Early in my career I worked with chronically mentally ill patients. These were patients that suffered from profound mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, that truly impaired their daily functioning. I worked in hospitals, day treatment centers and shelters and I came to understand this type of mental illness quite well and how it can ravage a life.
The patients I saw were from all socioeconomic, cultural, racial, and religious backgrounds. The disease does not discriminate. Most, if not all, were on pretty complicated medication protocols and in all cases their adherence to those protocols dictated their level of functioning.
The individuals I treated were college students, professors, mothers, fathers, and professionals of all types. They were mathematicians, artists, and musicians. Their talents were many. Their mental illness had stripped many of them of their ability to interact on a regular basis with others and therefore created roadblocks to holding down jobs and maintaining interpersonal relationships. The symptoms of Schizophrenia such as paranoia and distorted perceptions of reality are devastating.
Throughout my work with these individuals I was frequently amazed at the brilliance and talent of so many of these patients. In very simple terms, if was as if their minds had somehow substituted reality for some higher purpose or ability. While the disease itself is not curable, with guidance, many of these people were able to lead productive lives and learn to manage their symptoms. Often this meant remaining compliant with the medication requirements but it also meant learning where and who to go to for help.
My life was deeply touched by so many of these people who struggled daily to move through a existence that sometimes included auditory or visual hallucinations and debilitating paranoia. So many of them rose above the noise and had deep compassion for others and a unique way of viewing the world. I was constantly impressed by how far the mind can depart from what we call “normal” functioning but even more impressed by the courage that many of my patients and their families showed as they faced the realities of this illness. There is no doubt in my mind that the difference between managing this disease and succumbing to it lies in the patient’s support system.
It is for this reason that I was so deeply moved by one woman’s story of her journey through life with this disease. She describes both the horrors she faced as well as her successes. Her support system is strong and her accomplishments are many. In fact, she is a highly accomplished individual by any standard and her story is inspiring. Her name is Elyn Saks and she is a professor of law, psychology and psychiatry at USC Gould School of Law.
There are many success stories of people suffering from chronic mental illness but we don’t often hear about them because there are so many tragic accounts as well. Each person has a unique journey but Elyn Sak’s poignant telling of how she has come to embrace who she is in her entirety is a testament to the human spirit.
This is her story:
My life with schizophrenia - CNN.com*
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