Challenging the Illness

Pat Deegan, a person who experiences schizophrenia and who also happens to have a Ph.D. in Psychology, is an inspiration to me. When I began my journey to recovery several years ago, her idea of the stages of recovery really moved me. She likened it to the petals on a flower and how at the beginning stages, petals are all over the place and detached from the flower like parts of a person’s identity, and then later the petals get reattached and the flower looks like a flower again. 

One of the stages of recovery called “Learning to Challenge the Disabling Power of the Illness” really spoke to me. I was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1994, right after I had graduated from high school and had gone off to college. I had even written a book during my teen years. However, at the time I was diagnosed I had tried to end my life by overdosing on pills and also cutting on my wrists. I was overwhelmed by the illness, and I was awash in the power of its hold on my mind and my spirit.

I had always been an achiever. I attended a private school in sixth grade to my senior year in high school, and I did very well.  I had always wanted to help others and I was pretty much known for things I did for others. I even had a book contract when I was fifteen years old with a publisher in Nashville, TN. I was on my way to doing more and more great things.  

However, during my teen years, I started feeling depressed. I became filled with grief and shame and anger. I hated myself. My mom and dad drove me to a hospital in Kansas City and I experienced some emotional healing during my two stays there. My psychiatrist, Dr. Howard Houghton, would be my doctor for many years and his compassion and care for me, starting when I was a teenager, helped me to see my illness of schizophrenia as something that I must learn to manage and not something that defined me as a person.

During my twenties and early thirties, I experienced many ups and downs. At one point the voices told me to flush my medication down the toilet. I didn’t tell my mom. Then I started calling my pastor and leaving phone messages as well as other offices and my leasing office at the apartment where I lived. I became very psychotic and paranoid and even drove to a nearby town in the middle of a winter night. I had to escape. Everyone, I thought, was trying to murder me. I had to get away from my apartment.

My sister, Laura, who is seven years younger and my only sibling worked in Wichita, Kansas, at the time. She drove to Topeka and sat down in front of the bathroom door I had locked. She told me she didn’t want to have to call the police. She asked me lovingly to go with her to a nice hospital in Kansas City so I could get help. This time it was different than my mom telling me I needed to go to the hospital. This time it was Laura pleading with me. I listened to her and decided to go.

At the University of Kansas Hospital psychiatric department I was put on a bimonthly injection, which I have taken faithfully since February of 2007. I haven’t missed one single injection. My psychiatrist now is Dr. Larry Carver and he remembers seeing me when I first arrived on the floor that cold, February day. He has been my doctor for thirteen years now and he is my doctor who gives me hope and shines a light on my mind that is often ravaged by paranoia, anxiety and fears.

I also see a social worker, Ken Hagen, in Topeka where I live. Sharing with him reminds me of confessing to a priest, even though I am not a Catholic. He listens and never judges me. With his compassion along with Dr. Carver’s care and concern and the love of my family and friends at church where I attend, I have indeed learned to “challenge the disabling power of the illness.” By no means have I arrived or healed totally, but each day I embrace a little more of the future and I accept more and more of the past. I still hurt from memories when I experienced psychosis, but with the medication, counseling and sharing I am seeing light again. In the middle of the winter, the sun is shining once more. And for that I am very grateful.