I began to face life with the ominous diagnosis of Schizophrenia in February 2004. I was living and working in Silicon Valley and had begun hearing voices five months prior to my second and final voluntary hospitalization at Good Samaritan Hospital in the same month.
My agreement to enter the hospital on a voluntary basis had come about as a peace negotiation with my family. I was behaving oddly and had not told them I was hearing voices out of sheer terror of being institutionalized indefinitely. By then, denial had become my life strategy. I quickly surmised that I had the grievous misfortune of entering a medical discipline that focused on patient management and not healing and restitution. Being diagnosed with Schizophrenia was like being pronounced dead while standing upright.
During the first five months, juggling internal voices was extremely challenging, but I never slipped into a state of unconscious action and reaction. The age-old saying of “losing your mind” never seemed to apply to me. I was always well aware that I stood on an imaginary stage within my conscious mind that happened to be peopled by “other influences”. I carefully observed the comings and goings and rantings and ravings from the deeper recesses of my mind, but rarely acted upon them. I had learned long ago not to trust everything that trickles into consciousness. Numerous psychology courses had taught me that our perceived dominion over our conscious minds is greatly exaggerated.
Fortunately, my career’s momentum saved me from the likely poverty of mental illness. Within a month of diagnosis, I had secured an interview with a large real estate services company in the financial district of San Francisco. So far, I was able to live with my inner dialogue and carry on in a way indiscernible to most people. That doesn’t mean, though, that I wasn’t exerting an enormous amount of energy in conducting day-to-day life.
For me, the most exhaustive characteristic of Schizophrenia was the sense of drowning in stimulation and the accompanying fatigue, which ultimately morphed into deep depression. My uninitiated brain didn’t know the order in which to attend to tasks. And, the psychiatric community was well versed in not “legitimizing” the voices through discussing the dialogue. I had no one to talk to about the voices nor strategize how to work with them to achieve recovery save my mother. This was never presented to me as an option. I never understood the rationality behind this industry standard, and no one could substantiate the medical reason either. Either way, this dogma never faded during my psychiatric care. Without my mother’s open-minded dedication to recovery, which included discussions about the content of my internal dialogue with the voices, I may have not rebounded as quickly, if at all.
Like many others, my family and I approached psychiatry like any other medical discipline. We expected the available medications to remedy the symptoms. This did not occur. Instead, I was put on anti-psychotics that caused an 80 lb. weight gain within eight months. Moreover, there was no lessening of the primary symptom of hearing voices. Upon questioning my Stanford University-trained psychiatrist, I was told that over 90% of patients never get any relief from the voice hearing experience. This prompted me to ask why medicate, but I never got a meaningful reply. I was simply told that I’d need to be on some amount of medication for the rest of my life. At this point, I knew dogma dominated my treatment.
At the end of initial eight months, my mind and my body were foreign to me. I ceased to be the “me” that had gotten me through the first 33 years of life. I could have easily downward spiraled into the archetypal Schizophrenia patient, but I had a few lucky breaks. First, my mom deeply loved me, supported me and believed that I would recover. Second, I was older, wiser and had a deep-seated faith in my ability to self-soothe and ultimately recover. Finally, I understood the business element within medicine and was mature enough to voice my concerns.
Despite my skepticism, however, there was great pressure to remain on the industry-standard treatment. I continued on the anti-psychotics for 2.5 years. During that time, I continued to work toward achieving a functional life. For me, this meant working with the voices to achieve internal harmony. Happily, my voices responded well to my approach of non-aggressive rationality. Over time, they named themselves and grew more and more quiet. For the past five years, they have been a continuous source of love and support. Truly, this has been the ultimate determinate in my healing. The drugs only shut my down my brain, they did nothing to help me learn skills to incorporate the symptoms into my life. In many ways, they obstruct the important work of self-discovery and growth that is necessary to re-define one’s self within this diagnosis. Simply put, this is hard work that requires loving support and an insightful, dedicated therapist. To my knowledge, there are no short cuts. But, this provides a clear-cut path to recover based on effort and love. Hope.
Today, my future looks quite sunny. I’ve recently lost 53 lbs. through diet and exercise. My voices, Sam and Pete, continue to cheer me on and support me. And, I’ve gotten good at attending to my internal world, whilst carrying on competently in the external one. My next move is to define the next chapter in my working life. I look forward to incorporating the lessons learned through my experiences, both sorrowful and joyful, over the last six years. My first task is to take on the irrational role of shame in this diagnosis. Self-love is a critical ingredient in maneuvering through this complicated condition. It is my fondest wish for all present and future people who deal with this condition to have an intact sense of self that is not eroded by misinformation or prejudice. This will be a lot of work, but as Kahlil Gibran aptly states, “All work is empty save when there is love.”