A Vivid Portrait of Her Sister’s Schizophrenia
Kyleigh Leddy, a therapist-in-training, 25, paints a vivid portrait of her sister’s schizophrenia in The Perfect Other. Leddy’s compassionate but terrifying book is a love letter to Kait, the older sister she once adored—but quickly grew to fear after a traumatic brain injury brought on violent rages. Sandra Sobieraj Westfall, writer for People.com, shares Kyleigh Leddy’s story in the following article.
Growing up near the Atlantic shore in Marblehead, Massachusetts, Kait Leddy was any little girl’s dream big sister. She clomped around in rainbow moon boots and her imagination turned seashells into mermaid cell phones. She invented secret games that only she and her sister, Kyleigh, knew how to play.
“I was her little dress-up doll, and she and her friends let me tag along to everything,” Kyleigh, now 25, recalls with a smile. “I idolized her. She was all I ever wanted to be.”
But when Kait entered her teens with more than the usual teenage detachment and rebellion, her little sister’s adoration turned to unease. That darkened to terror after Kait suffered a traumatic head injury at age 19. She turned into a stranger—violent one minute, fragile the next —who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and suffered 4 years of hallucinations and hospitalizations, rages, and stays in rehab before walking late one January night in 2014 to the peak of Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Bridge and disappearing, a presumed suicide.
“I [had] played out the worst-case scenarios . . . a stranger killing Kait in self-defense; Kait accidentally killing us,” Kyleigh writes in her memoir, The Perfect Other, about her family’s experience with the trauma, stigma, and maddening unknowns of Kait’s mental illness. “But this—suicide—I forgot to factor into the equation.” Haunted by the what-ifs [“What could we have done differently?” “Could we have intervened that night?”] Kyleigh, who was three days shy of her 17th birthday when Kait disappeared, has dedicated her life to understanding what happened to the magical big sister who once had her believing in mermaids.
Looking back, Kyleigh said the first signs of trouble appeared when Kait’s willfulness took on a dangerous edge and she started getting in fights at school around age 12 or 13. “It wasn’t violent, more like interpersonal conflicts,” Kyleigh said. But it was worrisome enough that their parents, who had by then moved the family to the Philadelphia area, took Kait to a child psychologist, who pronounced her behavior normal preteen stuff.
Then came two distinct medical blows to Kait’s stability. As a high school freshman already skipping school, smoking and drinking, she was sneaking out her window to a party when she fell and suffered a concussion.
Afterward her mood became erratic, her actions sometimes aggressive. In 2007 Kait, then 16, attacked their mother while Kyleigh was hosting a sleepover. With a bruised eye and a hematoma on her cheekbone, their mom went to the ER. Kait went to a psychiatric hospital.
“They released her undiagnosed,” wrote Kyleigh, who started telling friends that her house was haunted so she had an excuse not to ask them over. There was the stigma and the genetic component of mental illness—the fear that her friends and their parents would start to worry Kyleigh was dangerous too. But, even more basically, Kyleigh said, “We couldn’t guarantee their safety any more than we could guarantee our own.”
Then, at around age 17, Kait was diagnosed with the hormonal disorder polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). “What’s so hard about mental illness is distinguishing between what’s personality, what’s hormones, and what’s something serious,” said Kyleigh. “My parents tried.” Her mom, a former stockbroker who stayed home to raise her daughters, took Kait to doctor after doctor but got no answers.
Kyleigh’s dad, a tech executive who traveled a lot for work, “did not believe in mental illness,” Kyleigh said. He split after Kait’s death.
The Breaking Point
On an October day in 2010, what remained of any stability was shattered. In her first semester as a Drexel University freshman, Kait was on the steps of a Philly brownstone when a friend fell into her for an exaggerated bear hug. Kait lost her balance, fell backward, smacked her head on concrete and suffered traumatic hemorrhaging in her brain. “That was the breaking point,” said Kyleigh.
While Kait was sedated in the ICU for three days to help her brain heal, her doctor warned that the 19-year-old wouldn’t be the same Kait when she woke up. “She’d been struggling with things, partying a lot . . . we didn’t know what the doctor meant but thought it could even be a good thing,” Kyleigh said.
It wasn’t. Kait’s first day home from the hospital was the first time their mom feared her daughter might kill her.
Hallucinations began, along with paranoia, delusions, and rages. Kyleigh wrote about days when Kait chased her family with an iron poker through the backyard, nights when she hit her father with a weight while he slept. “We were all fearing for our lives,” Kyleigh said. “Anything could set her off. The way I chewed my gum. She became another person sometimes. The sister of my childhood would be there, laughing and joking around and then she would just turn.”
One month after her fall, Kait was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Prescribed at least 17 medications over time as doctors attempted to stabilize her, Kait tried to stay in school and dabbled in modeling to regain self-esteem, but she spent the last four years of her life in and out of psych wards and rehab for alcohol abuse.
“Nothing was sticking,” said Kyleigh. In fact, Kait had been released from her latest psychiatric hospitalization, “given no medication, not even an emergency dose, only a prescription she needed to fill at the pharmacy,” Kyleigh wrote, just days before she vanished off the bridge. “We never recovered her body,” said Kyleigh, “never had the chance to have a funeral.”
An Ongoing Mission
At Boston College, Kyleigh studied abnormal psychology and neuroscience, volunteered at a homeless shelter and then at a group home for women with psychiatric disorders, trying to help fill the gaps in a system that failed her sister. Her mother, too, has committed to helping families like their own, doing volunteer psychoeducation work with the Family-to-Family program of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and raising money for her local NAMI chapter as well as for Fairwinds, the local counseling center near her home in Nantucket.
“I do think there’s a part of us that’s always going to be looking back and regretting and hoping that by making my sister’s life stand for something else, by helping other families, we can kind of give meaning to the tragedy and bring her life a positive outcome,” Kyleigh said of her and her mother’s vocations now.
Writing The Perfect Other, Kyleigh searched for studies of the mysterious links connecting head injury, hormones, and mental illness.
Dr. Susan Kornstein, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) professor of psychiatry, affirms that traumatic brain injury (TBI) like Kait’s can lead to the development of psychotic disorders including schizophrenia. While milder mood, behavior, and cognition troubles are more common aftereffects, psychosis—a mental disorder so severe it causes loss of contact with reality—occurs in 1 percent to 8 percent of cases following TBI. And though psychosis is more likely in someone who is already genetically susceptible, TBI can cause physical brain changes that result in psychotic symptoms “even without a genetic predisposition,” Kornstein said. Symptoms can appear days after injury but typically develop over years, so “individuals should be monitored over time.”
Kornstein, who runs VCU’s Institute for Women’s Health, says women with PCOS should also be monitored for psychiatric illness because they are more likely to suffer depression, anxiety, and—in rarer cases—psychosis than women without PCOS.
“That’s mood changes and temperament, and that’s hormones, too,” said Kyleigh. “It’s all so convoluted. It was always hard to tell what was really going on with Kait.”
As Kyleigh finishes her studies on the master’s in social work degree that she is due to receive from Columbia University—and focuses on training to be a therapist—she intends to keep looking for the answers that eluded Kait. “I want to give people hope that new things will come out,” Kyleigh said.
“We can do more research, find better therapies, better medications. And I can move forward, make my sister’s life stand for something.”
Sobieraj Westfall, Sandra. 17 March, 2022. People.com. Retrieved from https://people.com/health/kyleigh-leddy-paints-vivid-portrait-of-sisters-schizophrenia-after-head-injury-she-became-another-person/