The Hollister Family's Journey to Sunshine From Darkness
Until the day she passed away, Patsy Hollister and her husband, Hal, left home every morning at 7:30 a.m., and drove the ten miles to their beloved NARSAD Artworks office in Brea, California.
The inspiration for Artworks was their middle child, Annick, who has been creating art since she was three, and who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 15. Soon after Annick’s diagnosis, the Hollisters got involved with their local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). They then joined the founding members of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, formerly known as NARSAD (“a cause we believed in from the word ‘go,’” says Hal). They were instrumental in helping create its mission, and for more than two decades have remained involved with the Foundation. But, the Hollisters wanted to do more.
Even during their daughter’s darkest moments, art was the one thing that gave her hope and meaning. Patsy had wondered if it would be possible to use art as a kind of therapy for Annick, and for anyone living with mental illness, on the hope that art could provide meaning and purpose for them.
In 1989 the Hollisters founded a nonprofit which empowered mentally ill artists. NARSAD Artworks, named after NARSAD, reproduced and sold their creations, distributing millions of note cards, posters, T-shirts and calendars nationwide. From the more than $1.5 million raised, Artworks paid the artists commercial rates, and donated the proceeds from product sales to the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation for research.
“Mom was always so positive, and forward-looking, and Artworks was about positivity and helping the artists feel good about themselves,” says Meggin, Patsy’s youngest daughter, a Ph.D. and the winner of a Foundation Young Investigator grant in 1996 for her innovative work on schizophrenia.
What began with local exhibits in California moved to displays at annual NAMI conventions and then to exhibits in various art hubs such as New York City. To give recognition to the talented artists, in 1997 Hal and Patsy took the “Sunshine from Darkness” series on the road. The show included over 140 works by mentally ill artists, and was displayed in galleries and museums across the country. They also published a book under the same name which featured the best pieces, ensuring that the work of these unrecognized artists would far outlast their lives. Through their years of dedication, the Hollisters did much to destigmatize those with mental illness, demonstrating the valuable, and beautiful, contributions that they can make, if supported in the right way.
Hal and Patsy worked at Artworks as full-time volunteers, every single day, until Patsy passed away this February from natural causes. The entire Hollister family: Patsy, her husband Hal, and her three children, Annick, Meggin and John have in their own unique ways all contributed to a greater understanding of mental illness.
Athletic, with long blond hair, and Mediterranean skin, Annick was a straight-A student, and the “fastest girl to ever step on the high school track freshman year,” her elder brother John recalls. What initially exhibited itself as rebellious teenage behavior (smoking pot, hanging out with the wrong crowd) culminated into her first psychotic break at a Halloween party.
Back then, in 1977, little was known about schizophrenia, and no adequate treatment existed. Some doctors still believed that the cause was rooted in upbringing and family dynamics.
John remembers those early meetings with psychiatrists: “They were searching for who to blame, who to pin the responsibility on—looking to see what mom and dad did to cause this behavior.” Once, the Hollisters visited a family counselor, who asked them to make a crayon drawing. After watching John’s attempt, the counselor called him the “controlling factor in this household.” To which Hal replied, “No, you’re a quack, we’re out of here.”
Even back then, Hal and Patsy had a very progressive view of schizophrenia as a brain disorder, and not something that was the fault of the family of origin, as was the prevailing idea. In this way, “they were ahead of their time by 20 years,” says Meggin, “they were so amazing, and so open. Even today, people hide, or are embarrassed by mental illness.”
Since then science has caught up with the Hollisters’ progressive views, and Meggin’s research, motivated by her sister’s illness, has contributed to a better understanding of the genesis of this brain disorder.
As a graduate student in the Department of Psychology at University of Southern California, Meggin used data and statistical analysis to explore her suspicion that incompatibility in blood types between her mom and her sister could have something to do with Annick’s schizophrenia. While Meggin, John, and Patsy all had a blood type of Rh negative, Annick was Rh positive, which, it was theorized, may have triggered an immune response while Patsy was pregnant. Meggin’s Ph.D. dissertation was published in 1996 in the Archives of General Psychiatry, and hailed by the journal as a “landmark study.” Her breakthrough has sparked subsequent research looking at the significant role that genes and obstetrical and immune system complications can play in causing this illness.
Meggin was 12 when Annick became sick, and growing up she saw first-hand the suffering her sister went through. She and John visited mental hospitals where Annick was held in padded solitary cells, “scared to death.”
“Now that I have five kids, I can’t even imagine the fear that must be inside somebody, who to begin with isn’t thinking clearly, and then is locked up in solitary confinement,” recalls John, who headed off to Stanford in the fall of 1979, and was thus more insulated from Annick’s care than Meggin.
The whole family struggled through those tough 15 years, when Annick frequently ran away for weeks or even months, and was in and out of hospitals. Once she landed in jail after being robbed; another time she got hit by a car. “I think the worst part was that she would disappear for weeks at a time,” says Hal. None of the drugs available at the time to treat schizophrenia worked for Annick.
For some time she was put on Haldol which was “torturous” to her. It bound her in mental and emotional handcuffs so that she couldn’t feel anything, while creating vivid, violent images in her head. Then she was put on Prolixin, from which she may have developed neuroleptic malignant syndrome and suffered an associated coma.
Change came in 1989, when Annick became part of a clinical trial for a new antipsychotic drug called clozapine. After having her life upended for fifteen years, she was finally able to get it back on track. Since then, this second-generation antipsychotic drug and its successors have helped millions of people worldwide.
Today Annick, 55, lives an independent life, spending her days making art. For her parents’ anniversary, she created a Noah’s Ark out of raffia grass with hundreds of pairs of animals. The 6 foot-by-5-foot sculpture took her five years to complete.
“She is the most thoughtful person on planet Earth,” says John. A hallmark of schizophrenia is an inability to plan. With her art, that requires extensive planning and precise timing, and, he says, “Annick defies that.”
Throughout all of this, “my mom and dad were doing all of the things that loving parents can do to support their daughter,” John says. And their support extended beyond their daughter, to the larger cause of mental illness awareness and research.
When Patsy and Hal were not organizing events for BBRF on the West Coast, they were frequently seen at NAMI conventions, American Psychiatric Association gatherings, and American Psychological Association conferences. They received the Warren Williams Award from the American Psychiatric Association, and the Peterson Leadership Award from NARSAD for their outstanding contributions to the field of mental illness.
“My mom and dad had been eating, breathing and living, first NARSAD, and now BBRF, until they became too worn out to do much more. Some years ago they turned over the reins in terms of board membership and participation to me,” says John, who serves as the Secretary of the Board. Hal, 85, has passed the operations of NARSAD Artworks to the San Mateo, CA chapter of NAMI.
While Patsy is no longer with us, her impact will be felt by countless people for many years, and decades, to come.
— Written By Fatima Bhojani