CHOICES: #1 - Acceptance - Getting to the Point of Departure
As noted in the introductory blog to this series (CHOICES: #0 - An Introduction), the point of departure for the journey of recovery is our acceptance of the fact that we have schizophrenia. It took me several years to get to that point because, at least in my mind, the implications of my acceptance were profound. There were two reasons for this.
The first reason was that I had been raised in a fundamentalist Christian sect and had been taught all my life that Satan was after me, that he would use any means available to take possession of my soul and transport me directly to eternal damnation. My very first symptoms were thought insertions. I believed that Satan was trying to possess me, and that he was "inserting" blasphemous thoughts into my mind in my own "thinking" voice in order to trick God into concluding these thoughts were my own and thereby to ensure my immediate damnation.
Desperately seeking spiritual assistance in my efforts to protect myself from Satan, I was shocked at the response when I presented these "facts" to my immediate family and our minister. Respectively, they suggested I was mentally ill or simply acting out. Our larger family concluded that I was a spoiled brat seeking attention at any cost. On the surface, acceptance of the suggestion that I was mentally ill might have seemed an easy way out for me. It would mean that Satan was not really assaulting me and that all I required was medical attention.
The problem was, I truly believed, as I had been taught, that Satan was after me. As such, seeking medical treatment would only be a distraction, one that would deprive me of, or dangerously delay, the spiritual assistance that I so desperately needed.
In a matter of hours, my symptoms rapidly expanded to include most of the hallmarks of schizophrenia, including a lot of demonstrative operant behaviors designed to protect me from Satan. Because no one else would help me, I concluded that I had to help myself.
I became intractable, declaring that I was not mentally ill and would under no circumstances submit to medical treatment. My situation was precarious and required Divine intervention.
The second reason was that once the issue of mental illness was broached, I quickly discovered why some of our relatives were rarely discussed and, although living close at hand, were seldom seen.
My paternal grandfather, as well as my father's older brother and younger sister, all had schizophrenia. My aunt and uncle had been given prefrontal lobotomies, an experimental surgical procedure that was once believed to be beneficial to individuals suffering from schizophrenia. This treatment had destroyed the remainders of their lives. My grandfather long before, and my uncle just a few years before the onset of my own illness, hanged themselves with bed sheets while resident in a state mental hospital. My aunt tried to drown her three children and spent most of the balance of her life in the same institution.
Even at this early date I was under tremendous pressure to "shape up." It seemed that, with the exception of my mother, almost everyone in my life was suddenly an expert knowing precisely what I needed to do. All of these people clearly started with the premise that I had somehow brought this upon myself. I was spoiled. I was weak. I lacked character. I didn't have enough faith. I was possessed. My mother just wanted her little boy back.
There simply was no way I would agree to medical treatment. But alas, if you are a thirteen year old child in a fundamentalist tradition, you do what you are told to do. Just five days after my symptoms of schizophrenia first appeared, I saw Dr. Levy, the psychiatrist who over the next ten years would engineer my recovery.
So how was it that two or three years after the onset of my illness I found myself willing to accept the fact that I had schizophrenia? How was it that I arrived at the point of departure for my journey of recovery with my sleeves rolled up and ready to do battle? Oddly enough, I began moving haltingly toward this point when I first spoke with Dr. Levy.
We both knew that everyone thought I was "sick," be it mental illness or Satanic possession. Everyone was also persistent in their demands upon me, demands I was in no condition to meet. And, as I've indicated above, the idea that I was mentally ill was absolutely unacceptable to me. At the end of our first session, I put the question directly to Dr. Levy.
"Do you believe I am mentally ill?"
"Why is this important to you?" Dr. Levy asked.
"It is important because I am not mentally ill. I don't want anyone to think I am. I don't want to end up like my uncle and aunt."
"You've told me that you are not ill and that's good enough for now."
These words were like magic. For the moment at least, Dr. Levy had accepted me and my claims at face value. He was not trying to tell me that he knew more about what was happening to me than I did. He was not trying to convince me that I was ill. He was not pressing demands upon me. He was not suggesting that I had brought this upon myself. He was not judging me.
Dr. Levy had extended unconditional acceptance to me. And that made all the difference.
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