The Greek Gods Frowned Upon Hubris
I am writing this short article to fight negative stereotypes associated with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a poorly understood topic in our society. These days, with medication and talk therapy, recovery from even very serious mental illness is not only possible, but, with proper treatment, probable. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Read on, and open your mind.
It is a health issue. I was a “normal” kid, loved by my mom and brothers, and dad always made sure we were ok. Athletic, well-liked and popular at Stuyvesant High School, the number one high school in New York City, my mid-teen years were joyful. Later, at State University of New York at Stony Brook I achieved senior status and #1 status at the competitive applied math program, at the tender age of nineteen. I earned straight A in applied mathematics to the upper division, the top student at one of the top applied math programs in the world. The semester before my first psychotic break, I signed up for twenty-three credit hours, about a double full-time credit load. The classes lined up were honors physics, data structures, econometrics, masters level game theory for economists, and Chinese, among a few others. The future looked bright. I had a girlfriend who I very much wanted to marry. I worked a job or three. The view from the top of the world was heady. I was aware of what my accomplishments were, maybe there was a touch of hubris, unhealthy pride. In any event, they say “pride cometh before the fall”, and the bigger they are, the harder they fall. My ego, big and proud, fell hard, as I plummeted into the deadly abyss of insanity.
Stress causes many problems in life, both physical and mental. Critical life choices including finances were being mismanaged, and stress was one big reason I had my first psychotic break. Later, as I discovered as a psychiatric library chief there were also other reasons for my unfortunate fall from sanity: being a premature winter birth, being born to an older father, having a mother with an under-active thyroid, a stressful early childhood, having a low fatty fish content in my diet, having sub-optimal magnesium levels, not taking a good multivitamin, being sleep deprived, working seven days per week without a break for years, studying long hours for seven days per week, and, finally, having both bipolar and psychosis expressed in the genetics of the family. Yeah, unbeknownst to me, I was a ticking clock, waiting to go off, and my time eventually ran out.
I had a total psychotic break with reality at the age of nineteen. I was hospitalized for nearly two months, at Stony Brook University Hospital just a mile from my old “successful” life at University- so close but truly a whole world away. Following my descent into total madness and paranoia, eventually, I learned to cope. As mom correctly has pointed out to me, “Will, recovery for you is a journey. You are never ‘Recovered’.” I found meaning in life by learning about my illness and psychiatry in general, so I would “know my enemy”. Years later I was invited to write as a freelance journalist for City Voices, the mental health newspaper based out of NYC, founded by famous mental health advocate Kenneth Steele back in 1995. My life’s mission was transformed into helping others in my shoes.
Excerpt From My Autobiography, A Schizophrenic Will: A Story of Madness, A Story of Hope
At nineteen, during my first psychotic break, my thoughts were thus:
“In the psych ward, I felt that this must be how Jesus felt. Jesus was wrongly persecuted in his life. Just as I am being persecuted. I could have been a drug dealer many times in my life, picked up a gun and settled a few scores, or just become some kind of loser. I could have become someone with no future who didn’t try. I could have been someone who didn’t work hard, as a janitor to pay their way through college. I’ve had a hard life, I thought. I don’t deserve to be treated this way. It’s not right. But, Jesus forgave his enemies. And so will I. Because I thought I knew exactly how Jesus felt, I reasoned, I must be an incarnation of Jesus.
Images flew through my mind. There was an excellent movie called Amadeus which chronicled a possible but far-fetched theory that Amadeus Wolfgang Mozart may have been murdered by Salieri, a musical competitor of Mozart. At the end of the movie, after Salieri confesses to his role in the demise of Mozart, the priest looked shocked to find a heart so black. The scene cuts to Salieri being lead through the mental asylum, absolving his fellow inmates. “I absolve you” “I absolve you” he repeated to everyone he saw. He said this to the people in cages and the people in chains. He laughs an evil laugh and says, “I absolve everybody.” And the movie ends, and the credits roll. For some reason, this aspect of the movie Amadeus went through my mind the same instant I thought I was some kind of incarnation of Jesus. I, think that I, being a better person than Salieri, could truly absolve people. I think that people will recognize my goodness and feel better about being where they were. I walk around the room saying “I absolve you” to people who are there. What happened next, I did not expect….”
For Those Who Are Curious about the Science and Medicine
I like numbers, especially statistics. Roughly one percent of the world’s population develops schizophrenia. A bit more than one percent will develop bipolar disorder. About one in seven will develop an anxiety disorder. About one in seven, or more, will develop clinical depression. Think about it. If you go to a high school of 1,000 kids in just a few, short years 250 of you could be struggling with a major psychiatric issue, with or without co-occurring substance abuse. College is a crucible of stress and is made much worse by use of illicit drugs and drinking. Wife of President Ronald Regan, Nancy Regan, was right when she told kids of the 80s to “Just say No!”
So, why do these genes that can trigger serious and persistent mental illnesses still exist? One would think that these debilitating diseases would be bred out of the gene pool eventually. It’s like this, when one identical twin develops schizophrenia, the other twin has only a 50% chance of a psychotic break and consequent schizophrenia. Why? It seems genetics with schizophrenia is only 50% of the puzzle, and the mystery of the other 50% is embedded in the epigenome: the way the environment turns on off specific genes which either lead to health or illness. So, more than 50% of people who have the perfect genetics for schizophrenia will never develop the disease, and hence they are carriers. Carriers of what? Well, according to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory research, schizophrenia is a genetically complicated disorder of micro-additions and micro-deletions of genetic code. This is why they have not found one “schizophrenia gene”. It doesn’t exist. This is also why genetic therapies will have to be individualized and genetic codes sequenced, if medicine ever attempts a “cure” of the schizophrenia genetics.
Schizophrenia generally hits young men in late adolescence or early adulthood, whereas women develop the disorder in young adulthood, possible due to a protective role of estrogen. Either way, broadly speaking, in ten years time, after diagnosis, one-third of people diagnosed with schizophrenia generally completely recover, one-third stay about the same, and one-third get worse. Things like the THC in marijuana, a parasite called toxoplasma gondii sometimes found in cat fecal matter, and stress can cause people to “flip” on bad genes, causing a first psychotic break. So, please just say no to these things, my friends!
A Full Life in Spite of the Schizophrenia
Despite my developing schizophrenia in my late teenage years and the fact that not every day is a good day, I have overcome many obstacles and accomplished much. Powerful, mind-numbing drugs have brought me down to Earth. Before medicines, I was able to read more than five hundred pages per day, do amazing feats of strength like run a half mile in under two minutes, and do a thousand push-ups in a day. No longer can I do these amazing feats of Will.
However, academically, I have graduated from a top university, with honors, then I earned an accredited Masters in Library Science. Professionally, spanning nearly a decade, I worked as a professor at CUNY Kingsborough’s Library and then at New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia Psychiatry as a respected library Chief at the #1 psychiatric research center in the world, part of a team of healers. Culturally, I am fluent in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese. I feel I have an interesting worldview, inspired by the cultures behind the languages I have learned to love. I wish to explore more world languages and cultures. I have authored twenty-six books about mental health, literature, business, history, language learning, library science, weight loss and diabetes control, an internationally popular guide to the living culture of New York City, a guide to natural intelligence enhancement, and an “inspiring” memoir, A Schizophrenic Will: A Story of Madness, A Story of Hope. I hope to keep writing in some capacity both in order to reach new readers and to explore new and exciting worlds both inside and outside myself.
In my professional life, the thing of which I am most proud is being one source of hope to people who may feel forgotten by life. The thing I am most proud of in my private life is the careful attention with which I have taken care of my family and friends, because I feel the most important thing in Life is Love. With all I’ve done so far, I feel my work here on Earth is not yet done. I have miles to go before I sleep. Wish me luck in writing my next chapters, my friends. I hope to keep on doing my own brand of positive thing for a while more, and I have promises to keep.
I close with a “poetic” quote of mine about chess:
I once saw a “deep” quote from a “Buddhist” Facebook Page concerning one of my favorite games, chess: “Once the game is over, the King and the pawn go back in the same box.”
I thought about my own struggle with schizophrenia and I felt that I could not let that nihilist have the last apt word. So, I penned the following response…
“So true! The game of Kings ends in this way… so poetic! Yet, the play of armies, led by Kings is the thing that separates the legends from the forgotten. Kings and pawns go to the same box, true, but it is how they played that makes all the difference. Not every King is named Arthur, and not every chess player is a Kasparov or a Fischer. As for the game of life as chess, we all eventually lose to Death. Death smiles at us all as we strategize and plan, but the best a man can do is follow the rules, smile back and play his damnedest, until it is his turn to rest. Life is not only about our final destination. It is also the journey we make, the others we touch, and the tales that are told! God gives burdens, also shoulders.”
I invite you to check out more of my poetry and art in The Poet of Washington Heights: A Scrapbook of Poetry, Photography, Digital Art, and Social Media, twenty three of my books in English, Spanish, and French can be found on my Amazon Author’s Page. Many of my ebooks are available on Barnes & Noble’s Nook, iBooks, Kobo, Smashwords, as well as other fine purveyors of the written word. Salud!
For quality medical information about schizophrenia: check out this information from NIMH
This is my curated list of Best Books about Schizophrenia
Please help me reach people who need my story of hope! Thank you!
www.mentalhealthbooks.net | http://newyorkcityvoices.blogspot.com