensory input when no stimulus was present, in other words, they've experienced auditory hallucination.

Mr. TRACEY: That's right, Neal. Many, as it turns out, many more people hear voices than would care to admit it. And it does not mean that you're necessarily schizophrenic. I think if the voices reach a certain level you could call yourself schizophrenic, but it doesn't become a problem unless there is a - sort of, a thought disorder that accompanies it. And schizophrenics often feeling that their thoughts are being controlled or manipulated, or that thoughts are being put into their minds, or removed by an outside force. Their thoughts jump from topic to topic and very randomly. And this can make it difficult to concentrate and just lead - manage your daily life. So, that's when it becomes a problem, but for most people who hear voices, it's not a problem.

CONAN: Not a problem yet, hearing voices, this could affect your judgment about a lot of things.

Mr. TRACEY: Well, it would and I can tell you, I would not want to start hearing voices myself.

CONAN: Let's get to Linda on the line. Linda is with us from Tucson, Arizona.

LINDA (Caller): Hi. I grew up in a family where my dad was schizophrenic for a time. The time happened to coincide with when I was going into junior high school, so it definitely affected me. He was very unpredictable. I think he was exhibiting, probably, I don't know about hallucinatory or auditory hallucination, but tactile sensory hallucination. He thought my mom was trying to poison him, putting ground glass in his food, thought we were conspiring against him, things like that. Of course, completely, you know, irrational and unfounded.

And I remember at that time just being very frustrated, very embarrassed, feeling somewhat guilty, feeling, you know, like, why can't we just get rid of him, mom? Why don't you divorce him? Of course, in those days, early '60s, people didn't divorce. But I was that level of like, what's going on and why can't we make this family better?

There's a bright side to my story that connects with that three-legged stool and sort of fills in, I think, a missing piece that might be some help to others. My dad was a member of AA and his sponsor had information on Abram Hoffer, a psychiatrist in Canada who was doing nutritional work with alcoholics and schizophrenics, specifically, and suspected there was a strong genetic connection. They were able to get my dad on to a mega vitamin regimen that within a couple of years made him, as far as I'm concerned, unrecognizable as the same person I had to deal with in junior high school. Back in his right mind, functioning, you know, you could say good morning and he wouldn't fly off the handle and scream at you and stomp out the door and not be back for a day. It was just, you know, really, really amazing. Centered on the B vitamins, niacin, especially, but fabulous, amazing turnaround in his life and in our family.

CONAN: Well, that's a great story and congratulations on his recovery. And he is okay today?

LINDA: Well, he was okay, until his death at the age of 88. Yeah.

CONAN: Well, it any case he had a pretty good run then.

LINDA: Absolutely, absolutely. And I know there's lots of information online if people Google orthomolecular medicine or Abram, A-B-R-A-M, Hoffer, H-O-F-F-E-R, MD, and maybe somebody can find some help that, you know, goes beyond the medication. There is none of the bad side effects of medication that would prevent people from wanting to take it. There's just a lot good to be said for it. In my own experience it made a world of difference in my family. Thank you.

CONAN: Linda, thanks very much for the call. Patrick Tracey, I know you find that some things work some of the time for some people, but a lot of the time, nothing works at all.

Mr. TRACEY: Well, that's right. That's right, Neal. I mean, as Linda described, there are these hallucinations that are very difficult to deal with. And they are auditory, they are visual, and, as she said, they are also tactile, it can feel that people are touching you and this would freak anyone out. And there are things - alcoholism, alcohol-aggravated dementia is probably the closest thing symptomatically to mimic schizophrenia, that's wet-brain. You mentioned - she mentioned the niacin deficiency, that has been known to cause hallucinations.

And so, we really are just coming out of the dark ages medically and in terms of treatment in the last 20 years. We're making great strides now - we're really only making baby steps, actually, but we expect great strides in the future. I would say that in our society, folks are always looking for the magic bullet, the instant cure. And so - you know perhaps, a gene that we could discover or a drug. And I think that may be hoping for too much. It turns out that there may not be a cure for schizophrenia, but there is a thing called recovery from schizophrenia, and Linda mentioned alcoholics and so forth who are actually leading the way. They're recovering from their illness on a daily basis, they have a daily reprieve. And schizophrenics within the Hearing Voices Network are finding a way to manage their voices a day at time, too, and get a daily reprieve from the worst of their voices. So, there is recovery and there are great strides that can be made in normalizing the lives of schizophrenics through the Hearing Voices Network. I know it's here, in Holyoke, Mass. It's big in Europe now and it's coming over here.

CONAN: You've also said earlier on this program, and certainly write a lot about it in your book, that any fool could see that it does run in families. Nevertheless, the first genetic evidence that came to your attention, in fact, was a study done of families in County Roscommon in Ireland, which is where your family's from.

Mr. TRACEY: That's right. And that's what sort of inspired my book, Neal. For so long, for several decades, the landscape was bleak, you know, we were all told that there was nothing that could be done about schizophrenia. And then in Ireland, soon after I sobered up myself, I learned of this discovery of this genetic link. And this gene is called Dysbindin and it's found in neurons of most in human brains. And this study had cracked the genetic code. There's much more work to be done, there's probably about 15 susceptibility genes, but this was the first one, it ignited my imagination and I began to look, began, sort of, slouching towards Ireland from London. And then, eventually, I rented my - I bought my camper van and went over there and toured all over Ireland, getting a - kind of a handle on things, speaking to people, finding out what was going on.

CONAN: And did you find anything out about your family and about this madness?

Mr. TRACEY: Well, you know, Neal, it's hard in old Ireland, peasant Ireland. This was - my people were, you know, between the Shannon River and the sea and they'd been driven that way west, literally, the ends of the European earth, by Cromwell. And I do think that there was - in that part of the world, there was a lot of drinking going on, there was a lot of - much, much famine, maternal malnutrition that is, and there were very old fathers. And I think that sort of cooked this sort of Irish schizophrenic stew over there.

Now, as far as meeting anyone, I did go back to the originally parish. There was a genealogical aspect to my search, to my quest, to find the Eagans because it was Mary Eagan, according to family law, who immigrated to Boston in 1847 and unpacked her schizophrenic gene back here and handed it down though the maternal generations. So, I went back to that very small parish, only a few thousand people there. There was an Eagan family who's family had it marbled in their bloodline, too, and I did meet them. And that's described in the book. I hope to go back and get a hair sample to see if we can nail down a definitive ancestry there.

CONAN: On DNA. Patrick Tracey's book is "Stalking Irish Madness: Searching for the Roots of My Family's Schizophrenia." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's get Mary Lou on the line. Mary Lou, with us from Sheridan in Arkansas.

MARY LOU (Caller): Can you hear me?

CONAN: Yes. You're on the air.

MARY LOU: I having trouble with my cell phone. Just a second, could you, please.

Mr. TRACEY: I can hear you fine.

CONAN: Go ahead, Mary Lou.

MARY LOU: Can you hear me now? Hello?

CONAN: Yeah, go ahead. Oh, Mary Lou, I'm afraid it's not going to work. I'm afraid Mary Lou's cellphone would not cooperate and we apologize for that. Let's see if we can go now to Andy. Andy, with us from Auburn in California.

ANDY (Caller): Hi. How's it going?

CONAN: All right.

ANDY: Yeah. My brother turned schizophrenic when I was five years old. I'm 44 now. He's been schizophrenic the whole time. They tried different treatments and such - as a matter of fact, the earlier caller mentioned mega vitamins, and they tried that with him and it seemed to work pretty well, but it wouldn't stay on the diet. It was very strict and the amounts of food, you now, the kinds of food that he could eat, and then the mega vitamins, you know, all that stuff. He's on medication now and doing pretty well. My question, I guess, is that I've been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Is there a relationship between schizophrenia and bipolar?

Mr. TRACEY: Well, Andy. What it is - the genes do cross, but they appear to be two separate things. Bipolar and manic depression is a mood disorder and you seem to, sort of, be up and down in this reality, where schizophrenia, apparently, you're crossing many realities, and it's a different sort of thing, it's psychosis. Manic depression can lead to psychosis in some, but, as you know, they're much more easily able to operate in the real world than schizophrenics. Now, bipolar as well as schizophrenia have been both linked to famine. Studies in Holland during the Dutch winter, hunger studies of 1944, showed that the children of mothers who carried them through famine suffered much greater rates of schizophrenia, bipolar, manic depression and addiction in adulthood.

CONAN: Let's get one last caller in and this is Frank. Frank, with us from Cleveland, Ohio.

FRANK (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

FRANK: Good. My question is this. My father was diagnosed with, among other things, as being schizophrenic and paranoid and other things. And what I realized in my adult life is just that, you know, he would make up things that were just clearly not true. That we had properties that we didn't have or we lived in places or things like that. At a very early age, all of us kids would basically, if a stranger said something to us or someone we knew, we just said, yep, that's true. And then growing up with that, it's made it that it - I have a real need to prove the smallest thing, you know, as being true. And I just wondered...

CONAN: Does that resonate with you, Patrick Tracey?

Mr. TRACEY: It does, it does. And it must have been very difficult for you to grow up with a father who was schizophrenic and to know just where you stood on things. Schizophrenics, many of them operate in just a different reality with voices that we don't hear. Maybe that they have special attunement that the rest of us don't have and so, what they hear and see we cannot hear and see. So, they're not untruthful. To them, you know, these things are happening.

FRANK: Sure. And even like, you know colors, you'd say something was blue and he'd say it's red.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. TRACEY: Hmm.

FRANK: And, you know, at a very young age, and you have no choice. You either accept it or there's punishment, and separating that in your head, you know, led to just a very difficult thing.

CONAN: Frank, I'm afraid, we're going to leave it there. But thanks very much for the call.

Mr. TRACEY: Thank you, Frank.

CONAN: And Patrick Tracey, thank you very much for being with us today.

Mr. TRACEY: Thank you, Neal, so much.

CONAN: Again, the name of the book is "Stalking Irish Madness." Coming up, after the arrest of three men in Denver, one with rifle scopes and bulletproof vests, new fears about the security around Barack Obama. I'm Neal Conan, stay with us, it's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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