When I came into mental health it wasn’t by choice. It was because I was committed. My parents decided to commit me when I was young.
Where do we begin when extraordinary examples of mental health debunk nagging, tired beliefs about mental illness? This web site contains a small percentage of the online stories of recovery or complete healing from symptoms called schizophrenia or psychosis. Today I add a set of three online interviews in the video, “Surviving Schizophrenia.”1 The varied symptoms and paths to recovery reveal a wide spectrum of experiences.
Elyn Saks, already the subject of posts on this site, is a Chaired Professor of Law, Psychology, and Psychiatry at the University of Southern California. She became “officially mentally ill” while studying at Oxford University, though she had experienced symptoms while an undergraduate at Vanderbilt. Depression and paranoia preceded the “bizarre delusions” that began to plague her. Though she occasionally had visual hallucinations, she never experienced auditory hallucinations. “Everyone becomes psychotic in his or her own way,” she said.
When she received her diagnosis of schizophrenia she thought her life was over. Saks expected to spend her life in a group home, working a menial job, but medication enables her to live well. She struggled for 10 years to accept her need for medication, quitting repeatedly, only to see her symptoms worsen each time. “What really made it for me,” she said, “was getting on really good medications and staying on them.”
Paris Williams, psychologist and author of Rethinking Madness, says he worked his way through an undiagnosed psychotic disorder through intense sports activity and meditation. After a difficult childhood, partially lived in foster care, Williams found joy in competitive hang gliding. He had an emotional breakdown when he realized how internally unhappy he remained. “I had really confusing and wild beliefs,” he said of that time, along with paranoia and delusions of grandeur.
Williams avoided the mental health system and instead, put all his energy into physical activity. “My mind was so wild,” he said, “I just put everything in my body – I went running, I did a lot of cycling and a lot of meditation, mindfulness meditation.” Recovery came “bit by bit.”
He believes the same healthy resources available to every individual are essentially the same resources needed for people suffering from psychosis. “They just have to be a bit more diligent,” he said. He sums up the essential resources in the acronym FREE: regular and nutritious Food, regular Rest, regular Exercise, and doing something Enjoyable.
Williams did his doctoral research on people who had medication-free recovery from schizophrenia and noted how important relationships and a sense of hope contribute to recovery. He acknowledged the 25% of people afflicted who stay the same or get worse. Yet, he saw many levels of improved lives, some aided by medication, some not. “There’s definitely hope and strong possibility ,” he said, “of moving into a better and better life.”
Though his experience is the opposite of Elyn Saks, in that he did not take medication, he vigorously applied other resources in place of medication. I point this out because I don’t believe you can simply not medicate. Williams also had enough insight to observe whether or not his choice of resources had a positive effect on his symptoms. I refer to such self-awareness as having a “healthy assess-o-meter.” If yours is broken, ask the people closest to you for an honest assessment of your health and progress.
Debra Lampshire began hearing voices at age five or six and lived in a psychiatric hospital for 18 years. She is now a Professional Teaching Fellow at the University of Auckland’s Centre for Mental Health Research and Policy Development. “When I came into mental health it wasn’t by choice,” she said. “It was because I was committed. My parents decided to commit me when I was young.”
After her release from the hospital in 1999 she lived in a boarding home and due to medication she could no longer read, which had been her respite. Medication left her with what she calls “a Tupperware life. It’s a life with all the air sucked out.” At that point she decided to end her life.
A chance encounter with a stranger led her to aim for the feeling of joy once again. Lampshire’s belief that things could be different, coupled with small successes, led her to recovery. “Success breeds success,” she said, “and so I did it incrementally.”
Lampshire, who still hears voices and experiences bouts of anxiety and depression, believes “there is no typical pathway” to recovery because of the unique mix of symptoms experienced by sufferers. She refers to the people she lived with in the institution as “too sensitive for this world,” and has dedicated herself to giving them a voice. She is married and has three children.
Saks, Williams, Lampshire. Three diverse examples of schizophrenia and psychosis. Three varied and hard- earned routes to healthy living. Three encouragements for you to press on toward the mark of your healthier life.
See also: “Full Recovery from Schizophrenia?” by Paris Williams, PhD., May 29, 2012. http://brainblogger.com/2012/05/29/full-recovery-from-schizophrenia/