I Owe So Much to Dr. Levy

Robin Cunningham Health Guide
  • By way of introduction, in my first blog I summarized the severity of my continuing bout with schizophrenia and the agonies I have suffered because of it, especially during the first ten years when I was actively psychotic.

    In this second blog I want to convey how fortunate I have been since the onset of my illness to have received what is today considered to be “best practice treatment.” In hindsight, I realize that from the very beginning I have been both a participant in, and at the same time an observer of, what is rightly considered the most significant period in the history of mental illness. During the last fifty years we have developed a better understanding of the nature of schizophrenia and how best to treat it. But how was it that I received best practice treatment beginning some twenty or thirty years before the treatment modalities included were even developed? What difference has it made in my life? And finally, what does this portend for individuals who have recently been diagnosed?
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    In my blogs hereafter I will focus on the many helpful, but hard won lessons I have learned, and the coping skills for both patients and their families that I have found valuable, as well as other insights I have gained from my half century of experience.

    Since the onset of my mental illness in 1956 at age thirteen, ten presidents have served this country. Wars have been fought - some won and some lost - while the dreaded cold war drew to a relatively peaceful close with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Medical technology has advanced from crude x-rays to MRI’s, PET scans and remote controlled surgery. Telephone service has gone from share-lines to wireless national networks with internet access, while news reports are now filed real time via satellite from around the globe. Buck Rogers has given way to the space shuttle, lunar visitations and Mars landings.

    Over this same period of time, a quiet revolution has taken place in our understanding concerning the cause and treatment of schizophrenia. Bad parenting is no longer blamed. The term “schizophrenogenic mother” no longer echoes in the hallways of massive institutions where the seriously mentally ill have been abandoned by their families, warehoused for life, to suffer devoid of all hope.

    Given my family’s long history of affliction with schizophrenia and the severity of my own illness, to what do I attribute my continuing recovery? I believe that there have been several factors, all closely interwoven. At the most fundamental level I have had two vigorous advocates: my mother and my first psychiatrist, Dr. Sol Levy.

    My mother never understood my illness and often did precisely the wrong things, but I never doubted that she loved me. Her primary contributions were two: she made certain I received early medical intervention by taking me to see Dr. Levy just five days after the symptoms of my illness first appeared and she insisted I do what the doctor instructed, most importantly that I take the medications he prescribed. In doing this she went against the expressed wishes of my father, the desires of her larger family, her religious training and the traditions of her own upbringing.

  • Dr. Levy, on the other hand, seemed to know precisely what to do. He was educated in Switzerland and Germany, escaping the latter with his family in 1938. In contrast with virtually all psychiatrists in this country, he believed mental illness was precisely that, a condition of the brain with a hereditary component and characterized by abnormal brain chemistry that produced odd beliefs and aberrant behavior.

    Dr. Levy immediately placed me on the only anti-psychotic then available, initiated a long-term search for ever more effective medications, and began a concurrent course of psychotherapy. Given the prevailing theories of the time concerning the causes and appropriate treatments for schizophrenia, his decision was also an act of considerable courage. In retrospect, it is clear there were no guarantees that this strategy would work.
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    Just as important as the medical treatment Dr. Levy provided was the manner in which he treated me. He seemed to understand what was happening to me, didn’t make demands upon me which I could not fulfill and didn’t lay a guilt trip on me. But perhaps most important of all, he never challenged my bizarre belief systems. Dr. Levy’s unconditional acceptance of me was an essential ingredient in our long and productive working relationship. He treated me with respect despite my illness, which cemented our relationship from the outset.

    Another important aspect of my relationship with Dr. Levy that was clear to me from the very beginning was that he truly believed recovery was possible. This was demonstrated again and again by his dogged pursuit of the healthy person lurking within the chaos and confusion that I was experiencing. Dr. Levy never told me there was anything I would be unable to do because of my illness. He readily admitted some things might be harder for me, even that some might be very difficult, but he never said there was anything I could not do. With continuing encouragement, he left it to me to make these discoveries and adjust my aspirations accordingly.

    As important as my relationship with Dr. Levy was, medications have been an essential component of my treatment and have remained a key ingredient in my continued functionality. With one disastrous exception, I have remained 100 percent compliant for over fifty years. It is my firm belief this compliance, even when the medications involved did little to alleviate my demonstrative symptoms, has been instrumental in preventing the deterioration of my mental capacities, i.e., complete compliance forestalled the deterioration of my capacity for functionality. Such devastating deterioration is often associated with untreated schizophrenia.

    In addition, psychotherapy has also been an extremely important ingredient in my continuing recovery, as has been the fact that I was never removed from participation in society for any appreciable period. The nature of the psychotherapy Dr. Levy employed was also critical. The methods he utilized can only be described today as cognitive behavioral therapy. The remarkable fact was that he was utilizing these techniques in 1956, many years before they emerged as a coherent discipline, let alone a modality of treatment. The effectiveness of this therapy, however, was highly dependent upon the efficacy of my medications and the nature of the relationship Dr. Levy had established with me from the outset.

  • The remaining factor was Dr. Levy’s commitment to “stay the course,” i.e., his commitment to work with me for as long as it took. The coping skills Dr. Levy taught me, and his patient ministrations, combined to sustain me during the long and agonizing search for the combination of medications that was most beneficial for me. Once these medications were found, I discovered, much to my astonishment, that all the coping skills Dr. Levy taught me during our long search could be used in a proactive way to further improve my functionality and effectiveness in society, and to fully utilize my inherent capabilities. What had been survival techniques had suddenly become tools for achieving personal growth! In order to form your own opinion about the long-term effects of Dr. Levy’s treatment, I encourage you to read my bio, which is posted on this website.
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Published On: October 25, 2006