When a Loved One Won't Listen

Dr. Xavier Amador's strategies for helping family or friends with mental illness.

Maria Lissandrello
More Sharing +
Dr. Xavier Amador with Henry

Psychologist Xavier Amador, author of I Am Not Sick. I Don’t Need Help!, knows what it’s like. For years, he struggled in vain to get through to his older brother, Henry, who was suffering with schizophrenia. And then, at last, he had an “aha” moment that allowed the barriers to fall away and opened the door to healing.

Here, Dr. Amador—you’ve seen the forensic psychology expert on CNN, NBC and elsewhere talking about cases such as the Unabomber and the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping—opens up about his personal story, and how it led to the founding of the LEAP Institute, a communication strategy that can help anyone move beyond relationship impasses to build stronger bonds. 

“Henry taught me how to ride a bicycle. He taught me how to play baseball. He was tall, handsome and smart. He had friends. He had girlfriends,” says Xavier Amador, PhD, of the brother he always looked up to.“My mother, Henry and I immigrated from Cuba in the late 1960s as refugees,” says Dr. Amador. “Our father was killed during the revolution. We had nothing.”

They made their home in Ohio, where Henry took a job pumping gas at age 13 to help the family.

So when years later, at age 29, Henry changed—becoming a man who could no longer hold a job or keep friends, who hadn’t had a girlfriend in years, who began having delusions that their mother was the devil—Dr. Amador, then 21, confronted him. “I called him selfish, immature and irresponsible because he wouldn’t admit he had a problem. All that history of closeness, of feeling protected, of wanting to be like him went out the window.”

The “aha” moment that changed everything
Seven years went by with the brothers butting heads, going from close allies to bitter adversaries. It wasn’t until Dr. Amador found himself treating a man while working toward his PhD that something clicked.

“The patient was paralyzed on the left side of his body. Yet he insisted he was able to move his arm,” says Dr. Amador. “When I asked him why he wouldn’t show me, he said, ‘I just don’t feel like it.’

“It was the same answer my brother would give me when I’d say to him, ‘Henry, you haven’t had a job. You don’t have friends anymore. You don’t have a girlfriend. Doesn’t that tell you something is different about you?’ ”

Dr. Amador realized that what seemed to be frustrating denial on Henry’s part was actually a neurological symptom. Called anosognosia, “it’s caused by brain lesions that make it impossible for a person to see he’s changed.

“I would never have dreamed of blaming Henry for his hallucinations, yet I’d been blaming him for his inability to see that he was ill,” says Dr. Amador.

Making the LEAP
Once he understood Henry’s denial was actually a symptom he couldn’t control, Dr. Amador took a different tack—which ultimately evolved into the LEAP Institute, a series of techniques that helps loved ones break through similar impasses. Often, these can linger for years, ruining relationships and impeding treatment.

“The first thing I did was apologize to Henry,” says Dr. Amador. “I told him I was sorry for all the years I told him he was mentally ill, and I told him I wanted to help him and be close to him again.”

With that, the brothers stopped fighting the unwinnable battle of “You’re sick!” “No, I’m not” and began to reestablish a trusting relationship. “We were talking again. I wasn’t bringing up his illness or his need for medicine anymore,” recalls Dr. Amador. “I started listening to him, and together we focused on helping him achieve his goals…things like getting a job, finding a girlfriend”

And a curious thing happened. Henry started seeking out his brother’s opinion. He took his medicine. He found a girlfriend. And in the last 18 years of his life, was hospitalized just once—compared with the 30-plus hospitalizations he’d had before their healing reconciliation.

It’s testament to the power of a listening relationship, says Dr. Amador. Sadly, Henry died about five years ago in a car accident, but one thing brings Dr. Amador solace: “I can tell you my brother was happy,” he says. “He embraced the life he had.”

March 2014