Woman fights to help son with schizophrenia

Ann Uptergrove walked the halls of the Nevada Legislature in 1999, passing out pictures that showed the difference between a normal brain and one affected with schizophrenia.

She was trying to educate Nevada lawmakers a little more on a disease with which she is sadly familiar.

Her son was 21 years old when he had his first breakdown.

He had been a little slow growing up, she said, "but we never thought much about it."

After the breakdown, however, her son, who graduated from high school and was a certified welder, became paranoid and started hearing voices - "the usual with schizophrenia."

"A lot of parents will go into denial. I felt so ignorant," Uptergrove said. "I felt so inefficient in helping him when he needed it most.

"It's the most frustrating thing a mother can have. You know what it's like when your child is sick. You want to fix them, but you're filled with guilt when you can't.

"Many (mentally ill people) do not think they're sick. They don't have the insight we do. I saw it with my own son. For 26 years, I've heard him say, 'There's nothing wrong with me. Everyone else is crazy.' He hated me, because (he thought) there was nothing wrong with him. It's not their fault. It's a brain disease. They just have different brains."

She said she stumbled through the learning process, trying to find ways to help her son with his illness. For years Buddy was shuffled between Uptergrove and her first husband. About 11 years ago, when Uptergrove and her son were living in California, Buddy was released from a ward-care home that Uptergrove said was "very poor."

"He was on the wrong medication, and in the meanwhile his dad had relocated across the country," she said. "I didn't have enough resources for him. (County officials) said they couldn't help any more; his case was a crack in the system.

"He couldn't live with me because he was so irrational. The neighbors were throwing a fit, so I kept him in various hotels, but they would just have him leave after a night. People would say he's a nut, he's crazy, be afraid of him. He was treated like he had leprosy, people are that afraid of it.

"I was just desperate for help for my son. The last time I picked him up from a hotel, he jumped from my car when it was moving. Needless to say, the city took over and said he was a danger to himself."

It was that incident that propelled Uptergrove into mental illness activism in California, a passion she carried with her in her move to Nevada five years ago.

"There I stood with no resources, no education, no knowledge of how to deal with this. Today I know what I could have done," Uptergrove said. "That was the catalyst for me. I stumbled, reading books looking for answers. I joined the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in California."

She said she found a severe lack of programs in Nevada that would help her son if he ever came to live here. She joined the state NAMI organization, a national association offering support services to people with mental illnesses and their families, and three years ago founded NAMI in Carson City. People joined the group slowly, she said, because "people are ashamed to come out because they feel responsible, which they are not."

Buddy has been living in a home in South Dakota where he is doing "excellent," but he may come to live in Nevada soon. Uptergrove said her son used to resent her work in mental health, because he knew she associated it with him.

"For years I've been trying to get something in this town for the mentally ill," she said. "Part of it was selfish. I wanted my son here. But I also had empathy for other parents."

Uptergrove is working with the Carson City Mental Health Coalition on its legislative committee. She'll be back at the Legislature this session, hoping to convince Nevada's lawmakers of the a need for transitional housing in the capital. Housing where Buddy could stay. And this year, she thinks with the work done by the coalition, Carson and the surrounding region stands a chance in the fight for extra funding.

"Most money in the state goes to Reno and Las Vegas," she said. "We're just the little capital of the whole damn state. We need housing desperately. You know what we've got here? Zilch. We need a transition house, group homes. Now, they're just shipped up to Reno. We should be a model for the rural areas. Like anything that is hidden, if the awareness (of mental illness issues) comes out, people will accept it."


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment