Engeldinger parents describe their son's struggles with mental illness

Parents of Andrew Engeldinger
Chuck and Carolyn Engeldinger, photographed Monday, Oct. 12, 2012 in the MPR News studio in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Many lives changed the afternoon of Sept. 27 at a small but growing Minneapolis business called Accent Signage Systems.

An employee, Andrew Engeldinger, had just lost his job, and he responded by opening fire, killing six people and wounding others. He took his own life with the weapon as well.

"It is hard. We have lost our son. And we know that all these other families are suffering due to his actions and that's very hard," said Carolyn Engeldinger, who, along with her husband Chuck, spoke with MPR News.

The Engeldingers said their son had shown signs of mental illness for years.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR's budget year comes to a close on June 30. Help us close the gap by becoming a Sustainer today. When you make a recurring monthly gift, your gift will be matched by the MPR Member Fund for a whole year!

"The person he became bore no resemblance to the son we knew and raised," she said. "He was never violent, just a normal little kid who brought us a lot of joy."

Below is an edited transcript of Cathy Wurzer's interview with the Engeldingers. The second part of the interview airs Wednesday.

Part 1: Family describes Andrew Engeldinger's mental illness
Part II: Engeldinger withdrew, only to emerge in news reports
National Alliance on Mental Illness - Minnesota

Wurzer: Chuck, what do you remember about your son?

Chuck Engeldinger: He loved animals. He had a pet frog, Toadie. We celebrated birthdays together and decorated the tree together, and that got to be less enjoyable for him as time went on. I guess it's just hard to believe that things would turn around so dramatically and that it would stretch out for such a long period of time.

Wurzer: When did he start to show signs of depression as a young man?

Chuck Engeldinger: I think that what happened was that his senior year, you could see that he was gone, it almost looked like maybe he was on drugs. We didn't know, but you could see it in his eyes, kind of a lost look, a glazed look. He didn't have the happy smiles or anything. He didn't get good grades in school and he was such a high achiever. Earlier on, his circle of friends got smaller, he just didn't have a lot of ambition anymore. He just dwindled.

Wurzer: Did he get a definitive diagnosis of depression?

Carolyn Engeldinger: Once he finally got into the doctor, yes he was diagnosed with depression, and he was put on medication, which he went off of that. He said it didn't work, but I don't believe he was on it for longer than three or four weeks. And he was at that time already using alcohol and marijuana, and we don't know what else. He was exhibiting a lot of problems, a lot of distress.

Wurzer: As he became older, as he began having delusions and began acting more paranoid, according to reports, was there a particular incident where you thought he was really struggling, where you thought, this is trouble?

Chuck Engeldinger: In hindsight, I can see some of the things where he was having trouble, but we didn't know what was going on and what was real, because we were only hearing his side. So we really thought he was having trouble at work. We didn't know that it was his own mind that was malfunctioning, you know, that was bringing on these stories and stuff. Probably a couple years later he started with the paranoia, people were talking about him, they were all into it with the police and the FBI and the government were all out to get him.

Carolyn Engeldinger: That was probably the last four months we were in contact with him, where he had this delusion of some giant conspiracy that involved the government, the FBI, the police, people at work, people on the street. It involved everybody.

Chuck Engeldinger: It could have been someone walking a dog, and they were out to get him. And you just couldn't get his mind off of it. No matter what you said, he would get angry that you weren't listening to him and buying in.

Carolyn Engeldinger: It's so difficult to really pinpoint things. Our experience is it developed over a long time, or worsened, which is what happens with a catastrophic, persistent mental illness like schizophrenia, which is what we believe Andy had.

Wurzer: But he wasn't diagnosed?

Carolyn Engeldinger: He was not diagnosed. Because my mother had been diagnosed [with] paranoid schizophrenia, I was very familiar with the behaviors and attitudes. I found myself in utter frustration dealing with Andy so often. I would tell Chuck or my other children, 'he's just like my mother, he's just like my mother, he's just like my mother.' And then one day I realized, he is just like my mother. And that was such a frightening realization because you don't want one of your children to suffer in that way. Then when his delusions and hallucinations became the only thing he talked about, and they were so extreme, and he'd come into the house and immediately go to the curtains and look out and see who might be following him, it was just -- I mean, there was no way we could not believe something was really, really, really wrong, that his reality was not our reality.

Wurzer: And you kept saying to him?

Carolyn Engeldinger: Go to the doctor, go to the doctor, something's wrong. This can't be. And he would get very upset with us that we did not believe him, and it would get so awful because near the end there he was coming by the house every evening after work and sharing all this. And I would get so upset that I would just have to leave the room, because it was day after day after day, and you could not reason with him. We went to [National Alliance on Mental Illness] family-to-family class, and there we learned about the symptoms, and the course that these diseases can take. We knew for certain then that he has a very serious mental illness.

Wurzer: And this was a couple years ago?

Carolyn Engeldinger: Yes.

Wurzer: But he never was violent?

Carolyn Engeldinger: Never.

Chuck Engeldinger: Never.

Wurzer: It appears that Andrew was functioning — he had a house, he had a job. At what point did you two say, if you even did this at all, 'I've done everything I can do for you at this point'?

Chuck Engeldinger: I don't know that we ever said that. I don't think we ever said that. I did say, at one point, because it was so wearing and upsetting for him to come over day after day and just drain every ounce of energy right out of you. And when she'd leave the room and I just couldn't take it anymore, I'd just say, 'Look, you really have to see a doctor.' And of course, you know, he didn't, but you know I really believe that — I don't know, maybe it's kind of me just being hopeful or something — that he cut us off to protect us, in a way. I know it's not very likely at all.

Carolyn Engeldinger: No, no, it's not very likely at all. I think the desire to have your child in a way that you recognize him is so strong that the denial is always there. And, you know, if in fact he did have paranoid schizophrenia, which we believe he did, there's not a happy outcome for that disease.

Chuck Engeldinger: Not without treatment, anyway.

Wurzer: Which leads me to this question, because everyone, I'm sure, thinks about this: If you're seeing your loved one suffer with this severe mental illness, did you ever think about trying to commit Andy?

Chuck Engeldinger: We knew that we didn't have any say in it, because he was over 18.

Carolyn Engeldinger: Unless he proved to be a danger to himself or others, there was nothing we could do.


• Follow Cathy Wurzer on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/cathywurzer